A guide to buying professional print (and saving money!)

As a professional graphic designer, I often source print for my clients and on occasion, new customers approach me and ask  “How much do you charge for printed flyers?”.

Thats like asking “How long is a piece of string”.

Some people have never ordered print from a professional printer before and have no idea of how print pricing works. Like most things you buy, quality and quantity correlate with the price and swaying the specification here or there will ultimately adjust the cost.

Below is a short and basic guide detailing what you need to know when ordering print design:

1. Print Resolution

Print resolution is a minefield to explain, so I’ve written the guide “What is “High-Resolution” and How it Affects Your Business”, but in lamens terms, resolution is basically how much detail an image has, measured in pixels per inch. 

Think of it as kind of like lego bricks.

I could build a lego plane with two lego bricks. It might need a bit of imagination to see it’s a plane but it is doable.

If I had ten lego bricks I could make it look more like a plane but if I had a thousand lego bricks I could make a very detailed model plane. However, the number of bricks I use is actually irrelevant unless I take into consideration the intended end size of the model as well.

If I need to create a 5ft model plane using lego blocks then a thousand pieces is not going to be enough. I’m going to need 50,000 lego blocks to make a detailed model plane of that size.

This is exactly how resolution works. The more pixels you have to compose an image the more detail that image will have but more detail is relative to the overall size of the image.

This is an issue because most people take photos or produce graphics on a computer where dimensions are measured in pixels. Graphic design and printers work in real dimensions such as mm and inches. 

What seems like a huge image on your screen may only be a business card size image in real life and if you want to use that image on a larger A4 brochure then you’ll have to stretch it and that’s when you lose image quality because you’re trying to use 10 pixels to cover a document which is made up of 1000 pixels, pretty similar to taking 10 lego bricks to create 5ft lego plane. It’s just not going to work.

Here’s a graphical example.

To the left is a 1inch x 1inch (72px x 72 px) box at 72ppi as it would appear on your average computer screen.

To the right is the exact same box as it would appear on a full size 300dpi a4 letter.

resolution

For professional print, you need hi-resolution images, usually ones which are either a vector design or a design with a minimum 300dpi (dots per inch) file for best quality output. 

The higher the dpi (or resolution) means the higher amount of pixels (or dots) used to create any set amount of space (an inch). The more pixels used, the more detail an image will have.

This may sound like jargon but when you order professional print that’s what your printer will ask you for, a design file with a minimum of 300 dpi resolution.

To create it a hi-resolution file at 300dpi, you’re going to need a professional graphic designer who uses professional design software.

2. Bleed

This is one of my favourite techniques.  A bleed edge is where the ink/design will run right to the very edge of a document page, giving the impression that it was printed from edge to edge. The truth is that it was printed past the edge of a bigger sheet of paper and then trimmed down to size so the ink/design really is edge to edge.  Most homebased printers and software cannot accommodate a bleed edge, its only graphic design apps and professionall printers that can do it.

To sum up how it works, you take your basic document size (A4, 297mm x 210mm) and extend it according to the printers specified bleed dimensions.  If the bleed edge is 3mm then you add 3mm to every side of the A4 document making it 303mm x 216mm.  The printer then prints the document at the bigger size and then trims it down to the original A4 size.

bleed

Bleed is a great design technique allowing much more creativity and style to any document.

Its something you should know because your print design will probably have one and your printer will specify the bleed edge measurement that they need.

3. Outline text

For a font to be usable on a computer, it needs to be bought, licenced and installed on that PC.  If a designer has and uses a font for a design project and sends the design file to the printer then the printer will also need that font in order for the design to display correctly on their computers.  Without the font, the design file would use a substitute font and change the final design.  The substitute font may look different to the original, it may be a different size or style and with this change, it may cut off some text, alter the formatting and look different to what was originally designed by the designer.  To sum up, the end printed result would not be the same as the final design file because the font changed.

Rather than sending masses of fonts around from designer to printer or illegally using unlicensed fonts, a printer normally asks for all fonts to be converted to outlines.  This is the process of turning text into graphical elements.  In doing so the text becomes a pure graphical element rather than a piece of text.  This means that printers and designers do not need to share the same set of fonts and it also minimises the chance of anyone accidentally making a typo to the finished file because the text will no longer be editable as it’s now a graphic image instead.

outline to text

4.  Colour profiles

The eye uses RGB (red, green, blue,) colour cones to mix and reproduce the colours we see.  Screens use the same RGB colour profile to create colours but with limited capability (16 million colours).  A printer uses four colours Cyan, Magenta, Yellow & Black (CMYK) to create all other colours within a design and print can be ordered in 1, 2, 3 or 4 specific colours.  The more colours used the higher the price will be. If you choose 4 colours then you might as well select a full-colour print instead as you’ll be paying for the ink anyway.  

