Printing Like the Pros: Part Two (Working with Printers)
Learn how to find and work with professional printers.
Not sure how to find or talk to a print shop? Are you worried you’re going to say something stupid or look like you don’t know what you’re doing?
Well, first of all…that’s a common feeling to have. But a good printer will never look down on anyone for not knowing all the ins and outs of printing. Can you imagine a chef looking down on her customers because they don’t know as much about cooking as she does? Nah. It’s a chef’s job to be the expert at cooking, just like it’s a printer’s job to be the expert at printing.
This article is all about giving you the information and the confidence you need to start chatting it up with printers like it ain’t no thing (cause, really, it ain’t!).
(And, P.S., If you haven’t read Part One, head on over to learn about lots of different printing techniques and when to use them!)
WHEN TO REACH OUT TO A PRINTER
After I’ve spent some time sketching and thinking through my options for a particular project, I’ll typically narrow in on 1-3 potential printing techniques I want to consider. At this point, I’ll decide if I want to continue developing the sketch, knowing that any of the 1-3 techniques will be able to work in the end. OR, if the success of the design is highly dependent on a specific printing technique, I’ll go ahead and start reaching out to printers right away to get quotes and see what they recommend. It’s honestly never a bad idea to get a jump on preparing for printing!
I should also note here that the amount of dialogue you’ll have with the printer and even the amount of influence you have over the final printing techniques will vary depending on your situation. A lot of the time, my smaller clients (individuals & small businesses) rely on me to help produce the final pieces for them (that’s something you should ask up front and include in your pricing!). However, when working with bigger companies, you’ll likely have no contact at all with a printer. Instead, you’ll probably just be able to recommend a print technique and send over the file, but it’ll likely be up to the company whether they go through with your recommendation or not.
FINDING THE RIGHT PRINTER
Okay, so, you’re ready to reach out and start talking to some printers to gather some quotes (assuming you’re the one in charge of production). But how do you even find those printers in the first place?
Well, there are several strategies you can use. First, there’s google. I’d search for print shops in your area first, as it’s really nice to be able to chat in person and, later, come in for a press check or to see proofs. Second, look at the instagram posts of your favorite print designers (they’ve likely tagged their print shops when they show off the final products!) and ask around.
Some of the highly respected shops I love are Industry Print Shop in Austin (screen printing), Mama’s Sauce in Orlando (screen printing, letterpress, foil, etc), Clove St. Press in San Diego (letterpress, foil, emboss, etc), and Studio on Fire in St. Paul, MN (letterpress, engraving, foil, etc).
I’ve found that if I reach out to a print shop and find out they don’t have the capabilities to achieve the process I need, they’re almost always able to recommend someone else who does.
Once you’ve found some shops who say they can do what you’re looking for, don’t just leave it at that! Reach out to several different places if you can. Ask questions, gather quotes, ask for samples…do whatever you need to do to feel confident that you’re a good fit. Look for a shop that genuinely cares about their designers and asks YOU lots of questions. If you find a good print shop, they can become your partner and helper in producing great work for years to come.
GETTING A QUOTE
The first contact you’re likely going to have with a printer is an email or call to get a quote for your project. If you’re unsure of what process you want to use, but you know what final effect you want to achieve, this is also the time when you can send mockups or descriptions of what you’re looking for so they can help guide you in the right direction.
When it’s time to get a quote, here’s some things you’ll need to tell the printer:
1) What production process(es) are you considering?
2) How many pieces do you need produced? If you only need a small amount, ask what their minimums are. You can ask to see prices for different amounts (aka “I’d love to see quotes for 250 & 500 please”).
3) If you’re choosing a process with color separations (see Part One for more details), how many colors are you printing? The more colors, the more it costs.
4) What kind of paper do you want? Is it a special order, or something they carry in house? You can ask them what stocks they’d recommend for the job if you don’t have something in mind.
Here’s one of my initial email communications with a print shop so you can see how easy it really is to talk to them:
ME: Hi guys! I’m looking for a 3-color 16x20” screen print. I’m thinking Timber Green French Paper, 100 lb…do you have that in house? I’d love to know if you can take this on, and, if so, can I get a quote for a run of 75? I’ve attached the design for your review. Thanks, Katie.
