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Choosing Printer By Gregg Stalter This is the biggest decision you will make when it comes to the over all success of your project. Once your files are in the printer’s hands your control has been minimized and you are at their mercy. There needs to be a level of trust developed, from the handling of your files, to completing your project on time. They can make you look like a hero or a villain and they can cause you to empty the shelves of Excedrin. You have to believe what they tell you is the truth and you cannot leave any room for doubt.

It is important to build a relationship with your printer, a

work they are suited for will be business cards, letterheads,

relationship that evolves into trust and even friendship. They

short run brochures with a low degree of difficulty, black and

are your partner and there are several things to look

white copies, transparencies, 3 hole drill copies, coil bound

for when choosing one.

books up to 125 pages, etc. Typical job quantities will run

It is rare to find a printer that can fulfill all of your print needs. Since you could be developing projects that range from a business card to an annual report lets review the dif-

from 500 to 5,000. Pricing ranges from 4 - 6, turn around time a 9 and quality a 6. Next, we’ll examine the COLOR


ferent types of printers and what they are suited to produce.

LARGE FORMAT shop. They are a specialty shop that

Turn around time, price and quality will be estimated on a

finds its niche in short run color, big and small. So if you’re

scale of 1-10. Ten being the highest price and quality and the

designing trade show graphics or you have a presentation to

quickest turn around. Please keep in mind we are covering

prepare for a client and you only need 1 or 20 or 50 pieces,

printers that are the most common for print designers to deal

then this is the shop to look for.

with and that some printers out there offer a wide range of services and may include one or more of the types of printing we will review. We’ll start with the

INSTANT PRINT guy on the corner.

Typical equipment will be laser color copiers, large format inkjet printers supported by laminating and mounting machines. Typically, color copy sizes will range up to 11” by 17”. Large format inkjets will run in sizes from 13” in width

They are probably a franchise or a family run outfit. The

to 72” in width. Since they run roll material as opposed to

services they offer will include copy work, color and black

sheeted material they can run almost any length. Most rolls

and white. The quality will be good, but since they are set

come in 150’ lengths. Although impractical, with the right

up for fast turn arounds, don’t expect them to offer a lot of

RIP and software, extreme lengths can be achieved. Usually

specialized services. They have a niche and they don’t like to

they support a well rounded choice of programs and since

deviate from that. They have their set inventory of copy and

they deal with images they like vector program

bond papers and PMS inks. Sizes of paper will be limited to

s and .eps or .tiff files

the size of the presses they run. Typically this will be 11.5 by 17.5. Even though you could have a finished piece of 11 by 17 with bleeds this is not the print shop to get this done in. They will offer a limited Pantone color choice as they attempt to keep inventory at a minimum. They like to accept hard copy for artwork and you will find little support in the electronic file arena. So don’t be disappointed if you walk in with your latest upgrade or newest program and find they don’t support it. Not to say that they won’t accept electronic files, just ask for a list of what they do support, first.

The types of work they are suited for are posters, POP (point of purchase) displays, color copies or transparencies, banners or short run color brochures or letterheads. I want to add the

SIGN SHOP in this section. With the development of new inks and substrates large format ink jets are being introduced into the outdoor and trade show signage arena with success. Pricing ranges from 6 to 9, turn around time a 7 and quality has a wide range due to the variables involved which would give them a rating of 4 to 9.

Pricing will be very competitive and the atmosphere friendly. They are used to dealing with the average citizen. The person

MID-SIZE sheet fed offset printing shops are the most

down the street that is designing a Christmas card to send to

popular with the average designer. They are suited for

the relatives or the new business owner that is saving money

booklets with low page counts. 8, 16 or 24 pages that would

by having the secretary designing their

be saddle stitched with a finished size of 8.5” by 11” and a

business card and letterhead.