Picking specific print colours is not an outdated process but a little old hat these days. Some large businesses need the specific consistency of colour for branding purposes and to reduce print costs but for everyday print jobs, particularly those with a digital print process, a full-colour print is pretty much a standard option.

You need to note though that these different measures of mixing colour produce different results.

If you have a blue web graphic on screen (RGB), note that it will look different (light navy, almost purple) when printed professionally by the CMYK process.

For accurate colour reproduction, your print files need to be composed using a CMYK colour space within a computer program.

colourspace

Only professional design software caters for design in CMYK format and that’s what your printer will request when accepting a design file.

5.  Print design software

Adobe is the leading creative software provider in the world.  Their software and file formats are industry standard for print design and professional printers (and web).  You need to know the name because you need to know about their file formats as both designer and printer will use them to create and print files.

adobe

6. Print File formats

Printers don’t accept MS Word or Publisher files for professional print because they’re pieces of software intended for screen usage or home printing.  Software like MS Office cannot manipulate resolution and colour profiles or utilse professional print design techniques so you’ll need to use professional software and file format for professional print reproduction.

.AI, .PDF, .IND, .EPS and .PSD are some of the most common file formats that printers accept.  All are file formats created by Adobe and it’s what your designer will use to create or set up a design file for print.

adobe2
  • .ai -Illustrator is a software program used to create vector graphics (primarily logos and illustrations).  Vector graphics use mathematical equations to draw graphics so a graphic that can be resized to any size without distortion (eliminating file resolution problems).  It’s a valuable file.
  •  .psd – Photoshop is probably the most popular design software to use and hence why you’ll probably come into grips with one at some point or another.  Used for everything from photo editing and graphic design to illustration and web design.
  •  .indd – Indesign took over from Quark as the leading layout and publishing platform.  It’s used mostly for brochures, magazines and books but anything can be laid out on this software making it a popular choice for print.
  •  .pdf – The Portable Document File has become the universal standard for file handling.  Any of the above software programs can reproduce a print ready pdf and all printers happily accept them as their preferred, print ready file format.

When sending a file to a professional printer they need to be print ready.  This means a word document with screen-shot images and text won’t suffice.  You need to know how to setup a file for print, know a professional designer who can do it for you or pay the printer to do it for you in which case they will charge you for design services.

A print ready file can only be setup using design software but as a check list, print ready files in general need to be:

  • CMYK colour profile
  • Minimum of 300dpi
  • 3mm bleed
  • Type embedded or converted to outlines (or flattened)
  • .PDF file setup for press

7. Print Type: Digital & Litho

Digital print is favoured by print houses for reproductions of 500 copies or less a.k.a. “a short-run” because digital print is a cheaper and quicker print process with a shorter setup time for a short run of work.

Industrial Digital Printer
Industrial Digital Printer

Although accurate, the finish of digital print is “sometimes” not as good as litho. Digital print is great for photos, vector graphics and large display graphics but not so great with large areas of solid colour, but to be honest, the average Joe wouldn’t be able to tell the difference so Digitial Print is still a cost-effective and professional solution for 99% of short-run situations.

Digital print may have one drawback though. If you’re planning on having some letterheads designed and printed professionally and then overprinting them through your own laser printer, remember that some digital prints are ruined when passed through a laser at a later stage. It’s all down to the way that ink is set into the page.

For a longer print run of 500 or above copies, a litho print process is normally used. Litho is ultimately cheaper when printing a large quantity where the longer setup process is justified.

Modern day Litho Printer
Modern day Litho Printer. Image taken from https://www.piworld.com/

There are many more pros and cons for specifically using each process which are dependant on the individual job.

Each individual print house will determine and set-up the options available for you, so you don’t have to worry too much about which processes to chose unless you have a very specific requirement.

To find out more about the specific differences check out this post here: What Is Litho Printing vs Digital Printing In Plain English

8. Quantity of print

The more printed copies you buy the better deal you can source from a print company. Printers usually have special offers on set items which will save you money rather than going for odd number quantities.

