Commercial printing, digital printing, desktop printing, online vendors…. Arrg! How many times have you found yourself in this quandary: You have to print something, you have a deadline looming and marketing people are either unavailable, or non-existent? Here are a few rules of thumb to follow to get the best quality printed product on time and at a reasonable cost.
Commercial (or offset or lithography) printing: Colors are made up of four basic printing colors, cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK or process colors). These colors are separated into dot patterns that when combined on paper create a full color image. A metal plate is made for each color with the dot pattern imaged on to it by a laser, the imaged area accepts ink and the non-imaged area resists ink. First the plates are wrapped around cylinders in a printing press, inked and rolled onto another cylinder of softer material called the blanket. Next, the image is “offset” onto the blanket and rolled onto the paper.
Commercial printers can add some special touches such as varnishes, custom inks, die cuts, and just about any size and configuration you can imagine.
• Price: Very high price-per-piece for quantities under 1000 pieces. The more pieces you need, the cheaper it gets; you can pay just a few cents per piece when printing 10,000 or more.
• Quality: The best. You won’t get better quality printing than with a commercial printer. They have production managers who will work directly with you to make sure you get what you need, when you need it.
• Timing: Generally, give it a week. Depending on the amount of work on the floor they can be flexible with schedules to a point, but you won’t get an offset printed job back the next day.
• Best jobs to give them: Large corporate brochures, slick sales materials, books, packaging, quantities over 1000 pieces.
Digital Printing: Many commercial printers will have a digital option available. The reputable printers will offer you this option, if your quantity is small enough to take advantage of the cost savings of digital printing.
Digital presses are either laser or inkjet. Laser printing involves lasering your image onto a light-sensitive surface making the image area able to attract or repel toner. The image is then transferred to paper and fused in place by a heating element. Inkjet shoots tiny droplets of ink onto paper to create an image. This process provides near-photographic quality images but is limited to certain types of paper. Your printing rep will recommend different solutions based on the type of image you’re printing.
Digital printing is great if: you are printing fewer than 1000 pieces, you’re not picky about paper, you have a job that prints on letter-sized or tabloid-size paper, you have a job that needs to be done quick, you need a job completed quickly because this type of job can be printed within hours. Short run digital also allows you to personalize each printed piece; Names and messages can be pulled from a database and laser printed onto each page. Studies have shown that response rates rise dramatically when direct mailings take advantage of mass customization.
• Price: Very reasonable for up to roughly 1000 pieces. If you print more the per-piece price is better going the commercial route.
• Quality: The technology advanced so much with digital printing that it is very close to offset quality. Limitations are on paper stock and size of the piece.
• Timing: Digital printing companies usually give you a three day turnaround, but if the job is time sensitive, they can get it done same day.
• Best jobs to give them: Short run projects that you need right away.
Desktop Printing: The technology behind your desktop printer is the same as you’ll find in the larger machines but you’ll run into problems with managing the job at the office. Co-workers wanting to use the printer, paper jams, alignment and registration issues, problems printing on two sides and collating and binding contribute to printing a large number of pieces off your desktop printer a nightmare. You are much better off sending it out – believe me I’ve been there and it’s not pretty.
• Price: Appears free until you add up all that expensive ink and paper you’re using up.
• Quality: Usually poor because copy paper will bleed, warp and not carry color well.
• Timing: The timing is right until you hit that first paper jam.
• Best jobs: For printing fewer than 50 sheets with minimal large color graphics and basic staple, or 3-hole punch binding.
What about online print vendors? Be careful. There are great bargains to be had, but you really don’t know how reliable an online vendor is until you’ve used one. I would suggest using a few different online vendors for low priority jobs until you find one or two that have worked well for you. Online print vendors have good prices because they print in volume. They will gain a lot of jobs on one huge print run, limiting you to very few paper options and usually very long delivery times. Good luck finding anyone to talk to, if there’s a problem or you need to expedite shipping. There is usually no customer service person on your account and no flexibility to help meet your deadlines.
Price: Cheap! You’ll get inexpensive printing as compared to any of your brick-and-mortar printers, offset or digital.
Quality: It’s a crap shoot, if you find a few good resources guard them with your life. Whomever you use, you will be limited to paper stock and a long lead time.
Timing: Could be as long as three weeks depending on when in the vendor’s print cycle you submit your project.
Which do you prefer? Tell us your story below!