flat or open size of 11” by 17”, brochures, small posters, low

The equipment they run will be small offset presses, color copiers, B&W copiers, table top folders suited for half folds and tri-folds, drills and small format laminators. The types of

volume annual reports, corporate identity packages, etc. They offer complete prepress services supporting a wide range of design software including, InDesign, Quark, Pagemaker,

FreeHand, Photoshop......... you get the picture. The prepress

shop run a 16-page signature as opposed to an 8-page layout.

area is equipped with several workstations on a network and

The typical parent sheet size is 26” by 40”. They can run

high-end scanners with a separate RIP station. Various proofing

large size posters and they are designed for runs of 10,000

options would include a continuous tone print, either with laser,

impressions or more. The next step in volume would be the

inkjet or a Fuji Pictro, bluelines and matchprints with a strip-up

web press, so this puts the full size shop at a pinnacle of com-

(film assembly) department. Some offer design services, which

petitiveness in the offset world. At the designed quantity they

is invaluable if you’re a distance away and there are some mi-

are the most efficient while producing a

nor changes that need to be made. You did give them the native

high quality printed piece.

application file with fonts and images, didn’t you?

The types of work they are set up to handle would include

The equipment in the pressroom can vary. The largest press

full color catalogs with page counts of 16 to 64 pages,

would be a 20” by 28” offset press ranging from 2 to 6 printing

brochure runs of 25,000 to 150,000, annual reports, maps,

units usually with a coater attached. There is probably a 2 color

POP (Point of Purchase) and trade show graphics. The pric-

unit there for 1 and 2 color jobs. All presses may be equipped

ing will range from 7 -10 with the turn around time a 6 and

with perfecting capabilities allowing for the printing of both

quality from 8 - 10. There is a large group of printers that fall

sides of the sheet in one pass. There is also a small press de-

into the Full Size category, however the trend in the industry

partment on site to handle business card imprints, letterheads,

shows that the move is toward mid-size equipment.

small quantity forms, etc.

WEB PRINTING is in an arena that the average freelance

You can look for this shop to have a DI or Digital Imaging

designer will not find himself or herself using. They are for

printing press on the floor. This press runs DTP (direct to plate

extremely large runs and the degree of difficulty in putting a

technology) with no film process included in the preliminary

layout together means that you are working in a large group

set up. The computer on board reads your files and burns the

and any decisions made will be made by your art director or

images onto silicon-based plates that reside on the printing

production manager. Web presses include everything from

cylinder. It is designed for quick, short-run color work with

black and white to full color. They may be running standard

quantities that range from 500 to 5,000 where sizes typically do

offset technology or it may be gravure or flexography.

not exceed 11.5” by 17.5”. DTP printing has come a long way and gains ground every day. At this point, it is not for color critical work and proofing remains a hurdle. The latter is my

You will be dealing with a CSR (customer service representative) or sales representative and may meet with the produc-

opinion, but several printers out there will disagree.

tion manager of the shop. The types of work would include

This is all supported by a bindery department equipped with a

newspaper inserts pricing will range between 7 - 10 with turn

cutter for the trimming of parent sheets, folders, booklet ma-

around time 5 - 10 and quality at 3

chinery and a shipping department.

(newsprint) - 10 (National Geographic)

You will probably deal with a customer service representative

I have given you a very general run down on the types of

or sales representative depending on the quantity/size of the job

offset printers that most designers will use, their abilities cou-

or the volume of work you do with the company.

pled with a price range and acceptable quality rating for the

The pricing can range from 6 to 9 with the turn around time at a 6 and quality anywhere from 7 to 9.

large volume catalogs, newspapers, magazines and Sunday

particular type or category that they fall into. There are many types of shops that include all of the services listed above and it is recommended that you visit and tour your prospec-


tive printers shop and determine the core competency of the

much the same as the Mid-Size shops except for the volume

printer. You do not want a printer that specializes in business

they are designed to handle and the size of the presses that are

cards and letterheads to be printing your 48-page full color

on the production floor. The printing presses in this type of

annual report. It is not a good fit quality and price wise.

