As your client base grows so will the size and scope of the creative work you do for them. If print design is one of your services, adding print services to your menu will add more value to your business and your bottom line. Even with the shift toward online print ordering, some printing due to the quantity and/or expense will require an in-person press check.
Even before the advent of desktop publishing, designers and printers have had a tenuous relationship at best. The reason being, we do not think alike, we do not speak the same language, and quite frankly we just don't understand the limitations and complexities of the printing process; yet we need each the other to coexist.
It is incumbent upon the designer to have a basic understanding of preflighting, the printing process, and standard procedures surrounding a press check to be successful at it. Do a little research, buy a Pocket Pal, and ask a lot of questions from your printer or others with experience.
Printers are very helpful if they see that you have a genuine desire to make their job easier. Having worked in the printing industry for several years, over 90% of the jobs I produced had problems directly related to a designer's failure to grasp the basics principles of printing.
With that said, let's take a look at the basics of preparing, performing and concluding a press check.
Your Ultimate Goals
Revenue–As a designer, the primarily objective is to add revenue to your business. Marking up printing is different for each job, but a simple rule of thumb is to look at the time you will devote to it and multiply that by your hourly rate. That includes quoting, preproduction, travel, press check, billing and delivery. It should fall somewhere between 10-30% of the total cost of printing.
Relationships–Creative work that transfers well in print reflects well on you and ultimately on your clients in front of their potential and existing customers. Your goal is to make your client satisfied (ecstatic if possible) to continue using your services and hopefully increasing your workload.
Second, it is to enhance your relationship with the printer by showing yourself to be easy and profitable to work with. Print works and press checks that are efficient in time, manpower and materials will help you become a part of the team in the printer’s eyes. In return they may also give your time sensitive jobs preference in the future and even overlook additional charges that were yours or your client's error.
Referrals–In marketing, few things are better than a referral. Printing in itself is an advertisement for you and your business every time someone compliments your work either to your client or your printer, and as a result both may provide referrals to you.
Preparing (Do Your Homework)
There’s nothing like being prepared, so let’s touch on the fundamentals of what you should have completed and collected ahead of time from your client, the printer, and the items you will need to take with you.
First, you must have final approval in written form; either via email or a signed off proof. If the project is a multi-page piece or has a custom shape, I suggest showing your client a full-size mock up. A signature or written approval will be your main leverage if the job has errors that were not initially identified by your client. If can also protect you financially if it is reduced to litigation.
Be sure to call the printer the day before or earlier that day if the press check will take place in the afternoon. You want to make sure that they’re on schedule and that all the needed materials have arrived. Confirm the time and leave a number where they can reach you easily if things change at the last minute. The objective is to spend as little time as possible with the printer. You’re a service industry; you don’t make money unless you’re in front of a computer.
If you have any last minute questions or concerns, bring them up now. Let me emphasize that...bring them up now! You don’t want to waste everyone’s time and money correcting mistakes on your project while it is on the press. Speak with someone in prepress if you have a revision or a question about your files. Also, talk to your CSR about any other last minute details. If your client has specific areas of your design that he or she consider critical, such as “make sure the sky is blue” or “will this red match the red in our logo?”, be sure to communicate that.
You should also view a digital proof beforehand or request a PDF version so you can check for text reflow or anything that may have gone awry in prepress production. I recommend bringing a complete set of files with you too, which includes fonts and support files. It will save you valuable time if a font was substituted or an image was color corrected improperly.
Many printers have a separate room for their customers with phones and internet connections, so bring your laptop and prepare to make the most of your time while you wait. If you are bringing your client, let them know the same and be prepared to take them to lunch if things take longer than expected. Your CSR may also be happy to give both of you a tour and meet with other key staff members.
