MonthMarch 2016

Which Printing Method Should You Use?


One of the trickiest things facing designers today is knowing which print method to use for a particular project. Never before have so many options been available. We have more choices than ever in reproduction methods and types of service providers. This means designers have to be up-to-date on methods, and hopefully, it is their service provider who is keeping them informed of reproduction methods and options.

Not only have we seen a revival in old methods such as letterpress, but we also have new cutting-edge technologies. And these brand new technologies aren’t necessarily just in the area of digital printing. Traditional sheetfed and web-fed offset both are evolving and becoming more adept. Whereas even as recently as ten years ago we could say there were distinct differences between the reproduction capabilities of sheetfed vs web vs flexographic, those differences have blurred if not disappeared altogether in some cases. Aside from the mechanical reproduction methods, there are also the types of printers that exist.

From general commercial printers that have been the meat of the industry for a long time, to what we call copy-shops to gang run printers and within gang run the specialized printers for postcards, brochures, posters, etc. We also have digital printers, small format and large format, mailers who print, printers who mail and graphic service providers who have multiple printing methods and ancillary services such as mailing under one roof.

So how does a designer decide? There are a few options, we will go through them one-by-one.

Trade Printing
Luckily within the printing industry, there is a long tradition of trade-printing. What that means is that printers perform work for one another at reduced prices. This gives the client the option of working with one printer who knows the client’s expectations. And the production expertise within their printer is put to use when communicating with the trade printer who will perform the work.

Printing brokers are individuals or companies that have a stable of printers with whom they work. They have the expertise to place your project with the right printer for the job. Like your printer who is working with a trade printer, the broker knows your expectations and working style and can communicate that effectively to their vendor. The down-side of working with a broker is that they can shift vendors, sometimes frequently, always working with the lowest cost provider. Sometimes this cannot be to your advantage if something goes awry, especially if you are buying a lot of printing. You want some leverage f necessary and if the broker does not have that leverage, you do not either.

Gang run printers
These printers have come a long way due almost entirely to the automation capabilities of software. A gang run printer takes work from multiple customers that require the same paper and print all the jobs on one sheet simultaneously and then cut it up into the separate lots. They usually have a limited selection of papers but carry everything you might need for standard items such as postcards, posters, saddle stitched brochures, catalogs, etc. These printers are a great solution if your project is not super-critical or exacting. If you have precise color requirements this is not a good direction.

General commercial printers
Your basic printer with presses and bindery equipment is known as a commercial printer. They have equipment that is pretty specific for printing material of a certain size, run length, and quality. Normally they would have a range of equipment that would accommodate anything you might need. In order to know what their capabilities are and for that you need to know how to read an equipment list. Although this is not super complicated to do, there is some specific knowledge you should have and I will cover this in a separate post so I can devote more time to the topic. Nowadays commercial printers also do mailing and digital printing.

Specialized printers
There are some specialties that you may find yourself needing to purchase direct, depending on the type of printing you are ordering. Large format printing can be very specialized; encompassing signage, building wraps, POP displays and printing on substrates like vinyl, aluminum, canvas, and rigid plastics as well as plain old paper. Another specialized printer is the label category. Label printers have flexographic presses that are able to print on a wide variety of substrates such as clear plastic and because of the way flexo works white ink is used for precise color control by overprinting white ink on clear or colored substrates.

That pretty much sums up the basic types of printers you might work with… but you still need to know the printing method you will be using in advance of finalizing your design because of inherent weaknesses in some of the printing methods.

There are a few parameters that act like a funnel, guiding you towards a particular printing method for a project; with caveats. They are…

Run length
The run length will dictate whether the job will print digitally (for few) or web offset (for millions) and heat-set web for millions printed in color.

If you are printing on something that is pre-made, such as an envelope, that is very tiny, you will need to print letterpress. If your project is very large, you will need to print sheetfed large format or digital large format depending on your run length.

Image and content
If your printing involves CMYK process color then you cannot print letterpress or engraving. If you need variable data inserted or personalization then you need digital printing or offline personalization.

If your substrate is super-thick you will need to print digital large format or letterpress. If it is super thin like onion-skin paper you will need sheetfed and you may also have a size limitation. Plastics require a UV press or inkjet. Dark substrates that need to print with light-colored inks that are opaque may require silkscreen or flexographic printing.

Sometimes the finishing method will dictate the printing method, even though that printing method may not be the most cost-effective. For example, if you need to print 500 invitations that are process color with gold foil, digital printing would be best for the process CMYK color, but not all digital processes have the tolerances necessary to register with foil stamping. So you might need to print those sheetfed even though it’s going to cost a lot more. If the foiled element is not is tight registration you might be able to keep digital printing, depending on the method and type of ink used.

Your printer can always help you figure out what printing method will be best based on the above parameters and the artwork as well. As you can see, it can get kind of complicated. As you learn about the limitations of each method you will start designing within those parameters from the beginning of a project. And call your printer for advice if you are unsure at the beginning of a project. It could be that designing in that Pantone color could make a project cost quintuple or vice versa, Just ask and save yourself a ton of time.

As always, I love to hear stories about successes and failures, the lessons learned along the way, please share them. We all learn on-the-job when it comes to graphic design for print!

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Designing Custom Envelopes


Through custom converting (making an envelope out of a flat printed sheet of paper) you can get an envelope of whatever size, paper, etc. you want, with a few caveats. Custom converting is great for large quantities especially quantities over 25,000 but depending on what you want to convert, even a quantity of 5000 can be a reasonable cost.

