Printing Services Buyer's Guide


Giving your printing jobs to a commercial printing service can lend your flyers, brochures, business cards and stationery a professional appearance you probably couldn't achieve by yourself.

Commercial printing services can help you create both full-color and black-and-white printed materials in a variety of paper designs and weights. And they provide finishing touches like folding, laminating and binding to help you put your best foot forward to customers. But ordering print from a commercial printer can seem pretty complex, especially if you've never done it before. Choosing the right paper, colors, ink, binding and finishing, sometimes even printing press technology, can get overwhelming. The more you know about the printing industry, the better you'll secure your print jobs on time and exactly as you want them. This guide is designed to give you the basics on how to choose the right commercial printer for your various printing needs. The sections are listed in the box above. You can choose to read this guide from beginning to end, or jump directly to a section of interest.

How printing works

There are a number of steps in the printing process, starting from before you even submit your copy to the printer. Clear communication with your printer is critical throughout. Depending upon the complexity of your order, you're likely to face at least a couple of stages where you'll have to actively approve the next step in the printing process with the printer. But first things first. You have something you want printed. Where do you start?


Your first step should be to assemble the text, graphics and illustrations that you want printed. If you're designing your own materials and submitting them on disk to a print professional, known as a "printer," make sure to check with the printer on which file formats will work best for his computer system. Some printers will design your materials for you. Ask to see a portfolio if you're not sure you want to entrust your designing to the printer. If you already have a rough sketch or a printout of what you want, the printer will typeset the page and show it to you, usually just as a black and white paper printout called a prepress proof. For most one- or two-color jobs, such as for stationery, a black and white proof is usually adequate. After you approve ("sign off on") the proof, the printer will convert the typeset page into plates for printing.


The second step is for the printer to run the project on a printing press using printing plates, paper and ink. To read a related article and get an idea of the different kinds of printing methods available for your different needs, click here. If you're getting a complex job like a four-color brochure printed, this is the stage where the printer provides you with a sample of the final unfolded product as it comes off the press - a press proof - so that you can conduct a complete and final check before the print run continues.

Press proofs are expensive, from $75 to upwards of $150, because of the cost of setting up the press. While it's well worth asking for a press proof when a complex job is involved, give yourself plenty of time to scrutinize a proof in the prepress stage - you want your chances of finding a mistake in the actual press proof to be practically nil. Making changes in a color press proof if you earlier overlooked an error costs you both time and money, because the printer needs to make the printing plates for the color separations all over again.


The final step in the process is the post-press stage. After waiting a day or two for the ink to dry, the printer collates, folds, trims and binds the printed pages to create your finished product. If you've specified a deadline for the printer to deliver your project, make sure he's taken drying time into account. Otherwise you might just end up with a missed deadline or with boxes of printed materials that smudge on contact and have to be redone.

Basics - paper and color.

Your printer should explain in clear terms the printing elements you're likely to come across. Here, however, are probably the two print basics you're going to want to be a bit familiar with right from the start.


Choosing the right paper for your print job can be confusing because of the different sizes and weights of paper. Ask your printer for recommendations on how you can optimize the quality of your printing job while saving costs and minimizing wastage.


Paper comes in varying weights and thickness, with heavier paper usually costing more. Each type or grade of paper has one basic sheet size that's used to figure out its basis weight. Basis weight is the weight of a ream of paper (500 sheets) in a grade's most standard size. Of course, that means basis weights for any two kinds of paper can be difficult to compare if their standard sizes differ. In the US, basis weight is expressed in pounds. When written down for print specifications, the # symbol stands for pounds. The same grade of paper can come in different weights too. Common weights for bond, for example, are 20# and 24#. Many full color printers have a “house” stock they use for most jobs. Always ask what weight their “house” paper stock is an be sure it is suitable for your project.


If you're having trouble finding a specific type of paper for your project, or if you want a reprint job and can't locate the same paper as last time, find a substitute paper with an equivalent basis weight. Your project's overall look should stay the same. Don't hesitate to ask your printer for recommendations. If you're having a hard time comparing paper weights by numbers alone, hold a sheet of paper in either hand, close your eyes, and compare the texture and weight with your fingers.

Use substitutions to save.

If you order good letterhead - say, on a popular certificate bond - you can order the envelopes on a cheaper paper with the same thickness and weight as the bond. That way you retain an overall effect of quality, for less.

Keep postage costs in mind.

If you're ordering a large print job like a catalogue to mail to customers, using a lighter weight paper could save you a lot in postage. Get a mock-up weighed at the post office before ordering the job, if possible. And don't forget to check that you're meeting size, bar code and other postal regulations.


If your printing uses just one, two or three colors that need only their own colored ink to be reproduced (as opposed to needing a full-color combination of cyan, magenta, yellow and black), you'll use the spot color process. Spot colors are most commonly specified using the popular Pantone Matching System (PMS). Each Pantone color is assigned a code to help keep your colors the same each time you print. You're more likely to use spot colors for anything that uses less than three colors, such as your logo, your stationery or business cards. Black counts as one color.