THEM: Hey Katie! I would suggest a few edits to the file to ensure a flawless execution when printing... nothing major, but I will be able to better advise once we have the final file. We would have to special order this paper color, and it only comes in 25 packs or 100 packs. It is more cost efficient to order the 100 pack. Here goes a quote for 100 posters...
100 posters / 16x20 / 3c = $4.50 each + $120 setup...Please advise with any questions...Attached are the 11 colors we stock in house from FRENCH.
ME: Awesome, thanks so much. Let’s go with the 100 and I’ll let you guys handle ordering the paper if that sounds good. Let me know what’s next and I’ll send the file over.
See?? Easy as cake. Or pie. Whatever you prefer.
PRESENTING TO A CLIENT
If you’re creating your printed piece for yourself, then congrats, you can skip this step. However, if you need to get your client to sign off on the printing technique and costs associated…read on.
Selling your client on your design is hard enough. Adding printing and potential added costs on top can be just as tough to get past them. There’s a few things I’d recommend for easing the process.
1) Set expectations from the start. Don’t quote a $1000 design fee for a project, and then spring another $2000 printing fee on them half way into the process. If you know from the start that you’re making something that will end up getting printed, tell the client that this will be an added expense and try to give them your best ballpark estimate for how much they should expect to pay. This can be a wide range at this point, but it’s also a good time to test the waters and inquire into their budget so you can get more specific going forward with what you’ll be able to consider.
2) Give them options. Or don’t. Well that was indecisive….Let me explain myself. You’ve basically got a choice on whether you want to take a gamble or not. Do you want to show them only your dream option, where their design will be realized with die cuts and gold foil and embossing, and hope that they love it so much they sign off? Or do you want to show them the option you love, plus a simpler back up option or two so they don’t freak out when they see the quote for all those bells and whistles? I’ve done both, depending on the client and the situation. Weigh your options and try your best to feel it out.
3) Mock it up if you can. Want to impress them and help them envision how great the final piece will look? Then show them. I often use photoshop to show what a gold foil or emboss could look like—something that simple can seal the deal. In packaging presentations, I usually mock up a physical representation of the product, and bring along samples of foils, papers, or any other tactile elements that can help bring the vision to life for them. Clients aren’t always as imaginative as you are, so being super literal can be extremely helpful.
4) Remember you’re designing for THEM, not you. As fun as it is to slap on every cool printing technique and every fancy paper under the sun, that might not always be the right move for the client. It’s your job to represent their wants and needs, so make sure you listen and take into consideration what makes the most sense for them.
Once you’ve got the okay from the client on both the design and the printing process and price (or from yourself, if you’re your own client), it’s time for production.
If you’ll be the one heading up the process, you’ll need to communicate with the printer about some important points:
1) What’s the timeline? Make sure you get deadlines from the printer for when they need files and payment, when they expect to send proofs (see next point), how long you have to respond to the proofs, and when they plan to finish the project.
2) Will you see proofs and what will you be evaluating them for? Proofs are weird. They’re basically a “test” version of your product for you to review, but they’re often not totally accurate to what the final piece will look like. Depending on what you’re producing, they might be big sheets of “color proofs” that you’re supposed to evaluate for general color correctness. However, they’ll often be printed on different paper and with a different printer than the finals will, which can be confusing. Talk with your printer to determine what you should expect from the proofs and what you should be looking for.
3) Will there be a press check? If you’re running a big job, you may be able to come to a press check, where you evaluate final prints on site. Often, printers charge more for press checks, basically because it’s annoying for them to have you hovering over them and potentially making changes last minute. If you have a really particular client you’re trying to please, you might want to invest in the both of you coming along to a press check, so no one blames you for a print job that isn’t what they’d expected.
4) How will finals be delivered? Some local printers deliver for free, some charge. Just clarify this early so, again, you can set expectations with your client.
Sometimes the printer runs into an issue that you’ll need to solve together. Be aware that this can happen.
I was working with a printer on a poster and they called me mid-way to tell me the copper colored ink I’d wanted just didn’t have enough contrast against the dark paper background I’d chosen. We went back and forth about potentially lightening the copper color, but eventually I went with their recommendation to go for a gold instead. I was a bit disappointed, but ended up really loving the gold. Your printer knows what’s up—if they are telling you something isn’t working, listen to their suggestions and trust their expertise.