7 Tips for Qualifying a Printer

How do you choose a printer? Your choice will depend on the design project itself, but wouldn’t it be great to have several pre-qualified, dependable printers you can trust for any design you create? Print is alive and well and is a tangible complement to digital design. So, if it is here to stay, you will need to work with printers.

There are many print-buying options: office supply stores, online printers, on-ground printers, off-shore printers, and print brokers. All printers are not equal. If you’re putting time, effort and thought into your design solution, it’s your responsibility to make sure the end result makes the design look its best.

A printed job is only as good as the quality of the printing. Good printing adds value to the design. I’ve had enough disappointing experiences with printers that I created a set of criteria to qualify a printer. When I implemented a qualifying process, I dramatically reduced problems with printers and print jobs.

1. Quality. Get some samples from the printer and look them over carefully. Are they high-quality pieces (you will need to define for yourself what “quality” entails)? Is the quality consistent across all the samples? In trying on a printer for the first time, was the job printed according to your specs? Is the color accurate? Is the stock as specified?

2. Flexibility. When changes are necessary after a job has been given to the printer, how are they dealt with? This is not necessarily a matter of charging for changes, because that is appropriate in many cases. The issue here is about the attitude the printer demonstrates. Do they accommodate easily or show resistance?

3. FSC Certification. Whether or not a print job is run on recycled paper, FSC certification should be a qualifying criteria for choosing a printer. This means that the printer is using sustainable methods and materials such as soy inks, house stock containing post-consumer content, recycling and repurposing programs.

4. Customer Service. How long does it take to obtain a quote on a job? How closely does the printer adhere to their estimates? Is the print rep available to discuss a job, answer questions and make recommendations? How are the contract proofs handled? Is there an extra charge for reviewing a hard proof?

5. Capability. What presses are used? How quick is the turn-around? If they offer digital printing, is it the same quality as their offset? How much of the job is outsourced to trade printers? If a printer needs to send a 4-color job out to another printer because they’re run on a two-color press, it is probably best to work with a printer who runs a four-color press.

6. Proofing. How are the contract proofs created and how accurate are they to the work that comes off the press? Is the designer welcome on the shop floor for a press check?

7. Pricing. Price is always a factor. Some quality printers are too costly for my clients to bear. I often send RFQs (request for quotes) to several printers to compare pricing on the same job, and some estimates are close to twice as much as others for the same quantity and quality.

On-ground or online?

Online printers cut costs by grouping many projects together in the same print run. Selection of paper stock is limited, there is no color control on press, and if you’re including color profiles in your digital files, they will be overridden by the printer’s profiles. If you want a different stock or specialty services, the cost will often end up being more than what you’d pay with an on-ground printer. With online printers, you pay for the job up front, the turn-around is longer and delivery charges are extra.

A quality brick-and-mortar printer will charge more than what you’ll spend with most online printers (vistaprint, printingforless, 4over), but they’re usually happy to give you tours through their plant, work with you to solve problems and advise on best methods, and offer solutions that fit into your budget. On-ground printers treat your project as a custom job far more easily than online printers.

What about print brokers?

No offense to print brokers, but I have not experienced a good outcome when working with one. A print broker assumes management of the project – something I’m not willing to abdicate. If I’ve created the design, I want to be the one who sees it through to the end.

If you decide to work with a print broker, be as careful as when choosing a printer.

Developing a group of printers you want to work with will take careful thought and some trial and error. You can ask for recommendations from other designers, but only by actually working with a printer will you be able to determine if they meet your expectations. Once you have a few printers that consistently meet your criteria, you can be confident that the printed designs will be the quality you expect.

Alvalyn Lundgren is an award-winning graphic designer, illustrator and owner of Alvalyn Creative, an independent design studio near Los Angeles, California. Contact her for your visual branding, graphic and web design needs. You can join her on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn, and receive her monthly newsletter.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.