Posted by: AG | February 5, 2011

Quality Control – part one

If you’ve been using a particular printing company for a while, you shouldn’t have a hard time rating them for quality, price, and service. Their skill and accuracy can be measured visibly, their cost can be analyzed and compared, and their reliability can be examined in hindsight. But what about printers you’ve never used before, know little about and are considering using? Can they also be rated those same ways beforehand?

Yes they can! And while the job is obviously more difficult, you can still do it if you start by understanding the basic concepts of print production and quality. First realize that the printing company you work with plays the starring role in this performance called print production, although not the only role.

It’s therefore important to avoid the simple mistake of thinking that print production is a single process: artwork gets produced and then the print production phase takes over, yeilding the end result of your printed materials.  Your role, as print buyer, therefore, is to understand and accept the fact that there are three components to print production: quality, price, and service. And of the three, quality is usually the most important, and the one I’ll focus on most in this article.

Quality, price, and service

Quality is the essential requirement for a printed piece. It also has the largest affect on the price you’ll pay — but it’s the key to choosing a satisfactory printer. The problem is learning to recognize quality from the other two variables of price and service, although they are still related.

I like to sometimes define quality as a figment of the imagination. This phantom we call “quality” will embody the expectations of the different people involved in the project.  Put these people together and you generally get many variations of the definition of quality:

the marketing manager – they hope the piece will succeed in helping to sell the company’s products or services. For some managers the results will speak for themselves. Since print production for most companies is not a necessity, but an investment, the return on this investment is what counts. For example, no business wants to spend $10,000 to print and mail a flier and get only $5,000 in sales profit as a result.

the graphic designer – is more focused on the printed piece as a work of art: the visual, tactile, intellectual, and emotional effect on the reader.  A good designer will spend hours discussing the end purpose of a printed piece with the client before putting together some ideas (or “dummies.)  They’ll go over the products, services, copy, illustrations, end-users, and web site compatibility.  As they input all this data into their mind, they will try to imagine some good designs and present them to you.

the copywriter – is interested in whether their message will be communicated well and whether it will drive the readers to action. There is often a built-in conflict between copywriters and graphic designers as to how words should look on the page: best layout, headings, subheads, bolding and italics, typeface and fonts (typography,) and always the amount of copy. For instance, an 8 1/2″ x 11” hand-out will only allow for so many words to be practical, and with photos, logos, illustrations, etc, they will be forced to compromise.

the illustrators and photographers – they always hope their images will be worth at least a thousand words. Of course not all products or services are easily described with images and a lot of creativity is required to enhance the overall impression. For example, how does one sell perfume with a photograph? What kind of logo will work for a perfume called “Endure?”   Photography and illustration are both art forms and working with their professionals is like working with any artist. There will naturally be different opinions of which photo is best, where to crop it, how large to print it, where to place it on the page, and the captions.

the printer – from the viewpoint of the printer themself, quality is usually 100% tangible, and depends on using all five senses. Some of the things they look at are the quality and weight of paper, clarity of all text and illustrations, correct colors throughout, dot resolution of images for sharpness, alignment on the paper, and precision bindery work. Even the nicest brochure becomes defective if the folding or cutting is off even a fraction of an inch. The most expensive book or magazine becomes no more than recycled paper if any of the pages are upside down or out of sequence.

I hope that explains what I meant by saying quality is often a figment of the imagination.

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