If the printer likes you, you’re a wuss

by Tom Campbell

  • Posted: 4 weeks ago

How to find the best offset printer

"If the printer likes you, you're a wuss."

— Joe Scorsone 

How to get the best offset printing  

Throughout my career in graphic design, I've been fortunate to have some great mentors — folks who selflessly shared what they learned over decades-long careers in the business. This fall, I got to see two of my earliest and most influential mentors, Alice Drueding and Joe Scorsone, my instructors from the Tyler School of Art. Catching up with them, I recalled the above quote from Joe. I wrote it down in my notebook during a studio design class in 1992 and have revisited it often.

First off, this quote has nothing to do with being likable. Joe is one of the most likable guys you'll meet and I seriously doubt any printer would dislike him. What he was talking about then — and it's no less important now — is that in order to get great offset printing, you've got to know your stuff, know your press operator, know what they're capable of, and work together to get the best end product. It's about not being a pushover.

Sure, if you accept the first sheet off the press, the press operator won't dislike you. But they may not respect you as much as they would someone who understands their craft and works with them to get the best possible end result.

A note on semantics

Words matter. Clarity matters. (That's an article of its own, to come...) Those are two truths that drive what we do every day. There are challenging times when those two truths collide; like when selecting the more appropriate, more inclusive word sacrifices clarity or authenticity. In that spirit, I'm using the term press operator, though the prevailing term is pressman. Like many historically male-dominated professions, there is a movement afoot to attract more women in printing. There's even a T-shirt. Rock on.

There are three different ways you can work with an offset printer:

1. Work directly with your printer

If the sights, the sounds, the smells of a hard-working print shop attract you, then you might want to manage your own print. If you can find a reliable print partner, build a good relationship, provide clean files and give them enough work to be a top-tier client; managing your own print could be worth your time.

If you have an in-house designer with a knowledge of and passion for printing, then doing it yourself could save you time and money. It will be valuable for your designer to see the project through from concept to completion.

Be sure to factor in travel time and overtime, as the right printer might be out of town and they'll be running at all hours of the day. Being on press is like being a movie star, except for the glamour. There is a lot of waiting around, doing nothing. So make sure your designer has other work to do during the downtime.

2. Work with a print broker

If you don't have a relationship with a creative agency that knows offset printing, and you're not interested in doing it yourself, a print broker could be the way to go. They have existing relationships with many printers and can easily secure multiple bids. If your annual print volume is large enough to justify the relationship and you do a lot of different types of printing, a good print broker can deliver great offset printing.

As with finding a creative partner, the best way to find a print broker is to ask around, ask Google, do some face-time, then choose someone who understands your needs and you feel comfortable with.

3. Have your design firm manage your print

We manage print for some clients, some manage it themselves and some use print brokers. The best way to manage print depends on a lot of factors. If you've got a good relationship with your creative partner and they're clear and consistent with how they charge for print management, it could be a good idea to have your agency manage your print.

Most creative agencies won't do print management on work they didn't design. So, if your design is complete and your designer is not able to manage your print, you'll need to work with a print broker or do it yourself.

Does working directly with the printer save me money?

Truthfully, it depends.

Many companies have moved their print management in-house. The prevailing reason for this is cost-savings.

The days of print markup as a huge profit center for agencies are long gone. In the old days, print was almost always managed by the creative shop. You didn't get out of design school without knowing at least the basics of offset printing. All content was printed and all print was offset. It just made good business sense for designers to manage print.

Print volume decreased dramatically, markup profits dried up and some agencies responded by jacking up their markups. Clients got wise, saw the opportunity to save and took on their own print management.

Why would I want to pay an agency markup on printing?

That's certainly a fair question. Sure, you want your creative partner to be fairly compensated, but you don't want them to rip you off. There is a lot of middle ground between those two — and it all lies along the highway of trust.

We manage print for our clients in two different ways, depending on their preference:

  1. Charge for print management time, no markup. This is attractive for the client because they get the lowest print price possible, the agency bears the risk and responsibility, and clients pay only for the time involved. It's attractive for the agency because they won't lose money if they end up spending more time on press than expected.
  2. Charge a fixed markup. Typical agency markups on print, media buys and other materials fall in the 15–25% range. The key here is clear, consistent communication. A good way to make sure you always get great print at the best price is to have a written agreement with your creative firm that locks in a consistent markup. Make sure your agency gets multiple print bids and shares them with you. Ask them to recommend the best fit (which might not be the lowest price) and decide together.

Paying a markup on print can ultimately save you money

It's true. Here's how: marketing firms often either get an outright agency discount or are able to secure better pricing than you would get calling the printer directly. For example, when a creative firm gets the industry-standard 15% agency discount on a media buy and marks it up 15%; as a client, you pay what you would have if you went directly to the publication. Additionally, you compensate your creative partner with money that otherwise would have been left on the table. Not to mention the time and risk you save by not managing it yourself.

Another reason for this price disparity is simple: volume. If you do $30k of print in a year with a certain printer and your agency does $300k, they wield more leverage to get the best pricing from that printer. Though it's not always the case, printers will often get cleaner digital files from design shops than they will working direct with the end client. This translates to less time their pre-press department will need to spend with the files and can reduce the risk of unexpected changes in scope throughout the process.

