Printing and Design Tips: FEBRUARY 2020, Issue #223

Designing for Digital Printing: Business Cards

Technologies change, and products within the same category but from different vendors can be different. Digital printing equipment from one manufacturer might provide higher or lower quality output than equipment from another.

This can be particularly relevant when you’re printing business cards, for four reasons:

1. You often print too few business cards for a dedicated offset printing run.

2. Toner and printing ink behave differently on different paper (coated vs. uncoated, for instance).

3. Business cards live in your wallet for a long time and rub against each other before you hand them out. This potentially wears down the printing.

4. Business cards are often the first advertisement someone sees for your business. You want the cards to be pristine. (This makes item #3, above, problematic.)

In the normal course of events, you will print maybe 500 business cards at a time. (Think about how long it would take to hand out 1,000 cards. Your address or phone number could change before you handed out all of the cards.)

For this short a press run, you would—if you produced the cards via offset lithography—still need to pay a high rate for a press (albeit a small one, perhaps a 2-color duplicator press) for all the manual labor and supplies. The last time I priced this out, the cost was over $200 for a set of business cards.

In contrast, you can often get a short run of business cards online for $10 to $50. In many cases, for short runs produced in the 48 hours many printers advertise, the only economical technology is digital printing. This can be problematic for the following reasons:

1. Digital toner may not adhere to the paper as well as offset printing ink.

2. Digital toner may have less rub resistance than offset printing ink.

3. Digital printing technology may not produce the same quality or fineness of halftone screens as offset printing technology.

4. Some digital toners cannot be covered with the same surface coating products as offset printing ink.

5. The hills and valleys of an uncoated business card stock (in contrast to the even surface of a coated paper stock) may not take as even a coverage of toner particles in fuser oil as they would a coating of offset printing ink.

6. Conversely, an uncoated business card stock might not take as even a layer of toner particles as would a coated paper stock.

(Again, the particular digital technologies in question as well as the paper used for the business cards--and even the manufacturers of the printing equipment itself--can make a difference.)

What’s a business card designer to do? Here are some thoughts:

1. Talk with your printer about your concerns, and listen closely to his advice. He often has had decades of experience with both digital and offset printing. Ask for printed samples of digital vs. offset printing so you will know what to expect.

2. Call the online vendors that sell business cards. Many of them gang up offset printed jobs. This means that instead of printing your business card by itself on a 2-color duplicator press, the printer produces a multitude of various customers’ business cards all at the same time on a large offset press. (Granted, the printer doesn’t have the same amount of control over the quality of an individual client’s business card this way. Therefore, you might want to ask your printer how to best allow for any potential variations in color or ink density.)

3. When in doubt, simplify your business card design. This might mean reducing the number of colors used in a color build (for instance, you might select a red color built with magenta and yellow inks rather than a three-color option that includes magenta, cyan, and yellow). Any mistakes in color register would then be less visible.

4. Consider designing your business card without area screens (like a screened background) or halftones. (That is, consider using type and solid colors only.)

5. Print digital business cards on a coated paper stock. That way, there will be an even surface for the toner particles.

(In short, I am suggesting that you err on the conservative side. Your printer may have knowledge, materials, and equipment that can produce perfectly fine halftones, area screens, and color builds on an uncoated press sheet. It’s just smart to address this concern before you print.)

Determining the Most Cost-Effective Press Runs

A print brokering client of mine produces small color swatch books containing page upon page of hues that will be appropriate for clothing and make-up for those with specific complexions.

Her product (which is not unlike a small PMS swatch book or the swatches of color you can get at the hardware store for a house painting project) is broken down into more than 20 different master books (for different complexions keyed to specific seasons).

Therefore, she usually only prints two to six copies of each master book about four times a year to satisfy customer requests. (This may equal about 80 books: laminated, round cornered, drilled books produced digitally and then assembled onto screw and post bindings.)

This is a labor intensive job, in spite of the limited number of pages (118 pages plus covers, multiplied by two to four copies per master copy). However, the extra finishing services drive up the cost (i.e., the laminating, die cutting, drilling, and hand assembly).

My client sells these, so she needs to make a profit. Moreover, she has a small business, so her goal is to wait until she absolutely needs to reprint (about four times a year) to keep cash flow under control. The goal is to get the lowest unit cost for each book while keeping each purchase of printing services as inexpensive as possible.

Over time (multiple reprints provided by the same printer), my client and I (and the print sales rep at our printer) have learned the following:

1. Spending $1,000 yields relatively few books (about 25), when you factor in the digital printing plus the finishing work (laminating, die cutting, drilling, etc.). This means the unit cost is $40. This price is high because some of the finishing work is subcontracted, often requiring minimum orders.

2. Almost doubling the spend to about $1,700 yields approximately 80 books, for a unit cost of just over $21.

3. Since my client has to charge each customer the same amount for each book, it behooves her to wait (and take prepaid orders to collect adequate funds) for an 80-copy press run (enough for four copies of each master book—or six copies of some and zero copies of others). This means she will earn significantly more on each sale (selling price minus unit cost) with a $1,700 order than a $1,000 order.

4. Having done this analysis, we now have a target of 80 copies for $1,700. If my client can collect more funds (i.e., get more orders, for let’s say a 90-copy press run), the unit cost will drop further, and my client will make a larger profit on each book sold.

How does this relate to your work? If you design and print anything that will be resold, it can be helpful to determine what the unit cost will be at various press runs.

For an offset printed job with a large press run (say 10,000 to 50,000 copies), the drop in unit cost as the press run increases can be rather dramatic. In contrast, since digital printing jobs usually have smaller press runs than offset jobs, the unit cost might not drop as much (from 80 copies to 90 copies to 100 copies).

Also, due to the nature of the extensive preparatory work required for offset lithography (vs. the minimal preparatory work required for digital printing), the savings is usually much greater for longer offset printing runs.

But it never hurts to ask. It also doesn’t hurt to learn a bit about economics in general (and the economies of scale in particular).

[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.]