Printing and Design Tips: August 2019, Issue #217

Approach Printing Like An Operations Manager

I recently had a frustrating discussion with a client who had asked why the printer couldn't make up for the lost time in her schedule caused by her own late art file submission. It was only one day, she had said. Don't they want my business?

(To be honest, I have added to the drama of this discussion with my client to make a point. Schedules matter—a lot.)

In fact I recently wrote a PIE Blog article on the subject, but shortly thereafter I had an interesting discussion with a book designer who used to be a bricklayer. He had then moved to commercial construction, and for many years was responsible for building Home Depot stores.

He truly understood operations management. From his experience with clients and his experience in managing the activities of plumbers, bricklayers, and other construction professionals, he quickly grasped the nature of the printing process as a manufacturing operation, and also understood the views of my client, who wanted the printer to make up for a deadline she herself had missed.

The book designer and former general contractor understood that in printing, one activity had to follow another in the "critical path" of manufacturing. Multiple professionals do multiple tasks in a particular order for multiple clients, such that boxes of printed and bound books (or any other printed product) are the "deliverable," the final, resulting product.

The goal is to make sure all of these activities go as planned, within a certain time frame, using required materials. In the case of printing, the materials would (sometimes) include considerable amounts of paper, ink, binding glue, printing plates, etc., as well as the scheduled labor. If bottlenecks occur, in which processes cannot proceed because other processes have not yet been completed (say one client's bindery work cannot begin because another client's job is currently on that particular equipment being bound), then there can be problems. Problems lead to overtime, and sometimes jobs run the risk of late delivery.

The purpose of this little story, which is very broad and abstract, and which my friend the construction manager turned book designer completely understood, is that scheduling a print job is an art and a science. Missing a deadline can wreck havoc on successive steps in the process, not just for one client but for everyone else in the line.

In your own print buying work, consider what happens to your job once it leaves your hands (particularly if you know your printer will also need to subcontract out specialized work such as die cutting or case binding). Think like an operations management professional. Consider the steps in the process (prepress, printing, binding, and mailing, for instance), in what order they must occur, what bottlenecks might crop up, and how long these processes should take.

The best way to ready yourself for this mindset (of being not only a designer or print buyer but also an operations manager) is to take a printing plant tour. You'll see all of the equipment in operation from the computers imposing pages in the prepress department, to the ink hitting the paper on the presses, to the folding and cutting operations in the bindery. Take this tour several times at different printers. Each time you will expand your knowledge base.

And you'll understand why schedules are golden.

Journey From an Idea to a Printed Product

(Spoiler alert: This is a continuation, and perhaps an expansion, of the prior section.)

I had a realization while talking with my friend the book designer (former construction manager). I noted the specific steps through which an idea proceeds on the way from a marketing copywriter's brain through the various stages of design, and on to a printer's prepress department, through the press room, and on to finishing, before being cartoned and then delivered or sent out by a mailshop to prospective clients, to pique their interest in a new product or service, and eventually convince them to "convert" (a marketing term for buying something). Wow.

Since my friend understood operations management, he was intrigued by the steps in the process, from a creative, mostly mental endeavor, through a series of very physical manufacturing processes, and ending with the handling of countless heavy boxes of printed paper. (It was at this point that I actually appreciated the experience I had had, briefly doing event installations for Chanel and learning how to operate an automated palette lifter loaded with more than a thousand pounds of packed boxes.)

Here are some random thoughts about the process from concept to completion:


Let's say you have a new product or service. You think about what's good about it and why people will want to buy it. From this starting point, you come up with an idea which you flesh out into a "story" about the product. Maybe you write some copy about the features of the product and how it will improve the life of your reader (benefits). Features and benefits are the life blood of marketing copy.

With this in hand, you become a designer. You use your artistic knowledge of fonts, page design grids, and colors. You use your knowledge of the human eye (and your understanding of what makes something readable or unreadable). You use your knowledge of psychology and human motivation (what colors encourage readers to buy a product). When all is said and done, you use your creative computer skills to design a brochure (or any other printed product), which at this point only exists on your computer.

Then you shift mindsets. You go from being a designer to being a technical production person. You make sure the page geometry is right, the other technical aspects of the file are sound, the photos are of the correct resolution and in the correct color space (CMYK, not RGB), and the PDF file for the job meets the printer's specifications.

Then you upload the file to the printer's FTP site. Or you use an online file transfer application like Box, or Drop Box, to upload the file. At this point, being a writer is in the distant past, and being a designer is, too. Now you're just a computer geek.


You move to the printer's plant (at this point you're a fly on the wall, just observing). Your job goes into a computer, much like yours. The prepress personnel check everything (preflight the file) and then impose the job on the computer (set it up as it will image to the printing plates, perhaps in 16-page press signatures). Then they burn printing plates.


These printing plates are hung on large offset presses (if the job will print via offset lithography rather than on a digital press, such as an inkjet or color laser press). Materials (ink and paper, purchased at the market rate and costing a considerable amount of money) are fed into the press, and the delivery end of the press spits out finished press sheet after press sheet.


Once the ink on these press sheets has dried (and the back side of the sheets have been printed--unless a perfecting press has been used to print both sides of the press sheets simultaneously), the job goes to the bindery. In the bindery, the pages are folded and trimmed and perhaps bound, using saddle stitching or perfect binding equipment. Or maybe at this point the job goes to a subcontractor for case binding.

Cartoning and Delivery

When all brochures have been printed, folded, and trimmed—or when all books have been printed and bound—the job goes into cartons (based on a specific weight). These are then strapped onto wooden palettes and usually wrapped with plastic sheeting (like plastic food wrap). Palettes then get loaded onto trucks, and days later the trucks wind up at your warehouse with boxes of your printed products.

Storage and Fulfillment

Maybe, if your job is not timely (urgent), like a marketing brochure, your warehouse will bring the loaded wooden palettes into storage in a huge building. Staff must inventory all printed products and then decide how to proceed. Maybe the individual brochures or mailers (and corresponding address data files) will go through address verification, sorting, and inkjet labeling processes, in preparation for a hand-off to the Post Office.

In other cases (perhaps for print books for a year's worth of client purchases), the cartons will be inventoried and stored, and then pick-and-pack fulfillment personnel will prepare boxes of books they will send out to clients. They'll use their knowledge of postal regulations as well as their physical strength to prepare the mailings for "introduction into the mail stream." (Sometimes printers will do this instead of clients' warehousing facilities. In this case the mailings can go into the mail directly from the printer's plant.)

In all of these cases, many skilled professionals will do their own particular tasks in a series (operations management again) of operations that must occur in a prescribed order, accurately, in a timely manner, with no bottlenecks.

It is amazing—and it it entirely because of the skill and knowledge of everyone involved—that all of this happens correctly and on time.

Then the manufacturing process ends and the brochure or mailer winds up in someone's mailbox. If the copywriter and designer were particularly astute, if they understood human motivation, how to make something easy to read, how to make a story about a product compelling—just maybe the end-user will open the mailbox, take out the mailer, feel its gloss coated surface, gaze at the sophisticated photos, and say: "That. I want to buy that."

Isn't Capitalism grand?

[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.]