Okay, you've decided whether to do it yourself or work with a partner. Either way, here's an overview of how to get the best work from an offset printer:

Crap in, crap out

Your print is only going to be as good as your design. Something that looks great on screen could look terrible in print. A snapshot from a phone printed on a #1 sheet, run on a multi-million-dollar 5-color stochastic press is still going to look like a snapshot.

Also, it's critical that pieces are designed and pre-pressed for offset print. Digital printing has changed the game, for the good and for the bad.  When digitally printed, most files will look how you expect them to, how they look on screen, no matter how they're built. With digital printing, the stakes are much lower. The proof you see looks exactly how the finished pieces will look. This removes the need to adjust color on press and reduces risk significantly. 

Be nice

This sounds like a no-brainer, but talk to press operators and they'll tell you some war stories.

In printing, as with everything, a little kindness goes a long way. Approach a press check the same way you would a client engagement. See your printer as a valued strategic partner and not a commodity vendor. Bringing the press operator donuts in the morning or a six-pack at the end of a long day pays huge ROI.

Now, being nice is not the same as being a pushover. You're there to get the best possible work out of your printer, and that's going to take some work.

Know what you're doing

When you come into a print project with a real, tactile idea of what you want the end product to look like, the process will go much more smoothly. Chat with your print rep before the design process starts. If you want a certain tactile paper feel, or special finishing; like die cuts, embossing, debossing, spot varnishes or additional spot colors; the time to figure out how those are going to work is not when you're on press, it's when you're at the concept phase. Odds are, they've printed something similar, so get some samples and make sure everyone is on the same page with your expectations.

Know what they're capable of

Press operators are a lot like web developers. They know their stuff. They know they're the best. Each one does their thing in their own unique way. They're not usually people-people — that's your print rep's job — so building a rapport based on mutual respect is key. Most importantly, if you have a good understanding of what they and their press can and cannot do, you're going to get better work out of them.

Pick the right printer for the right job

Selecting a print partner is like selecting any other strategic partner. Talk to a few shops, get some prices and determine their specialty. They might tell you they can do anything, but every printer has a sweet spot. If they print mostly newspaper inserts, they might not be a fit for your high-end catalog. If they do mostly high-end catalogs, they may not be a fit for your two-color business cards. Choose the best, most capable fit over the lowest bidder. It will pay off in the end.

Picking not only the right print shop, but the right press operator is critical. While digital printing will usually be consistent within an acceptable level of variation, offset printing quality can vary considerably from first printing to a reprint and even within the same print run. If the weekend guy runs the job, you could be in for a nightmare. I've been there. We go so far as to request certain press operators at certain printers. They know they can't just hang and bang a Toolbox job, but they also appreciate that we requested them. They know we respect their expertise and we're committed to working together to get their best work.

Get the best price from your printer

Print pricing can be all over the place. Certainly, print pricing is influenced by the price of paper, labor costs and the particular printer's specialty. Other than selecting the right printer for the right job, you don't have much control over these factors. But print pricing is also based on factors you have some control over:

1. Pipeline. To quote Tim McGraw (and I do that whenever possible): How much do you want it, how much do you need it? Print pricing can vary greatly, depending on the print shop's sales pipeline. You're more likely to get a killer price from a printer who's presses are sitting idle than one who's running 24/7 and booked out for months. You can even out pipeline-realated price fluctuations by building generous project schedules that allow printers to schedule press time.

2. PIA. A common complaint we hear about printers is the second job costs a lot more than the first job. It feels like the classic loss-leader bait and switch. There are a few reasons why this happens. They might have underbid the first job in order to get the work. It could also be that after working with you on the first job, they added PIA (pain-in-the-ass) fees to the second job.

You can reduce your risk of incurring PIA fees by planning ahead, knowing your stuff, communicating clearly, being nice and seeing your printer as a valued partner. 

Finding a printer is a pain in the ass in and of itself, so you'll get the best prices and the best product by building good long-term relationships.

Beautiful offset printing can be a powerful marketing tool

A great printed marketing piece is a rare bird these days. Because of that, print has become more special and more impactful. Offset print remains a crucial part of doing business if high-quantity direct mail, catalogs, view books and generally making a tactile connection with your customers are an important for your business.

Sure, people love looking at their phones, and the internet knows everything — but people also still like the tactile feel of gorgeous paper and beautiful print in their hands.

As part of a comprehensive strategy, great offset printing can be a powerful tool in your marketing arsenal. Beautifully printed pieces utilize the under-exploited sense of touch — giving those who love you a powerful tool to spread the love.

Whether you manage your own print or work with a trusted partner — if you do your homework, know your stuff, know their strengths, communicate clearly and build solid long-term relationships — you'll be sure to get not only the best work out of your offset printer, but the best value.

About Toolbox Creative: Toolbox Creative is a B2B technology branding firm. We speak Engineer, translating complex technologies and bridging the gap between the science of science and the art of selling it — converting tech talk into brand love and connecting tech companies with their customers.

We are on a mission to help technologists, innovators and engineers prove how their big ideas and innovative technologies can change the world.

Our Brand Engineering process empowers technology brands to take on the dominant players in the field. We help innovative technology companies look and sound as good as they truly are, increase their brand equity and grab market share.