There are a few things to know before you go and design an envelope that is going to be converted. There are design restrictions, paper restrictions, and some size and shape depending on what you want to do. I will walk you through the process so that you can tackle that custom envelope project with confidence and show off your skillz!


Custom envelopes are made with dies that cut out the shape. Your printer will give you a die line to follow for laying out the envelope. It is SUPER IMPORTANT that you use the file from the printer you are going to work with for the printing. Each printer uses their own converter and each converter’s die lines may vary slightly from one to another. Here’s an example of a die line for a #10 commercial envelope. In this case, the envelope will be printing 4-up on a 19×25 press sheet. Your printer will not expect you to lay out the press sheet, just one envelope. When you are laying out your design, you will not be able to print in the glue area. That means you cannot put any design elements in the glue area. Not even a little bit! In this example, the glue area is shown in blue. (Thank you to Western States Envelope for the die line!) As you are finalizing your design, print it and cut it out with a pair of scissors, then glue it along the glue marks to make sure everything is hitting where you want it to.



If you choose to add a bleed (a design element that runs off the edge), to a custom envelope design, be aware that a bleed that is shown on the front, or the back, must wrap around to the opposite side. The high-speed equipment that makes envelopes are not “dead on” for each and every envelope. You must expect your design to roll one way or another. Depending on your paper, the converter, operator skill, etc. the design may roll as much as 1/16″. When showing a folded proof to your client, I strongly recommend that you show them how the bleed will affect both sides. I have seen too many clients surprised when they receive their envelopes and think there has been a mistake.

envelope bleed

In this photo, the design elements that appear on the fronts of the envelopes also appear on the back. Ask your printer how much you should extend the art. They will know their converter’s equipment and give you the best advice.


Designs with elements that cross over seams need to be carefully built. Some seam styles are better than others for creating these crossovers. Talk to your printer at the idea stage about your desired goal. It may affect the paper, envelope shape, seam style, flap style, etc., depending on what it is you are trying to accomplish. Look at the direct mail pieces you are receiving at home and work. Note the precision (or lack thereof) on envelopes that have an all-over design. This is a good example of the type of situation when you should ask your printer for samples. Review their samples and if the tolerances are not what you consider acceptable, ask questions. Although the skill is at the converter, not at the printer, your printer needs to show evidence that they are working with a quality converter and if there was an extenuating reason, like a weird paper choice, give them the opportunity to explain anything on the sample you might not want on your job.


Any process that presses an image into the paper, like foil stamping and embossing, will NOT show up on the back of a converted envelope but will show up on the back side of the paper which is on the inside of the envelope.


If the paper you are thinking of using for an envelope has a pattern that you want oriented a specific way, request sample sheets to make a dummy and show this to your printer when you request the estimate. It may profoundly affect the cost because envelopes may be placed on the paper diagonally for less waste and correct grain direction, not necessarily to accommodate a paper pattern. Some dies have envelopes placed in different directions, making it impossible to use that die if a specific pattern direction is required.


This photo shows envelope dummies I made to show patterns running vertically, horizontally and diagonally across the envelope.


If you want to make an envelope out of a funky paper that you have never seen an envelope made out of… there could be a reason for that. If the paper, fabric, plastic, whatever it is you are thinking of using, does not glue well or handle moisture it may not be a good candidate for an envelope. And if you successfully made a dummy out of a sample sheet with a glue stick…. don’t assume it can be done on high-speed printing and converting equipment. Check with your printer. She may need to check with her converter to see what is possible, but you are better off safe than sorry!


If you have a window in your envelope, with or without the cellophane/poly, it will cost the same as an envelope with the material. I know it seems weird. If you are using less material it should lower the cost, right? But that is the way it is. Sometimes it is counterintuitive because the exception, and setting up for that, takes away any savings realized by subtracting something. the size of the window and the location may be fixed depending on what type of dies your printer is using. Always check with your printer if you want to change the size or placement of a window. You need to mention this at the time you are giving specs for an estimate!


If you venture outside the standard shapes or sizes of envelopes, prepare to spend thousands of dollars on the die. Unlike a pocket folder die or other small cutting die, envelope dies are expensive. Depending on the equipment, the converter might have an adjustable die, or they might be able to put a square flap on a regular flap envelope. Ask your printer what you can customize and what you cannot before you have shown the concept for something out-of-the-box to your client. Just saying. It’s easier to raise an expectation than to lower one.


Some gang run printers that offers custom envelopes are printing digitally and then converting. Bear in mind that envelopes that have been printed on a laser printer cannot be put back through a laser printer without risking image loss. Check that your digital printer is using a printing method that is laser compatible.


Do not attempt to deal with an envelope converter directly!  Your printer has tons of experience and knows the language not to mention the information that needs to go back and forth in order for you to get the best results. Remember that the converter is not going to print your envelope, your printer will do the printing and then send the press sheets to the envelope converter for die cutting and gluing. If you try to work with the converter directly and omit important information to your printer (like the imposition on the press sheet) you could have stacks of useless printed sheets on your hands at your expense.


If the envelope you are designing is going to be used in the mail or for a direct mail project and the envelope is unusual or “different” you are supposed to have it reviewed by the USPS Mail Piece Analyst (MPA). Unfortunately, not every post office has an MPA so you might need to work with your local folk and their supervisors to have them sign-off. Once it is signed off by USPS personnel the Post Office has to accept it. If you are designing a piece that will be processed by an out-of-state mailer, either get the piece approved through the national MPA department or ask the mailer to get approval.

Let me know if you have come across an issue while working on a converted envelope project. I love to hear about successes (as well as headaches) especially if you feel like your printer saved the day!

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