Part 1: Understand Your Options
Usually buying something does not present major problems.
Choose the product. Select the vender. Pay. Take the product home.
This works with most products, but printing is different. You are not really buying a product. You are buying the manufacture of a product, that is, a whole production process. If it goes as expected, the process ends with the delivery of a custom product made just for you that meets all your requests. If things do not go as planned, if the process does not work, you can end up with a product that does not meet your expectations for quality, price or turn around. In the worst case scenario, you might end up with a product that you can’t even use.
In order for the printing process to go well, it is generally important to have someone on board who knows how print production works. It’s a good idea to be prepared for the various stages that happen between concept generation and final delivery. There are a few different ways to dive into this process and they all begin with deciding how your print job will be managed. This means choosing a supplier option. There are a few different supplier types you can go with: Doing it alone and working directly with a printer; using a web-2-print service; working with an individual print broker or working through a larger graphic production agency. I’ll be honest here and say that I think, if you want to be sure to cover all your bases for each print job, working with a graphic production agency is the best option and, following, we will take a look at why that is. First, though, it’s useful to know what print supplier types are on the market and what their main features are.
“It’s useful to know what print supplier types are on the market and what their main features are.”
Having spent years working with printers, online platforms and brokers, I’m happy to share what I have learned and breakdown some of the mystery around how to get things printed. I am going to describe the various vendor options and, also, offer a tool so that you can do your own analysis and make the best print management choice based on your situation.
Option 1: Buying Direct from a Printer
First of all, it is important to clarify that individual printer companies usually specialize in providing a specific product type—such as books or plastic cards or gifts or large format materials. Their focus impacts the type of equipment they purchase and it often defines the type of products and the specific range of print run sizes for which they are most competitive in terms of price, quality and lead time. A printer that specializes in comic books might not be the best choice for printing large-format posters and, even if a printer specializes in books, they might not be the choice for both soft- and hard-cover books. Many printers also have a preferred customer profile that can include company size and type, such as direct customers or resellers, advertising agencies or publishers. Many print companies have sales representatives that exclusively serve the products and services (and interests) of the printing company. They work to find good client fit and, generally, are the main client contact within the company.
Option 2: Online Platforms (Web-2-Print)
These are online stores that specialize in producing printed products. They are connected with one or more printers and, generally, use a business model aimed at reducing the technical product options. Their goal is to increase overall production volumes of each product type and, thereby, reduce costs. By running a lot of different jobs from different clients at the same time, they save money. Because they handle very large production volumes, customer support may be less personalized when working with web-2-print, and it is often difficult to talk to someone about orders once they are placed.
Option 3: Print Brokers
Print brokers are individuals that have stable and, usually, long-term business relationships with one or more printers and other service providers. Often brokers are also part of design, marketing and communication agencies, or are freelance designers or print producers. Because of experience and personal relationships with suppliers, print brokers can often identify the best product specs, manage the budgeting process and ensure a competitive, product-adjusted value. Print brokers work with clients to keep track of their jobs.
Option 4: Graphic Production Agencies
These are companies, like Finepaper, with a business model very similar to that of print brokers. Usually, however, they are larger and have a wider range of services that may include prepress layout, product storage and even multimedia production. Having a more comprehensive structure often means more specialization in various parts of the print process, such as print file preparation, quoting, procurement, negotiation, product purchasing, substracts, production management and customer support. In addition, they may have a wider range of supplier networks. Clients will generally interface with the graphic production company to handle all aspects of a job, from verifying print files to defining terms of warranties and billing.
“Having a more comprehensive structure often means more specialization in various parts of the print process.”
Now that I have outlined the different options, how will you choose the best vendor type for managing your graphic production?
It is difficult to answer this question with a specific formula, but below I’ve put together a table to help identify a good solution. If we consider some of the common concerns around the graphic production processes, it will be easier for you to make decisions about your best options.
Before we look at individual constraints that might affect different print jobs, I’d like to offer a general best practice: If it is not possible to talk with an expert, it’s a good idea to dedicate some time to learning a few graphic production basics as well as be prepared to follow the printing process itself.
As will become obvious, some constraints point you towards the possibility of using a few different supplier types. In these situations, the choice is easy: The best option is generally the one that involves the people you most trust.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at the specific constraints that might affect your print job and how to respond to each situation. Here are the most important concerns to address and how to respond to those concerns in choosing a supplier type based on my experience as a graphic producer.
This table provides a way to dive into decision making around how to manage your print jobs. In Part 2 of this blog I’ll take a deeper look at these questions. I’ll explain why different supplier options will work, depending on your constraints, to help you make a more nuanced choice. Just like you, we want your books and cards and posters and beach balls and billboards and everything else to be printed with excellent quality and efficiency, as well as on budget.