Performing (Making it a Success)
I recommend arriving 15 minutes before your scheduled time. This puts everyone at ease and shows that you are considerate of the printer’s time. Be friendly and relaxed with everyone involved in your job; especially the press person(s) responsible for printing it. If this is the first time you have worked with the printer and you have requested a specifically higher grade paper, ask to view a sample of the paper in the warehouse. Most printers are honest, but some are tempted to substitute your request for a lower grade and increase their profit margin. Paper is generally half the cost of a job so it could be significant amount on a large quantity. This practice constitutes fraud, so it is very unlikely, but be mindful that it could occur.
As I mentioned, good relations with the person(s) directly printing your job is essential. They have a wealth of experience in getting the most out of their press, so defer to their recommendations and make it clear that their opinions are valued. View them as an intelligent colleague that knows the limitations of the equipment and materials.
Bear in mind that they do not get a lot of the perks they see given to management and customers, so if you have any early morning press check or realize that they will be working through their lunch, bring in a box of pastries or order out pizza for them. The small cost to you will bring much more goodwill than you realize.
When you are asked to inspect the first press sheet, you could approve it and the press check is over. But, there are a number of things to check off your list beforehand. Do not feel pressured to sign off or make a decision quickly. It should take you at least 5 to 10 minutes of inspection and questions before you make your decision.
Things to Consider
Color–Compare the press sheet with the digital proof to make sure the colors are vibrant and true. If you want to further enhance or reduce a color, be sure to ask if other areas on the sheet will suffer to achieve it. Inspect solid color areas and central items to the job such as a main image. Are there pinholes or “hickies” in them? If so, circle them on the press sheet as an indication that they need to be eliminated.
Registration–Look at the crop marks at the corners of the sheet and the marks at the center of the sheet. They should be aligned with no individual color hanging outside it. The pressperson will have a loupe or magnifier to take a closer look. Remember, printing is not a perfect science, but registration should very accurate.
Alignment–Check that colors are butting up next to each other without overlapping too much or having white space between them. This could happen even if the sheet is properly registered.
Sharpness–Look for detail in the photographs of the proof and compare them to the sheet. You should be able to see the same clarity and detail; especially in the highlight and shadow areas.
Non Image Areas–Make sure there are no ink spots or slight color hues in the white areas of the sheet. This can be caused by a lack of fountain solution in non image areas that is used to repel ink.
Text–Inspect the text to make sure it is crisp and that there are no broken characters. If the text is a color other than black, make sure there are no other colors hanging out.
As you move forward, be specific in what you want to achieve with the next press sheet. Be clear about the corrections you need, ask if it is possible and assure them that it will be approved if the corrections are made and nothing else changes. You will be escorted back to the waiting area and depending on the adjustments it could take between 30 minutes to an hour for the next press sheet.
Do not leave the building without informing your CSR; you won’t score any points if you can’t be found. When the next press sheet is ready, compare it with the previous one and the proof. If everything is acceptable, sign off and thank everyone for their time and effort. The average number of press sheets it takes to get to final approval is 2 to 3. If there are more than that, then there is a mechanical problem, a problem with the digital files or someone's expectations are unrealistic. A press check should never be used by you or your client as tool to throw your weight around. Petty or unattainable demands will reflect poorly on the party involved.
Press checks can be a great learning tool for any designer and the added experience creates a higher greater value for you, your clients and the printer. Use it to build lasting and profitable relationships with both of them. If you go into a press check prepared, and communicate clearly and concisely everybody wins.
Finally, consider sending a short "Thank You" note to your printer if the job went well and communicate your client's satisfaction by adding a short quote from them. It may go a long way in being remembered the next time your printer is asked for a referral. It has worked for me.
About the Author
Derald Schultz is the founder and principal of Mediarail Design, Inc. His company provides creative services for print and web media to clients across the country. Mediarail Design also provides prepress and printing services. He can be contacted at 678-985-9981 or via email.
Derald is also the contributing news and articles editor at Creative Latitude.
© 2005 Derald Schultz, Mediarail Design, Inc.