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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: An Approach to New Print Jobs

Out of the blue today a client I hadn’t heard from in over a year emailed me. She had a custom printing project and wanted my help.

The Print Job

This is what my client wrote in her email:

“I need pricing on 100 front and back printed programs for an event on May 20th. They are for a black-tie event. I will get you all of the details next week. Can you cost these for me? A nice cream card-stock will do. Call with questions.”

There were two attachments to the email: two logos and a 5” x 7” full-color card with a night shot of the U.S. Capitol as its background and a lot of surprinted type. So I made the erroneous assumption that the card was the project. In fact I made other assumptions as well:

  1. Since the job was such a short run (100 copies), I assumed that it needed to be printed on a digital press. I knew of a trusted printer with an HP Indigo, so I figured I’d get his prices first.
  2. Since the image was full color, I assumed the job would look best if printed on a coated stock (cream coated, since this is what the email requested). I thought the toner would sit up more evenly on the coated surface than on the hills and valleys of an uncoated commercial printing stock. I assumed that a rough, uncoated paper finish would dull down the photo, and it would lose it’s crispness.

When I called my client to discuss the job further, I learned that the attachment to the email was the invitation, but what I needed to price out was a program for the evening. This also clarified the schedule. That is, my client would need delivery on or before the day of the event rather than several weeks earlier (i.e., my client would not need extra lead time for mailing the programs to attendees).

So essentially I was getting bits and pieces of information that were helping me create a list of specifications for the printer, as well as the due date, information not completely clear in my client’s email.

To get back to the program, it would be text only (script) with no photo. This implied that the paper stock would not need to be coated. It just had to be heavy and yellow-white (i.e., cream or natural white) rather than blue-white (or solar white). In fact, when I called the commercial printing vendor to discuss the job and get feedback and suggestions, the sales rep suggested an uncoated sheet. For such a project, she said, the uncoated paper would be more upscale. Since this was a black-tie event, I was sold.

Here are the specs I compiled to share with both the printer and my client.

100 copies (print two sides)
K/K, no bleed
5.5” × 8.5” vs. 5” x 7”
Uncoated natural white (cream white), 110# cover (eggshell or antique), such as Classic Crest, Crane, or Strathmore; option for 110# cream dull coated cover stock
Hard-copy proof to client (on actual paper stock)
Please provide file upload date: Job must reach client by May 17 for May 20 event.

Digital Printing (on Indigo)
100 copies – $xx.00
Add an additional $xx.00 for delivery (approximately).

As you can see, I kept the dull coated stock in the spec sheet as an option in case my client didn’t agree with the printer’s advice to use an uncoated paper. I also specified Classic Crest, Crane, or Strathmore, since I knew these were stationery makers with paper offerings ideally suited for a gala dinner program (I had learned this from the same custom printing supplier a while back).

In addition, my client had printed her business cards on this paper, on 130# cover stock, a while back. Since the gala program was significantly larger than a business card, I suggested 110# rather than 130# cover stock, and the sales rep agreed with the choice. It would be heavy (lending a sense of gravitas to the piece) but not too heavy.

Over the phone my client said the type would be black only or some special PMS color, perhaps a metallic. Since she had asked for something beautiful and inexpensive, I noted that digital printing was ideal for the 100 copies she wanted. But I also told her that while digital custom printing could produce the black script type for the gala program, a PMS color would require moving the job to an offset press. This would cost her three to four times as much. She understood.

So we had paper options, color choices, and the schedule. Normally I would suggest a digital proof for this job. After all, it’s a simple project: a little type on paper with no bleeds and no images. However, in this case the product would go to a black-tie dinner. Presumably it was to be a charity event, and attendees would have paid a hefty price for admission. Since there was going to be a little extra lead time, I suggested a hard-copy proof produced on the actual commercial printing stock. If my client hated the look, there would be time to change the paper on the final press run.

Finally, I looked at Google Images to find samples of “gala dinner programs.” I wanted an overall mental picture, since my client had asked me to suggest a size. I told her that if there was to be only a little text, in script (as my research online had suggested), then 5.5” × 8.5” or 5” x 7” would be fine.

Finally, I wrote up the specs as noted above and sent them to both my client and the printer’s sales rep for feedback. I thought I would resolve any discrepancies in their responses once both had replied to me. That’s where I am now. We’ll see what happens next.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

This is a simple job. However, it addresses many of the same questions that will arise in complex jobs, and my personal approach may be instructive as to how you can approach your print buying. Let’s say you have an in-house client (in a corporation) or a freelance client (as I do), and you need to help your client be specific. After all, most people outside the publications department (or other graphic department) will not have a clue as to the specific information you will need to provide to solicit custom printing bids.

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Craft a custom printing specifications sheet that includes everything from trim size to paper stock, ink choices and ink coverage, binding, proofs, and delivery. Update this periodically. Consider it a work in progress. When a job comes in, you can add specifics to the relevant items as necessary. Some print jobs won’t need certain specs. For instance, there’s no binding required in my client’s job. As a start, you may want to collect printing bids from a number of jobs and a number of vendors to get ideas for your “master list of print specs.” (That is, see how commercial printing suppliers have described various print jobs in the estimates they have sent you over the years.)
  2. Make no assumptions. After all, I thought the photo of the Capitol on 5” x 7” stock was my client’s upcoming job, when really it was just the invitation she had designed.
  3. If there is any reason at all to think that even a small job should be proofed on the actual printing stock (if the job is digital, or in some cases even if it’s offset), do it. It’s better to see the paper and not like it at the proofing stage than to find this out after the job has been printed. Also, it is usually smart to request unprinted paper samples from your printer.
  4. Discuss delivery early in the process. Your job does no good if it gets to the client late. Make sure there’s time for every component of print production. If not, consider tightening up the schedule by requesting a PDF proof (screen proof, virtual proof) instead of a hard-copy proof.
  5. Do what I did. Share the specs with the printer and ask for suggestions. He (or she, in my case) can be a fountain of information. You may come up with ideas you hadn’t dreamed of, and some of these may actually meet your budget.
  6. Whenever possible, discuss your job specs with the printer early, even if the specifications are not yet in final form. The bidding process will get you thinking about items you may otherwise overlook.

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