Wearing many hats at my family's printing company

Hi everyone. I’m the head of our online printing company’s SEO department, so graphic design is one of my many hats. I’m here to learn what kinds of questions, problems and challenges people have with graphics and printing so that I can create new content pages with actual value, not just search engine bait.

Of course, I look forward to contributing as well when able, and probably asking some questions of my own.

What kind of printing do you do?

If I were you, I’d start by asking your company’s prepress people what kind of problems they routinely run into, then address them.

Thinking about it a little more, though, I can break the problem into at least four different audiences.

  1. The newbies who don’t know enough about what they should know to even ask the right questions.

  2. Those who know just enough to get tripped up over some of the basics and are in need of simple clarification.

  3. The problems prepress operators consistently run into from supposedly experienced designers.

  4. The frustration that people like me (a designer with decades of experience) run into when searching an online printer’s website for specs and finding pages and pages of dumbed-down information that doesn’t answer the questions I have. For example, concerns about software color settings, maximum ink densities, press information (web, sheetfed, digital), trap presets, PDF/X choices, signature sizes, etc.

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Thats why I asked what kind of printing they do. My list of 10 wide format prepress horrors is gonna differ somewhat from an offset printer’s list.
I can’t say I’ve seen a printer website that offers much beyond color settings and possibly PDF job options. Most wide format vendors will have a webpage dedicated to file prep instructions - that are never read BTW. Either designers think they know it all or they are not experienced enough to know to look. To get things like ink densities, press type, traps and signatures, isn’t that what sales reps are for? When it comes to specialty stuff, I’m always on the phone with my outsource reps finding out what’s available, the printable width (and length if boards - for yield,) the lam-able width and the preferred method of creating a Rich Black. A lot of things are set by the media profile in the rip, and with 2 of my vendors, those profiles are proprietary and I’d never even see the settings.

There are just way too many options in my industry as to things you can print on. While a smattering might be listed on the vendor website, when it comes to details like max mountable width, unless I spec a material already known to me, even 25 years into this, I have to ask. Or even better, if we want to run a specialty media, something not listed on the website we might pay system time for the profile adjustments. And sometimes, wellllll… we just get crazy requests to print on an assortment of things you wouldn’t normally print on. You can get a flatbed printer to print on anything that will fit under the heads. It might not print well, but sometimes the results can surprise you.

The printing company in question might be the exception, but whenever I’ve used an online printing company, there have been no sales reps beyond people with strong accents who seem to be reading from a script and who don’t seem to understand my questions.

Here’s a case in point (not an online printer) that’s fairly typical. Not too long ago, I was designing a freeway billboard. With no further explanation, the regional outdoor advertising company’s website said to convert all files to CMYK. My design consisted of an edge-to-edge photo with a vivid blue sky and vibrant green grass and trees — the very colors that lose their vibrancy when converted to CMYK.

I called them to find out why they needed CMYK. The sales rep who answered the phone proceeded to tell me the difference between RGB and CMYK. I interrupted her to say I already knew the difference, and that I was concerned about the narrower gamut for CMYK and wanted to know why they requested CMYK.

This stumped her, so she transferred me to who she described as the head of their production department. He was out on an installation job and seemed annoyed to be bothered. I get halfway into my question before he says “Just send us what you have; we’ll figure it out.” Refusing to give up, I insisted that he listen to my concerns. He agreed with me that an RGB file would preserve the colors better. When I asked him why their website specifically said to convert all images to CMYK, he said he didn’t know, rarely looked at their website, and that I’d need to talk to their website guy.

Also not too long ago, I had a client who needed very high-quality printing on a sales brochure for a summer’s worth of trade shows. I got some prices for him from vendors that I knew specialized in high-quality offset work.

