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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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