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Designers Set Print Costs, Not Printers


The cost of producing your printed piece is completely dictated by the design.

Oh Snap!

If you have a knot in your stomach right now you are not alone. Remember, I am a graphic designer, we are of the same tribe, and I have your back. There’s a reason why so much of the printed stuff out there looks the same — budgets. Small budget projects look like they have small budgets. So one of the ways in which you, oh noble designer, are able to differentiate yourself, is by getting your client more bang for their buck.

Many designers who do not have a lot of print experience tackle this question by giving their budget to their printer and asking the question “how many _______________ can I get for $____”. How many pocket folders can I get for $2000? How many trifold brochures can I get for $500? You do not need a printer to get an answer to that question, go to vistaprint.com or modernpostcard.com or nextdayflyers.com and look up pricing. Share that pricing with your client. Tell them that the pricing is for a basic tri-fold on cover paper 4 color both sides. Then ask your client, do you have room in your budget to differentiate your product visually and tactilely from your competition? Is there something in your USP (unique selling proposition) that we can showcase in this brochure through sight or touch?

Do not call your print rep and don’t ask them how many ___________ can my client get for $________. Call your print rep and invite them to collaborate on your project and share their expertise. Here’s an example:

“Hi Sue, do you remember Cafe Cocoa? We did those menus for them a few months back? They need a catering menu for a new marketing campaign. They can spend a little more on this menu but not a ton. Do you have any suggestions on how we can help them stand out and succeed with this new effort? I was thinking we could die-cut the front panel around the plate and emboss the shrimp, what do you think?”

Your print rep should now dial in on that specific part of your question… “spend a little more”. What does that mean, 10% 20% 50%? If you can get your client to nail down this number, it will save you a ton of time and back and forth. Let’s assume Cafe Cocoa spent $1500 printing their menus and now they are prepared to spend $2000 on their catering menus. That is a 33% increase!

The pitfall here is to give your client an idea of what can be done without giving them a budget. Or, heaven forbid, designing, comping and showing them a spectacular catering menu that will cost $10,000 to produce! Do not laugh. It happens. All the time. For real.

If you use the prices you can easily find on-line for gang-printed marketing collateral and stationary as a baseline, you can really help your clients establish a direction for you to design.


It’s easier to be aware of the items that increase cost—and so avoid them if the budget doesn’t allow for them—than to make a list of everything that reduces cost. Here then is a list of items that are guaranteed to add cost, regardless of who your printer is and what kind of equipment she has. This list is based on the parameters e.g. size, paper, number of ink colors, etc., that you need to consider when designing any printed piece.

Expensive Size Decisions for Lithographic Printing
• Either dimension not being a multiple or fraction of 8.5 in. x 11 in. For example, 9.5 in. x 11 in. would add expense, and 12 in. x 12 in. would add expense.
• One dimension larger than 40 inches (for a project that is not a digital large-format project).

Expensive Size Decisions for Digital Printing
• Sheet size larger than 14 in. x 20 in.
• Total page count not evenly divisible by four (e.g. 34).

Expensive Paper Choices
• Thicker
• Deep, intense, color
• Texture
• Unusual
• Plastic

Expensive Ink Choices
• Three colors
• More than four ink colors
• Metallic ink
• Touch plates, Hexachrome or High Fidelity Printing
• Scented coating

The Cost of Bindery Techniques
• Wire-O (more expensive than spiral)
• Case binding (more expensive than perfect binding)
• Side sewn (very expensive)
• Saddle stitched (least expensive)
• Folding very thick paper (expensive)

All Coating Done Off-Line Adds Expense
• UV-coating
• Laminating

Finishing Techniques add Expense
• Foil
• Embossing or debossing
• Die cutting
• Scratch-off ink
• Laser cutting
• Flocking
• Lenticular
• Eye letting
• Drilling
• Perforating
• Tabbing, taping, spot glue, re-moist glue (unless the job is being run on a web press in which case it does not add as much as it would off-line.)

Common Design Features that Increase Printing Costs
• Solids, large areas of solid color
• Solid ink in bindery area
• Very large and light screens (below 10%)
• Very large and dark screens (between 70 and 90%)
• Envelopes with bleeds
• Business cards with large solids
• Identity systems with pastel colors (colors shift within 12 months necessitating more frequent printing)
• Business cards that are die cut
• Design elements that are within 1/8th of an inch of edges (may necessitate die cutting)
• Page size that is smaller than cover size (requires hand assembly)
• Pages that are different sizes
• Pages that are different papers (when it necessitates cutting signatures and hand collating)

Rush Charges
Most printers will add a rush charge for getting something to you faster than quoted. Here are some examples of why and at what point rush charges can be incurred.

If you can’t wait a day for the paper to arrive, it has to be sent by messenger, and that costs extra. Sometimes rush charges can be very steep. We once had a client pay $700 to air freight $350 worth of paper. That’s what poor planning can cost.

Presses are scheduled a day or two in advance to allow for maximum efficiency in the pressroom. Keeping a press crew overtime to finish a job that was estimated to run on straight time can result in a rush charge. If your printer has to have a crew stay overtime, over a weekend, or on a holiday to make your schedule, expect to pay for the extra expense.

Just like printing, the bindery process cannot be rushed without endangering the results. Each step must be completed before the next one can begin, and these steps take a prescribed amount of time, dictated by the speed of the equipment. There is no way to make one folder rated for 5,000 an hour do 10,000 folds an hour, but if your printer has two folders, that would help. If your job has to run on two folders for scheduling reasons (two folder make readies), that adds cost.

Expect to pay a fortune for air freight versus ground delivery. Paper is very heavy.

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