The client responded by wanting me to look into an online printer he had located whose website was little more than a sales pitch for their supposed high-quality printing and low prices. I was skeptical, but I gave them a call to ask how they delivered high quality with low prices. They responded by saying their high volume enabled them to have low prices. Still suspicious, I asked them if they gang-printed the work. Their response was that they weren’t gang printers. When I asked them if they printed multiple jobs on their press simultaneously on the same sheets of paper stock, they reluctantly said they did. When I pointed out that this was the very definition of ganging printing they responded by saying they didn’t use or like the term gang printing.

Now that I seem to be reliving my frustrations with printing company websites and sales reps on this Saturday morning, here’s one more example. I had a client who had a preferred online printer they usually used. The online printer’s website gave a choice of light, medium, and heavy-weight paper.

I called them up to ask for standard, meaningful information about the weights of their paper, as in the basis weights of their “light,” “medium,” and “heavy” paper. The sales reps had no idea what I was talking about and had no idea who to ask. They seemed almost condescending in their assumption that I simply didn’t understand the meaning of the words light, medium, and heavy. Moving on, I asked them if they scored the medium-weight paper before folding it. Their answer was (I’m paraphrasing), All our papers have the highest score possible. We use only the best paper.

I’ve been away from the standard print industry so long, I hadn’t realized it had gotten that bad. I’m saddened, but not at all surprised. With fewer designers asking or even caring about the differences, why should a sales rep be bothered to find out. They don’t need to be any more intelligent than their clients.

I don’t care if I’m suggesting ideas for the things we do to a new sales rep, but I’ve not run into one yet that didn’t understand what they have to offer or didn’t know who to ask.

(Three more years. Just gotta make it three more years. I can do this.)

All of this s why I use the same small local company I have done for decades. They may not be the cheapest, but they know what they are doing. I know what they expect of me and visa versa, so things just work.

If I need large format display work done, I use the company in the very next building to my printer, so this means that they also have a relationship and if two pats of a job need to be tied together, they talk to each other to get things done.

For me, this is where things have gone wrong in the industry in recent years. I was always taught that you need to build a relationship with your printer. As soon as things become solely about price, this breaks down and you end up with the kind of problems outlined here.

Recently, I needed to get some t-shirts printed. Simple type centre of chest and a url top of neck, back. I sent ordered one as a test. When it came back, the quality was OK, but the front was off-centre by almost and inch. Same with the back, but it was not straight by about 2-3 degrees. When I queried it, their response was an off-hand, ‘yeah, there’s a tolerance of an inch either way’ An inch! 1-3 mm I would accept, but an inch. There was no concern, just, ok, we’ll refund you then. That’s it. The business was based so much on volume that QC of individual jobs was not a concern. Needless to say, they won’t be getting the business!

I am about to sent out for a sample from a company, which although now grown to suit what I need, are still a family-run company. Fingers crossed.

I wish that were still possible for me. At the agencies where I’ve worked, we typically had contracts or preferred vendors, where the deciding factor was usually a combination of price and quality. We still got to know the printers and had a big say in choosing them. Clients never handled the printing; it was part of what they hired us to arrange.

Heading back to paste-up days (yes, I’m that old) at design studios and my freelance jobs, I always arranged the printing. Depending on the job, I had four or five local printers that I knew did good work, so I always used them. Clients didn’t know anything about paste-up mechanicals or getting printing bids — they never handled arranging these things themselves.

Over the last 40 years, it’s gradually changed for solo design businesses. Instead of paste-up mechanicals, we use computers. Clients have a copy of MS Office, so they assume what we do isn’t that different. They have office printers and have taken things to the corner print shop, so at some point, their limited experience made them feel qualified to arrange the printing themselves.

The good printers never wanted to turn work down, so they accepted the garbage the amateurs brought them. They hired entire staffs to handle the garbage and raised their prices accordingly.

The days of freelance designers choosing the right paper stock from the endless paper samples supplied by paper companies vanished. Clients simply sent the file to the printer with instructions to print it. Even the simple process of choosing coated or uncoated paper mostly disappeared. Confusing clients with instructions about spot colors, aqueous coatings, spot varnishes, scored folds, tipped-in images, specific bindings, engraving, embossing, thermograpy, letterpress vs offset vs digital vs screen printing, etc. is pretty much all gone. I can’t remember the last time I made an in-person press check.

