Printing and Design Tips: June 2020, Issue #227

Timing is Everything: The Print Production Schedule

About thirty years ago, when I was the art director/production manager of a local non-profit foundation, I was responsible for the design, art production, and printing of about 150 jobs per year ranging from flyers to posters to textbooks. Everything had to be on time and under budget.

Each year, the very first thing I did when I received the list of upcoming annual print products (all of which were produced in house by two designers and me) was to make a Gantt chart, a visual representation of the schedule based on the start date (date into production) and the delivery date for each job. Reading from left to right across the top of the Gantt chart were the names of the months of the year, and below these I drew horizontal bars stacked over each other (one for each job) showing which projects would be in process at the same time.

In addition, I divided each of the horizontal bars on the Gantt chart into two sections: art production and printing. Some jobs like envelopes or small flyers took only five to seven days to print. Other jobs, such as the perfect-bound textbooks, took up to six weeks. In most cases, this was due to the number of copies, the page length of the job, the binding, the complexity of any other finishing operations (such as die cutting), delivery destinations (local or across the country), etc.

All of these factors contributed to the overall turn-around time for each job. And once I had drawn out the schedule by hand on graph paper (remember, this was 30 years ago), I had a visual representation of all jobs that were to occur simultaneously through the year (all horizontal bars on the Gantt chart that were stacked over each other). I could visualize everything, including how long the two designers and I would have to come up with concepts, thumbnail sketches, mock-ups, multiple proofs, etc., before each job went to press. All job delivery dates were firm and non-negotiable, so it was absolutely invaluable to have a visual tool such as this, which would encourage foresight. (For example, I would know to add time early for proof review if the overall project schedule crossed through busy times such as Christmas and New Year’s.)

That was 30 years ago, and I’m actually grateful that I no longer have to focus on these schedules. But I’m sharing this information with you because you may, at the present moment, be responsible for designing, producing, and buying the printing for a number of publications of various kinds over the course of a year. And, if you do, you may find the concept of the Gantt chart to be a useful planning tool due to its visual nature and its ability to show exactly how many jobs are in process at one time (as well as when). You can always break down the horizontal graph lines into additional segments beyond design and printing.

But, regardless of how you do it, scheduling time for all elements of a print job is essential if you’re going to meet your final delivery date. Here are some things to consider:

1. Small jobs like flyers, envelopes, and brochures can take between five and seven days to print and deliver. If your printer is very busy, this may stretch out to ten days. Talk with him. In some cases, the time may be calculated from approval of proofs to shipping, so ask about this, too. Remember that days are working days, not calendar days and not holidays.

2. Jobs like perfect bound books take much longer. One of my current print brokering clients is accustomed to a 15-day schedule from proof approval to shipping. Back when I was an art director, as I mentioned before, a 350-page textbook took six weeks from file upload to final delivery including proofs. (This was a different description of the schedule than noted above, from proof approval to shipping, but it actually included about four weeks for printing, binding, and delivery.)

3. So to be safe, determine the drop-dead delivery date first, and then ask the printer how long he will need from art file upload to proofs, from proof approval through binding and cartoning, and then on through shipping to final delivery. Get this in writing so both you and your printer have an agreed-upon schedule to refer to.

4. Assume that all of the following will require a longer schedule: perfect binding, case binding, cover laminating, die cutting, shrink wrapping, kit assembling. Determine all of your prepress, printing, and finishing needs, and then ask your printer if you’re missing anything. Remember to discuss packing and shipping, plus fulfillment if necessary.

5. Consider soft-proofs (also called PDF virtual proofs). The upside is that you don’t need to wait for the printer to ship hard-copy proofs (and for you to receive them), plus you don’t need to ship them back to the printer. Two-way transit for proofs can eat up time in a schedule.

6. That said, PDF proofs don’t show completely accurate color. PDF proofs are produced on screen with visible light, and hard-copy proofs are printed with ink or toner. The latter is much more accurate. If your job is color critical, leave extra time for physical proofs (and two-way proof shipping).

7. Assume there will be corrections to your proofs. Even one or two corrections can slow down production, so leave time in the schedule. Most printers won’t start counting the printing days until they have the proof and a signed acceptance form in their hands.

8. Busy printers lengthen schedules. So commit to a printer early, and confirm the schedule early.

9. Ask about paper. If your printer has to order paper and have it delivered, this will take extra time. If you use a house sheet already on the pressroom floor, the job could go much faster.

10. Find out what it takes to make a commitment and get a production schedule. It may require a signed contract, or it may even require payment of a portion of the cost of the job. For many busy printers, the job isn’t real (or in the schedule) until these steps have been taken.

11. Ask your printer about subcontracted work. If you’re saddle stitching a job, he probably has a saddle stitcher on the pressroom floor. If you’re perfect binding a job, he may have to subcontract out this work. And if you’re doing a case-bound book, the case binding almost certainly will need to be farmed out. Not all printers have all equipment you may need on site. Subcontracting work adds time to the schedule. It also adds to the overall cost. One of the ways I have found around this problem is to go to one of the handful of full-service book printers I know that have almost every possible piece of finishing equipment on site. Ask your printer for an equipment list (and perhaps some assistance in reading it), and you will know exactly what he can and can’t do himself.

12. Once you have a schedule, add time for some slippage. Perhaps someone at your office will be on vacation or at a conference and won’t be able to sign off on the proof for a few days. Or, as noted before, maybe the production schedule will include a holiday. Or you’ll need a revised cover proof. Or you will have forgotten something. Don’t let any of these become a crisis. Plan for hiccups in the schedule.

13. Remember that for smaller jobs, the schedule will be shorter and fraught with less anxiety. Quick jobs will give you time to focus on concurrent large jobs. And the Gantt chart described above will help you categorize these jobs as being large and complex or small and easy.

14. If you’re doing a “refresh,” as they say, of the design of a job or a collection of jobs (let’s say you want to update the branding of a handful of print projects for your business), do this on a different schedule. Create a separate Gantt chart, or a separate “track” from the art production and printing track. This way you’ll be under less pressure, because you won’t be squeezing the design process into an already tight schedule. It will be completely separate. It will also let you select a handful of publications that will need a different look and create a unified design across all visual elements (if you design all of them together). Design requires a totally different frame of mind, a completely different approach, than art production. Separating the two in your yearly schedule will yield better design work, a more unified brand look, and far less stress for you.

[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.]