Basics of Professional Printing

Professional printing can be intimidating to new designers. You may be unsure of what questions to ask, or what questions you’ll be asked. Once you master the basic lingo and find local printers that you can build a relationship with the process becomes very easy. Here is some basic information that will aid you in getting started.

Print Terminology & Project Estimates

When you are working with a printer there is a common vocabulary that will make the process of working with vendors much smoother. There are specific pieces of information about the finish product that the printer will need to know up front in order to give you an accurate price quote. Below are the most common information that will be needed:

  1. Date the job is needed – The printer will need to know at the beginning of a project when the final product will be needed so they can begin to work your project into their schedules. This also lets them know if the project is one they can complete. If the date you need the product is too short for their product timeline they may not be able to do the work for you.
  2. How the artwork will be delivered – You will need to be confident in your ability to deliver artwork so the printer can plan ahead for potential issues and changes. Some designers prefer to deliver their original InDesign files and links so that the printer can make changes at the last minute if needed. Others deliver completed PDF files. Delivering PDF files is usually preferable because there is less room for error and the file will come completed. It also cuts down on the time the printer has to spend preparing your file for the presses.
  3. Quantity – This is straight forward, how many of the final product do you want. If you don’t have an exact number it is good to have a few different quantities quoted so you have an idea of how much per unit you would have to pay if you ordered more. If you think you need around 2,000 copies you might also have them quote 2,500 and 3,000. The total cost will likely not increase much and it may be beneficial to have extra copies.
  4. Color – When discussing colors you will need to know if you are printing in full color or using only a few spot colors. Printers refer to full color as 4/4 meaning you are using all four colors (CMYK). If you are only printing in black and white you would be printing in 1/4. If you were using two colors it would be 2/4.
  5. Bleed – Bleeds are used to achieve an edge-to-edge effect in your design. Printers can’t print completely to the edge of a piece of paper, so to achieve this effect you must set up your document with a bleed and design so that the graphics extend past the final size. After printing the piece will be trimmed down to the exact size. Typically bleeds should be .125 inches on all sides. Your printer will need to know up front if you plan on having a bleed because it will add another step in the process for them increasing the production time and cost.
  6. Finish Size – The finish size is the actual size you want after the bleed has been trimmed and any folding and binding has taken place.
  7. Paper – The thickness of paper is called weight and is defined in terms of the number of pounds 500 sheets of that paper would weigh. Typical copy paper is 20lb and typical cover stock (think business card thickness) is 80lb cover stock. If you’re unsure on the feel you want, always ask the printer to see some samples so you can hold the paper and feel the thickness.
  8. Type of proof needed – There are two ways of proofing your document before the final printing is done: digitally and with a hard copy. Digital proofs are PDF files that the printer would email to you to review for final typos and minor mistakes. Because you would be viewing these on a computer screen there is a chance that the color may not be exactly as it will be printed. If color precision is a must you will need a hard copy press proof. Most printers charge extra for these because there is time and materials necessary to create one and then send or deliver it to you.
  9. Finishing – If you are designing a booklet that needs to have multiple pages bound together there are different options for the type of binding and its final appearance. It is helpful to find an example of the type of binding that you like and show it to the printer to make sure they can achieve the same look. Other pieces may have special finishings or need special trimming.

If you are working on a project and are unsure about any of the elements of the final output you should always ask the printer to see samples and ask for their recommendations. It is also helpful if you have examples of a final product that you like. Most printers are very experienced and can easily look at a piece and tell you the type and weight of the paper and the binding used.

Working with Printers

Because of their expertise and experience, print vendors can be a huge asset in the design process. It is really helpful to form good working relationships with vendors. Once you develop a rapport they learn the types of looks that you like and can make suggestions to help you stay within budget and produce the best quality pieces possible.

Standard Print Timeline

One of the most important parts of setting an accurate timeline for printing and production is to make sure you are submitting accurate information for your initial quote. Based on the information you provide in the initial quote the printer will give you a timeline of how long they will need to complete the work and when you will need to deliver the final files to them so that your deadline is met.

If you are having a specialty process done extra time would be needed, but for a typical job you should always plan for at least two weeks of printing time. You may be able to get the work done quicker if it is less complicated or if the printer happens to have an opening in their schedule, but it is best to always plan for the worst case scenario.

Online vs Local Printers

We’ve talked a lot about how to quote projects and work with prints, but we have skipped over one important element: finding a printer. There are two main types of printers, online and local.

Online Printers

In the past few years online printing has exploded and there are many printers that you can order from online and have the final products shipped to you. Often these printers will specialize in one or two different types of products and this allows them to offer cheaper prices to you. They will also have predefined types of projects, so you woul dhave to work within their size and color options. Most reputable online printers offer samples that you can have shipped to you prior to ordering so you can see the print quality and feel the paper quality.

One very popular online service is Modern Postcard. They have expanded their services to cover a wide array of project types. Some of the newer services may not be priced as competitively as you could find elsewhere, but when it comes to postcards it is really difficult to beat their pricing. They are particularly well suited for smaller quantities under 1,000.

Another all-purpose online printer is UPrinting. They offer a wide array of products with competitive pricing and quick turn around. They even offer a selection of design templates if you need help getting started in setting up your designs. These templates give you the framework with appropriate bleeds, margins and sizing so that your final product will match their specifications exactly.

These two are good options for online printing, but are by no means the only two options. It is good to do some research with a specific project in mind so you can find the best company for that job.

Local Printers

Finding a local printer is necessary for custom jobs. As I mentioned, online printers have set sizes and color options for different types of jobs and don’t allow you the flexibility to customize every aspect. Local printers can help you create anything you want. Their location is important because you will often need to show them an example of something you want and they will be able to deliver proofs and completed projects directly to you much quicker than they could be shipped.

If you are new to an area or new to working with printers a Google search can be a good starting point. Try searching “Printers city, state” and you will be surprised how many will appear. I did a quick search for printers in Lexington, KY and found 1,300 results. Some of these are duplicates, but it still shows there are hundreds of printers in the area. You might start with some initial research by calling a few on the list and asking them what they specialize in. Most printers can do anything ,but typically are suited for specific types of work. In this case, specialization = cost savings. It means they’ve become very efficient

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