At first glance, different estimates for a printing project may seem to describe the same job, in a clear enough way. Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll often find big differences in quality of service, materials, finish, after sales support and potential extra costs.
If you don't know the printers you're talking to, here are seven questions you can usefully ask in response to receiving a printing quote. Not only will they help you avoid common pitfalls, but the quality of answers you get will tell you a lot about the people you're potentially going to entrust with your client's project and your own reputation as a print manager.
Will the printer give you free, expert advice and support on setting up your files correctly? Many printers lack professionalism in this area, causing frustration and delay. They should be able to accept print artwork in the most recent versions of all the usual software packages, such as Creative Suite and Quark, as well as older versions. By all means supply a PDF as a visual check – many designers use PDF as a substitute for a hard copy dummy – but PDF is not foolproof, so you should also supply native files with any linked images, screen and printer fonts. A printer who balks at this may be worth avoiding.
Between giving a printer artwork and receiving a proof, there is the crucial stage of repro. Will the printer routinely flightcheck your artwork before giving you a proof, to make sure that all files, fonts and images are present, and that what you've given them corresponds to what they've quoted for? Will their repro department colour profile your job appropriately for the paper stock or substrate you've chosen?
If a proof isn't included in the quote, ask for one. Most quotes will include a 'digital' proof, but that doesn't mean much. The question is: does the proofing allow you to manage and check the quality of the job to the standard you need? Sometimes a printer's PDF will be enough (if it's a cheap and cheerful copying job, where colour isn't important, or it's just to check that a type correction's been made). More often, you'll want a hard proof of some sort – high resolution inkjet sometimes called by the brand name of the system it's produced on, such as Epson or Cromalin. This should be a WYSIWYG (Whay You See Is What You Get) proof. In terms of content and resolution, it should be identical to the file that generates the printed job. Colour should be a good approximation to how it will look on the finished item. If you require a proof of a higher standard, you may need a 'live' proof on the specified paper, produced on the press that's going to print your job, whether digital, or litho. There are other kinds of proof that will allow you to manage quality and outcome with the minimum of fuss and cost. But when you're interrogating a print estimate, you need to know: exactly what's included, and what isn't?
4. Corrections and amendments
Does the printer intend to charge you extra for making even minor changes at proof stage? If so, how much? A really good printer, who assumes a duty of care, knows that extra costs can be debilitating to designers because they are extremely hard to sell to clients – even if the changes are being made on the client's instruction. A good print production person makes it her job to set up an artwork-proofing-printing 'critical path' to minimise the probability of extra work and cost.
Does the quote specify a brand and weight of paper or printing substrate, or does it just describe a generic (for instance, 100gsm white offset, 400gsm silk coated, 120gsm recycled matt?) If the latter, you need to get some guarantees about quality, because papers vary widely in cost and performance. In the same way, some estimates are vague about binding and finishes. A good printer will make up a plain paper dummy of your job, or send you samples of alternative papers.
6. Small print
This may be controversial, but terms and conditions are usually there to protect the printer, not you. We don't think you should have to wade through paragraphs of small size legalese; remember that anything you agree in an email or even verbally is part of the printer's contract with you. If you don't like what the small print says, ask to vary it.
7. Under the bonnet
Before you commit to using a printer, will they let you visit their premises, see the production setup and introduce you to the people who will be working on your project? It's perfectly reasonable to ask for this – a good printer will welcome you – and the state of their operation will tell you a lot about the state of the job they'll produce for you. After the project's delivered and billed, will the printer keep your job on file, and securely backed up, just in case you lose your own files or they become corrupted? A good printer will archive both hard and digital copies of your job for at least five years, be able to retrieve it quickly, and if necessary give it back to you, usually for a small cost or no cost at all. Of course, there's a lot more to choosing a printer than this. The bottom line is crucial: what does the printer want to charge you? But above the bottom line – although sometimes hidden – are the real costs of the job to you and your client, measured in quality, hidden extras, respect and courtesy, professionalism, trust and peace of mind. Calverts has a motto: Make Print Work – Make sense, Print good Stuff, Work for pleasure. We hope these tips will get you a bit further along in your own quest for print satisfaction.