Instead, almost everything is created around the assumption that it’ll print 4-color process on some sort of printing machine somewhere in the world that the client decides upon. Just last week, I was trying to pry information from a client about the printer they used so I could build the job to the printer’s specs. They were baffled about why I wanted that information, but they finally asked me if I’d ever heard of VistaPrint, as though they had this wonderful secret printing company they had found online. :roll_eyes:

I’m starting to come to the same conclusion as @PrintDriver: it’s almost time to climb into the lifeboats and abandon the sinking ship.

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I’m lucky, in that, where I have clients who procure the print, they are book publishers and are very tight on print, so the job is always done well. I still look forward to receiving advance copies and they never disappoint. So, quality and attention to detail is still out there, it is just like design itself, it is swamped by all the rubbish out there too.

Part of the problem too, is that who in heck wants to be a print sales rep? The good ones, some who actually, at some point, did some work in the industry, are all aging out. For that matter, there are very few people who actually want to WORK in the print industry. All, and I mean all of the support staff at my preferred vendors are all not much younger than me and they cannot find people to hire. It can be a dull repetitive job, on your feet, handling heavy material and working with dangerously large machines. No college grad will do that, it’s beneath them. And the trade schools have shifted focus away from design and print to web skills and the major building trades, cuz that’s where it’s at now. I’ve seen product dropped over the years at some of my major metal plaque vendors because no one knows how to do the work any more. No more patinas and special finishes; they want to flatbed print instead of silkscreen…sigh. There is no real innovation going on anymore. I do not have much hope for this industry. Not much at all.

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4x8 chipboard from a local big chain hardware store (“L” or “HD”) that won’t lay flat. Don’t ask.

Our post-install instructor for the latest machine says they have clients that print on golfballs (with a custom jig) and bicycle wheels (also with a custom jig to hold the wheel)

For media that wont lay flat, you can try using a 4x8 “sled” that you can apply 2-way 3M tape to…If its too badly warped theres not much that can be done.
I’m thinking the “sled” would need to be something like .063" metal or aluminum…
Adjust your printheads accordingly before you start.

We made it work, but some of the sheets required goofy antics to keep them flat enough in the print zone not to crash the carriage.

Unfortunately, the ‘sled’ idea wouldn’t work well, it’d need to be finely perforated to allow vacuum from the printbed to have any chance of helping. Taping the edges down wouldn’t have worked on its own.

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We’ve used 3/4 plywood and screwed the pieces down. The vacuum holds the sled, the sled holds the pieces. Still, you had to adjust the head height so no risk of a strike. Those heads are expensive! No fine text though. But if it’s so badly warped that won’t work, we’d suggest a different material or the same material supplied by a better vendor. When those flatbeds came out, I found out right quick which of my vendors were the adventurous sort. I’d get invites from two of them to “come see what we did” on the latest cart of stuff brought in from various sources. Those days were fun!

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Normally we can get extremely clear 4pt type, black-on-white or reverse out on the slower modes. Very clear 6pt on the 2nd fastest mode.
This job had us doing weird crap that the printer mfr washed their hands of - “good luck” hah
We ended up printing around 0.13in over substrate, among other shenanigans. We still crashed on 75% of the sheets supplied, and the print wasn’t exactly sharp from edge to edge or end-to-end on the sheet.

The heads are certainly expensive. This machine is a hybrid capable of roll to roll or sheetfed, so there’s no screwing down to the bed, since the bed moves to feed material through.

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4 or 6 point type is easy if the media is smooth. The flatbeds we’ve used have been the gantry type rather than the moving bed or sucker belt feeds. We probably would have not accepted the material. We have a better lumber supplier than L or HD and pretty lucky what we can get sometimes. Laminated birch ply is a thing here. Everyone wants to print on it. :slight_smile:

(I’m trying to remember what the original question was here, LOL. We sure have wandered far afield.)

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