LOCATION is the final consideration I will include and

prove. If your file is going to a DI (Digital press) the typical

probably the most important. With the Internet, there are a lot

proof will be a continuous tone proof. Â Pictro is an example

of printers offering their services online. Although this is con-

and is a Fuji process print that is a very close, but not exact

venient, it is a practice I would not recommend unless you are

color proof of your files. With the advancements in inkjet tech-

a seasoned professional that understands the printing process

nology you may receive an inkjet proof. Both are created with

and knows the particular printers core competency.

a CMYK output, which is what the printing

No matter how convenient, there is no replacement for actu-

press uses for offset color.

ally meeting with your printer and touring their plant. It gives

If it is going to film you will receive two proofs, a blueline

you the opportunity for onsite press proofs and if you run into

proof which looks like a blueprint and represents the layout and

any problems with your files or media you’re only minutes

finished size of your job. It is created with the film that is out-

away from your studio, making it easy to correct whatever

put from your files, which is the same film that will be used to

problem you have incurred, burn another CD and get it back

burn the plates that will be mounted on the printing press. The

to your printer. When you are under a tight deadline the day or

blueline insures that the layout works and that all pages, folds

two that you lose in the mail can make a huge difference.

and bleeds work correctly. You will then receive a matchprint

This is not to say that you cannot work with online printers and do it successfully, as many professional designers are. It is a matter of choice, but it is something that needs to be given careful consideration.

or colormatch proof that is the color built from your separate film flats (CMYK). This color proof is what is going to be used by the press personnel to match color off of the printing press. If you have PMS or pantone colors in your job, typically they will be built out of the CMYK process film flats and are a very close resemblance to your pantone color. If your work is color critical it is recommended that you build your files and specify


your pantone color as a separate flat using the pantone ink

Once you have decided on a printer, received and accepted an

ing units). Many printers have or are installing 5 and 6 or even

estimate and agreed upon a deadline, you deliver your files

8 color presses enabling the printer to print the pantone color

with a hard copy color proof and mock up. Your printer will

separately without a second pass on the sheet.

take in the materials and a customer service rep will write up a job ticket. This ticket will be numbered and contain all of the information that is critical to your project. Once your job has been put into the system it will move from the customer

number. This requires an additional printing unit or a separate run if it is run on a 4-color press (a printing press with 4 print-

Beware: there is not an exact way to proof a pantone color without doing an ink rub. This entails taking the actual PMS ink and smearing or printing it on the paper to be used in the

service area and into the prepress department.

manufacture of your product.


Some printers offer on-site press proofs. This is where the de-

16of artwork you supply and the press it is going to be printed on. Your files can be arranged and setup to run on a digital press, RIPed to be output to film, or your hard copy can be prepared for a small press using a paper plate. Once that decision is made, a proof will be prepared for you to review and ap-

signer or art director works with the press personnel in determining the level of ink densities and registration. This is usually an extra charge but if your work is color critical and the cost of the job is high it is worth the money spent. This ensures that you see and approve exactly what your end product will look like. If your job is going on a digital press the process is called CTP or computer to plate. The files are sent


to an on board computer to the press and then the images are burned into a

Once your sheet has the printed image

special silicon plate that is

on it, it is time for the finishing of your

on the press unit.

product. There are many different techniques that can be used to finish your

For conventional offset printing, once

piece but the typical processes include

you have approved the blueline and

trimming or cutting your job to size,

color print the film is then stripped up

folding your piece into a brochure or

on a flat of material that holds the film

booklet signature, collating,

in place. Then the flat is placed onto a

stitching, perfect binding, coil

plate-burning machine. Each film flat

binding, scoring, embossing, etc.

is punched so that the position of the film in relation to the plate is exact.

The finishing area is important because

The plate has an aluminum base with a coating that is sensitive to light and water. The plate is then burned with the film which determines the amount of light that is passed through the film and onto the plate. This in turn, determines the image that will be receptive to ink when it is on the press, which is the image that will be printed on the sheet of paper or substrate.

the job has been printed and if the wrong information reaches the bindery or finishing department it can cause the job to be scratched due to incorrect assembly.

