Should I Print With an Online Printer or a Local Printer?

In the past ten years, online printers have exploded and become the go-to for many print projects that used to be printed down the street. Sure, online printers are usually cheaper, but does that mean they’re always to be favoured over local printers? As I’ve researched various printing options for clients both in North America and Europe, it’s become clear to me which projects are well-suited to online printers, and which would be better printed locally.

Photo by  Kaboompics .com  from  Pexels

A local printer may be best for:

Creative or complex print projects requiring personalized service: Printing with a local printer lends itself to creative print projects with unique shapes, papers, folds, or finishes. Not only can you get in-person advice from someone who can help you plan your project, but you can flip through paper samples or look at ink swatches in person. Typically, online printers are set up best for standard projects in standard sizes, which is one of the reasons they tend to be more affordable. 

Print projects with a tight turn-around time: As I mentioned in my post on saving money when ordering printing, when printing with an online printer, if you need the printed piece to arrive quickly, you will pay premium prices for rush production and overnight delivery. In this case, I almost always recommend printing with a local printer; you can pick up the printed pieces yourself if needed. It’s also faster to shoot your local printer (with whom you already have a relationship) an email with the necessary instructions and a pdf attached, than to create an account with an online printer and go through all the steps to set up the order to their specifications.

High-ticket print projects: For a project where the colours need to match exactly or you are quite particular about how the photos are printed, printing locally with a more traditional full-service printer is best. You may even be able to “press proof” if needed — to make an appointment with your local printer to be there when your project is being printed, to sign off on the prints as they leave the press.

It follows that an online printer may be best for:

Standard print projects with standard lead times: If you need a 3.5 by 2 inch business card (in North America) or an A6 postcard (in Europe), any number of online printers are begging for your attention. Most of them will probably do what you need them to do. If you have about 1-2 weeks lead time, most online printers can print and deliver at their standard reduced rates. When working with an online printer, there is usually no interaction with a customer service representative, and it can be a bit harder to get help with questions or complaints. 

Low-budget print projects: There are always clients for whom budget is of utmost concern. For these projects, planning them to suit an online printer’s standard product is your best bet. For example, recently a client wanted a 6 by 6 inch marketing booklet. An online printer offered that exact size, and the local printer could not compete with the pricing because the size was unusual and the booklets would have had to be put together by hand. 

As someone who cut her prepress teeth at a local printer, I am a fan of giving back to the local economy when possible, and not contributing to the closure of yet another local print shop. But like everyone else, I’ve printed with both types of printers. One last secret about local printers though — because you’re dealing with a real human with whom you have some kind of relationship, you can also ask if there’s any way he or she can meet your budget or price match another printer. With a local printer there’s a bit more “give” — they’re happy you want to work with them.

As a graphic designer who specializes in print design, I’m available to source or recommend printers for my clients. Whether you’re needing print design or print sourcing, let’s talk!

What Is the Best Way to Save Money When Ordering Printing?

While getting printing quotes and ordering printing for a client in the USA this month, I have been thinking about the best way to save money when ordering printing. Even if the money being spent on printing is not coming from my pocket, I hate to see clients paying double or triple as much for a print project simply because they don’t have this one thing. Can you guess what it is?

Photo by  from  Pexels

Photo by from Pexels

[Photo added to build suspense.]

Saving money when ordering printing is easy if you have time. The top reason that I see printing become expensive for clients is because they haven’t planned enough time for the most affordable printing options. In other words, print projects need to be planned well enough in advance by someone who knows what a reasonable printing timeline is.

Let’s say you’re ordering 5,000 postcards. Printing at the printer down the street might cost twice as much as printing at an online printer. But if you have to pay rush fees and express shipping for your print job at the online printer in order to get the project to you on time, you might as well support the local economy and send your project to the printer down the street, because you’ll end up paying almost the same thing. Planning print jobs with enough time to print them affordably can easily save hundreds of dollars even on a small project like postcards.

