Printing & Design Tips: June 2002, Issue #11

How to Choose a Print Provider: the Right Printer

With a myriad of printers all over the country to choose from, all offering quality work under tight deadlines for reasonable prices, how should you go about choosing a print vendor?

First, this is a process unique to each buyer. Some start with samples, some with referrals. Some go with their gut instinct. But overall, it is prudent, I think, to consider at least several of the following, since you will probably spend a large sum of money for a process rife with potential pitfalls, a process on which your reputation often depends.

Personally I start with samples. If the printer has the ability to produce quality work in a variety of formats with a variety of folds, die-cuts, heavy coverage, metallics, and other challenges, this is an excellent start. However, if the samples are poor, there's no reason to pursue a relationship with the vendor.

Checking references is a good second step, particularly asking such questions as whether the printer’s work is consistently good and consistently on time. After all, a printer that produces outstanding work but doesn’t meet deadlines is a liability, not an asset.

Keep in mind that a relationship with a printing vendor is just that: a relationship. Printing is not a commodity. Things will go wrong occasionally, so it is a good idea when interviewing a printer’s references to ask how the printer has come through when difficulties have arisen.

If you can make the time, schedule a plant tour. Seeing whether the plant is clean and well organized as well as how the employees interact with one another can tell you volumes about the printer. If there’s visible tension, or if employees are in a dirty or confusing work space, this will be reflected in their product.

If everything else sits well with you, if the prices are good, if people you know and respect speak well of the print provider, consider starting with a small job with a less-than-urgent deadline. Test the water slowly.

Keep in mind that most printers specialize; most do not do all varieties of printing work. You will need some sheetfed printers to choose from, as well as some web printers and perhaps even some printers that can do silkscreen or thermography. Keep a few of each, and keep track of their equipment and how their specialty dovetails with the work you do. Then get competitive bids from a few printers in each category as needed.

Remember, printing is based on a relationship of trust, and trust takes time. Start small and work up from there, being as candid as possible with your print rep and CSR about your expectations and about what you do and do not like in any particular job you do with them. Over time, you will build up a group of vendors you can trust to do good work for a fair price within any number of printing specialties.

When to Replace Your Print Buying Tools

Did you know that your print buying tools go bad just like food in the grocery store? While this analogy is somewhat extreme, it is true that after a year’s time the PMS swatch book from which you choose colors begins to change based on its exposure to light. The paper stock yellows, and the colors fade. Since this is your primary means of communicating color to your printers, consider replacing it regularly to avoid surprises.

Paper swatchbooks also fit into this category. If you look on the back of these swatchbooks, you will see a date. It is prudent to keep these current by discarding outdated books and requesting new ones from your printers or paper vendors. Why? Because from time to time paper mills discontinue certain brands and introduce others. If your client or your boss loves the paper you have chosen but the printer cannot supply it because the mill has ceased production, you could look bad. So keep your swatch books up to date.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He 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.]