DISTRIBUTION After your work has been completed it is time to package it and either store or ship the materials. There are several options avail-

Ink is not the only thing that can be printed on your substrate or

able depending on the type of job. Your materials are sensitive to

paper. You can spot varnish or overall coat your sheet with the

the environmental conditions that surround it so you need to be

use of a printing plate. Spot varnish is a popular technique that

very clear in what you want to do with your work and

enters into the design of a printed piece of artwork.

how you want to do it.



The plates are placed into a large job folder. When your job reaches the end of the queue and your job is ready to print, the press personnel will take each plate and mount them onto the printing units with respect to the color they represent. The Sheet begins at the front of the press (the feeder area) and it is passed through the printing units moving between an impression cylinder and blanket. Each color is printed onto the sheet and ends up at the delivery end of the press with the printed color image. Due to the variables involved, the complexity of the process and the wide variety of equipment that is used in printing I will not get into any more detail. If you are interested in the actual printing process or have specific questions about the printing process and the different types of printing presses, contact me and I will give you the resources that will explain it in as much detail as you need.

The Job is done and it is time to clean up. Always ask for at least 10 samples. Eight of the samples should be of the finished piece and two should be press sheets with the color bars and registration marks viewable. Ask for them to be pulled at different intervals of the run. The samples can be used as a future reference to your job, a backup, (in case your files get damaged you have a viewable reference) and samples are very useful for your portfolio. The reason for asking for a flat sheet with color bars and registration marks on it is that it is more impressive when showing a potential client your work. Anyone can pull a brochure or booklet off of a shelf and say they designed it, but if you have the press sheet, it is pretty clear that you were involved in the creation of that work. While you’re asking for your samples, be sure to ask for your artwork and/or files to be returned. The film is your property. Yours or your customers, that is. Let your printer store them in case you have a re-run, just make sure there is an understanding between

you and your printer that you “own” the film. This is a touchy

your monitor. Color match across viewing and manufacturing

subject so be careful how you approach it.

platforms is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenges

I would also like to recommend that you write up some sort of

designers and printers face today.

general contract to be signed by you and your printer. A rule of

This only skims the surface of the variables and technology

thumb as to how you’re going to do business. One thing you

involved in the creation and manufacturing of your printed

need to include is a confidentiality agreement. Your customer

artwork. While this may be a guide that gets you started in

is your customer and you don’t want your customer or your

finding and building a relationship with a printer, there is no

printer doing an end run, bypassing you on any future work or

replacement for communicating with your printer. Ask ques-


tions about every aspect of your job. Know the limitations of

CONCLUSION In a few words I made an attempt at explaining how to choose a printer, information that is important for your printer to give you a quote and manufacture your job, what happens to your files once you have accepted a contract on your manufacturing and a little on the manufacturing process itself. One point I want to make very clear is that your view while designing was representative of a “light source” made up of Red, Green and Blue. Your printed piece will be viewed with the “reflection of light”, using the printed colors Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. The printing process uses three incompatible materials, oil- based ink, water and paper. Keep this in mind when developing your expectations of color match and quality. It never is and never will be an exact match to what you view on

your printer and ask for the expectations they have of you. Most of the printers out there are very knowledgeable and helpful. They don’t want to make your life a living hell. They want your printed product to look as great as you do. They want your customer as happy as you do. Believe it! They are on your side. Finding the right printer for the right job is the most important advice I can give. Ask for samples and a tour. Find your printers core competency and use it as a guide. Usually you will want to find three types of printers to use. The fast, small printing outfit for business cards, letterheads and 1 or 2 color short run brochures, the offset printer that is capable of high quality work at a reasonable price and reasonable deadlines, and of course, the large format color copy shop that can provide you with short run color lasers and large color posters and signage.

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