The savings become even greater if you are able to plan printing overseas into your timeline for larger projects or larger print runs. For example, that full colour cookbook that might cost $15,000 to print in North America might cost $6,000 to print in India or China…but you need to plan on at least an extra four to six weeks for printing and delivery. And even with printing overseas, shipping can become expensive if you suddenly have to have a quarter of your order sent by air instead of by sea because the timeline is too tight.

If you have time, you have choice. A bit of planning also gives you the time to:

  1. Gather quotes from more printers, finding the best price or quality for the price.

  2. Research other options that might also save money, like different papers or different formats.

  3. Negotiate with the printer that you hope to work with. (This is a benefit of working with a local printer, is that you may be able to negotiate with them and keep your printing local.)

  4. Wait for sea or ground delivery instead of air or overnight.

  5. Work with your designer in a low-stress way and avoid rush fees from the designer as well.

For a big corporation, saving $100 when ordering postcards or $2,000 when ordering books might not seem like much. But these kinds of savings are especially important for lean start-ups or organizations like non-profits for whom every penny counts!

So, what’s the best way to save money when ordering printing? Good planning — that is, knowing how much time you need to keep the print project from becoming a rush order!

Thank you for taking the time to read this post! I am happy to help clients source the best printing prices in their neighborhood, online or overseas. If you want to talk about how to save money on your next print project, please write to me through my contact page.

How I Found a Reliable Overseas Printer

Some time ago, a client asked me to assist in sourcing the printing of a large book project overseas, rather than in North America, where it had previously been printed. We had a great experience with the printer we used in North America, but as a start-up, the company’s biggest challenge was their budget for the project. The client wanted to see how printing overseas would compare to printing in the USA again.

Photo by  Alex

Photo by Alex

Here's how I found a reliable overseas printer.

1. Submitted quote requests 

At the recommendation of a former colleague who has also printed overseas, I checked out a website called Print Industry, where you can describe what you need printed, and different printers can bid on your job. You can get a wide range of quotes without having to find and approach each printer yourself. My former colleague had used the site successfully in the past to find an offshore printer for a large project. 

Filling out all the details at Print Industry took some time, but after submitting them, we quickly got quotes from a few printers in the USA and from other countries (China and India). The prices provided by the overseas printers were about ½ or ⅓ of the price of the North American printers. We also requested quotes from a printer in Canada and from the printer in the USA whom we had used previously, for comparison. 

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2. Sifted through the quotes

Between the quotes from Print Industry and the other quotes I requested, I received 8 to 10 quotes. I looked through them, primarily checking:

  • if the printer understood our project

  • how the printer’s price compared to the others’ prices.

I tried not to take into account the less-professional face of the Asian companies (their logos, websites, URLs and graphic design don't usually convey the Western idea of quality), but if their English was difficult to understand, I took that as a red flag.

If there was a printer that I felt didn't understand what we were asking for, but I wanted to give another chance for them to provide a quote, I wrote back with a request for adjustments to the quote.

3. Narrowed it down to the best prospect, a printer in China

In communication with my client, I eventually picked a printer who seemed to have understood our request and whose price was competitive, and started to communicate with them by e-mail about the project. 

4. Communicated regularly by e-mail with the printer in China

It was important to me that this company on the other side of the world be able to communicate clearly in English. Some overseas suppliers I’ve worked with can’t really understand and reply to specific questions and are not able to describe a problem or what they need. But we realized that we had found a professional guy with good English, who responded within a day or so to emails, and answered questions specifically. Green light!

Next, we wanted some proof that the company was real and that they were capable of doing the kind of work we needed. They offered to print a sample for us of the full-colour book file, and to send it to us with some other samples of their work and paper samples. The printing company requested $100 to send us two full-colour samples of our book, other book samples, and paper samples to two addresses (one in the USA, and one to me in Germany). The packages arrived quickly on our doorsteps and the quality of the printed samples was excellent. The cover paper samples they sent us matched the texture of our cover from the last printing.