E.g. You may want 1000 A5 flyers, 500 business cards and 100 posters. This is regarded as three separate jobs, each setup and billed separately. Instead, a printer may offer a special package which will be cheaper such as 500 of each for one set price.

Printing companies also use clever sales tactics to make you buy a certain quantity. For example, 250 professionally designed flyers may cost £40.00 where as 500 may cost £45.00.  Money wise it makes sense to buy the 500.  This tactic  revolves around the print houses pricing and processing structure.  Obviously they want to sell more so offer a better deal on more but a qnty of 500 may also be their sweet spot for profit vs processing.

Ideally figure out a quantity that you do need and try to stick with it.
Sometimes paying an extra £5.00 for another 250 flyers is a good deal but more often then not you may just be left with an extra 250 flyers that go in the bin or cost you double to post out.

9. Quality & Paperweight

Quality can be determined in many ways from the professional graphic design to the print process or the finishing of a product, but one major factor is Paper Weight:

Paper weight is measured in g/sm (grams per square metre). Each document usually has a rough standard weight: e.g.

  • Letterheads & comp slips 100gsm
  • Business cards 300-400gsm
  • Flyers – 300- 400 gsm
  • Leaflets – 70 – 200 gsm

To simplify, the higher the GSM the thicker the material and the better quality the product should be. 70 gsm being very thin copy paper and 450 gsm being thick artborad (card). As the GSM rises, so will the price.

Don’t always go for the highest GSM, think about what your purpose of print design is and determine the cost effective solution.

10. Print Paper Type

Gloss and silk are commonly found in every print house and a printing company will usually have a paper type which they use as a standard.  Some printing companies may expand on their paper stock to give you more options such as Conqueror, Ice White, Iridescent or Hammered stock but these paper types usually cost a little more.

Different paper stock
Different paper stock

Using paper stock which is completely unique becomes a custom job which many printers won’t do today because paperstock has to be tried and tested through a printer to ensure it prints correctly.

If you do manage to find a printer whose a little more creative and willing to experiment with stock, then expect the price to be at least double (see custom jobs for more details).

11. Print Size

Print materials come in various sizes e.g. Leaflets (A4, A3 folded, A5, DL etc). The bigger the size of a particular product, the more it will cost.

This is not just related to paper size though, it relates to page count. The more pages you have in a printed document the more it will cost. If you have tens or hundreds of pages in a single document then that print job will also reflect the type of binding it has. Is it stitched, stapled or perfect bound? Each option will reflect on the final quality and cost of the product.

12. Sides and pages

Printing on one or both sides alters the cost but for smaller jobs, its not as big of an increase as you may think. Going back to those old sales tactics, some printing companies charge yoyu for a doublesided print job as a standard, even if you select a single side print. Switching to doublesided may not change the price at all.

13. Finishing and Custom jobs:

All in all, anything which is custom (not listed in a price list or not regarded as standard) will cost more. A creative graphic designer could implement all of these into your marketing material but it will cost you more:

  • custom shape
  • folds
  • finishes
  • spot varnish

In most cases, people don’t realize that a small customization ultimately bumps up the price by a third due to the setup of the document, so if you want something even slightly different you will have to pay for it!

14. Splitting Jobs

Buying 5000 flyers is cheaper than buying 2 sets of 2500 flyer designs. If you want 5000 flyers with two different designs, this will be considered as two different jobs and you will be paying for 2 x 2500 price rather then the price for 5000.

15.  Hidden gems

Sometimes print can seem incredibly cheap and sometimes, it is! But be wary of hidden costs and details such as:

  • Design – Always factor in design whether it’s from an independent designer, a studio or the printers in house graphic designer.
  • Setup for print – If your artwork is not set up for professional print then there will be a charge to do so. (Often a problem if your designing DIY)
  • Proofs – Print proofs cost extra and will not be exact proofs
  • Quick turnaround – Some printers offer priority service for quick turnaround but this is not always true.  Take into account that the turnaround will still involve your proofing, your printers acceptance of your work, their own production schedule and then their delivery schedule and overall turnaround.  A priority service could actually be a 5 day wait.

Conclusion:

Each print house vary their service so this is a just a guide as to what to think about when ordering print. Each category above will change the final price of a print run so be specific with your print requirements and budget to source the best deal for yourself.

Give us a shout if you need help with print design or ordering print



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