If you're printing full color documents, such as scanned photographs, you'll be using a four-color process. The four-color process is a method of producing virtually any color using only four ink colors, cyan, magenta, yellow and black. These are also known as CMYK, with K for black. Full color process will generally be able to give you a close but NOT exact match to spot colors. A four-color plus one process adds a layer of varnish or a spot color to the fully printed page.

Choosing a printer

A printer is a professional who can help you create color or black-and-white printed materials in a variety of paper designs, weights and finishing.

Your choice of printer could very well vary with each printing job you order. Seasoned buyers of printing services often use multiple printers regularly. For each printing job they order, these buyers try to "fit" the print job to the printer so that they get the best quality and cost as possible. That's because printers can specialize in many niches. For example, business form printers specialize in continuous-form materials such as invoices and purchase orders. Other printers focus on books, newspaper inserts or glossy post cards. Printers can incorporate different printing methods as well, such as the popular offset lithography and gravure printing, while others use techniques like flexographic press and screen printing. Giving all your jobs to one printer often means paying more than you need to or settling for lower quality. Some printers may accept a job they don't have the equipment to do themselves, only to outsource it to someone who can.

Put your large projects out to bid

Because different printers use different types of equipment, they are not well suited to handle every print job. If you're planning on a brochure that will use four or six colors, the price quotes you get are likely to vary depending upon the printer's capability. You may find fewer discrepancies for simpler color jobs like business cards and letterhead that you have done regularly, and find it less worth your while to ask for bids for those.

Ask about scheduling

Some printers do not rigidly schedule each press, allowing you to jump in with a small job and get it done very quickly. Other printers schedule very carefully, requiring long lead times before a job can be finished. Some printers incorporate ganging into their scheduling process as well.

Check references

A critical area to investigate is service. There are many areas where a printing job can go wrong. An effective liaison will help manage the process smoothly, provide information as needed, and trouble shoot when necessary.

Build a relationship

Remember, though, that even if you regularly use different printers, choosing printers is about building relationships. You want a partner who will make recommendations about paper sizes or ink that can save you time or money, someone who will guarantee the quality of your print job, and who will sometimes go the extra mile because of your relationship to deliver on time.

Common mistakes to avoid

The more you know about printing, the better you become at getting the job done the way you want. Here are some common buyer mistakes you shouldn't have to make yourself.

Going by price alone

Choosing a printer is not just about money. It's really about service - you want someone who can deliver quality printing that meets your deadlines. Talking to printers you are considering will help them understand your needs and offer suggestions to help you cut costs. A printer who quotes you a lower price for your job specifications could just be using lower quality materials. Make sure to judge quotes by comparing apples to apples - check the quoted price for a particular weight of paper with the same type of paper, for example.

Not keeping the printer informed

Talk to your printer every stage of the way, including while you're still designing your copy. This will help you see if marginal changes to your design could actually save on printing costs later. If you're designing your own materials, you may save yourself a lot of aggravation over incompatible electronic file formats and the like if you simply ask the printer what will work for him and what won't. A printer with good service will be happy to take a couple of minutes with you over the phone with this - after all, it saves printers time in the long run too.

Not putting it in writing

Once your project is at the printer's, clearly mark all changes you want to make on the prepress or press proofs. The printer isn't liable for oral instructions, and they're more likely to get lost in the translation anyway. Remember that once you sign off on a proof, you've given your approval - and changes can be costly at a later stage if they're your fault.

Not leaving enough time to check proofs

Don't rush through proofs! They're critical to the accuracy of your printed order. Get at least one more person to read through the proof carefully after you finish checking it. Click here for a list of things to look for in a proof.

Some printers even recommend reading each sentence in the text backwards - if you're not anticipating what the next word in a sentence will look like, you're more likely to catch a misspelled word.


Depending on the size and type of the press they run, printing costs for the same job can vary dramatically across printers. The type of press, the plates made, the ink used, the paper, and the quantities run, the binding, all affect price.

Put your larger projects, like full color brochures or catalogs, out to bid to compare prices. You may find it less worth your while to ask for bids for low-end jobs like business cards or stationery. If you ask for bids from printers, however, make sure to ask how long the quote will hold - most printers will quote for 30 days, but sometimes they'll give a quote for less time because of fluctuations in the raw materials market. A couple of years ago, the paper market was unpredictable, for example; this year, it's power costs.

Quick tips

Get proof. Always, always ask the printer for a proof to check text, alignment, image resolution, and if possible, color. Sometimes a proof will cost extra but can be worth the small fee.

Whodunnit? Know who will be responsible in case you're not completely satisfied with your print job - the printer, or (this is unlikely) the broker who put you in touch. Ask for any service guarantees - all printers worth their salt will guarantee their work.

Order larger quantities. If you know you're going to be regularly reordering a particular print job - stationery or brochures, for example - you can save a lot by printing a large quantity of the job at one time. Of course, make sure you have the storage space to keep the inventory until you need it.

This guide was prepared courtesy of ICON Printing Solutions and was originaly published by BuyersZone.

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