We always had good communication with the printer. Over the months that we worked together, we had to change some deadlines and request new quotes, but our rep was always good to deal with. If at any point he had become difficult to deal with or hard to get an answer from, we would have taken that as a definite red light and looked for a new printer, but there were no such warning signs.

5. Committed to the printer in China

When the project was finally ready, we pulled the trigger. The client paid the first lump sum to the printer in China. I think the printer asked for an $800 downpayment to order the paper for the project, and then 50% of the balance before the printing began, and 50% before the books were shipped. 

The project experienced various delays on the client’s end, and when the files were finally print-ready, it was Chinese New Year and the factory was shutting down for two weeks for the country’s biggest celebration. This was a significant delay at the end of the project, but it was not the printer's problem, because we had expected to have the book done months before. This was the first time my client spoke on the phone with the rep in China (previous communication had always been by e-mail), and he spoke great English, was apologetic about the delay, and did his best to push the book through as quickly as he could once the factory was running again.

6. Received the printed books from China

We had 500 books sent by air to the USA (about a week for delivery) and the final 4,500 books sent by sea to a port in the USA (about five weeks for delivery). The client had to handle getting the books from the port to the company warehouse, but there may have also been a way to have the books delivered to the client’s doorstep. All in all, we were extremely satisfied with the final product and with the price, which was about ⅓ of what the project would have cost at the printer we used the year before. 

I hope this play-by-play is helpful to you if you're looking for a reliable overseas printer. If you use a bit of caution and common sense, you may find that an overseas printer that fits exactly what you're needing for a particular project.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post! If you'd like to know more about my experience printing in China, or would like me to be your liaison for a large overseas print project, please write to me through my contact page. If you’re already in communication with an overseas printer, read this post: How to Communicate Clearly With Your Overseas Printer. If you'd like to talk to me about a book project, please take a look at my Book Design services page.

A Visit to the Museum of Printing and Graphic Communication in Lyon, France

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of having two days to wander solo around Lyon, France. It almost goes without saying because it's France, but Lyon is a beautiful city! It's full of unique old buildings, Roman ruins, antique book shops and cafés serving fresh crêpes. 

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Before going there, I was looking at a list of attractions and, of course, the Museum of Printing and Graphic Communication (Musée de l'imprimerie et de la communication graphique) stood out to me on the list of attractions. I happily spent lovely June afternoon there learning about books and printing.

Here's what the museum looks like from the outside:

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It was founded in 1964 and is one of the leading European printing museums. It's housed in a beautiful Renaissance building, Lyon’s first town hall. Here's how the courtyard looks:

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The museum has a large permanent exhibit (schedule at least three hours for it, if you're planning a visit) as well as a temporary exhibit (when I was there, it was an Andy Warhol exhibit). Everything in the permanent exhibit is excellently translated into English, but the temporary exhibit was set up mostly for French speakers (English translations were available on paper sheets, but they were a bit hard to understand.)

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There's a gift shop at the entrance / exit and as would be expected, most all the flyers and booklets in their giveaway stand were colorful and gorgeously designed.

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The permanent exhibit at the museum is divided up into the following sections:

  1. The beginning of printing (before 1450)

  2. The invention of letterpress printing by Gutenberg (1450-1500)

  3. Printing and the Renaissance (1500-1600)

  4. Printmaking

  5. Printing in the hand press period (1600-1800)

  6. The industrial revolution (1800-1900)

  7. Photography and printing in color (1850-1900)

  8. The graphic revolution (1880-1945)

  9. The information society (1950-…)

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It was a fascinating visit and I'll just share some interesting facts and photos from the museum, in more or less chronological order. This is in no way a comprehensive look at the permanent exhibit — it's just some tidbits that stood out to me.

Watermarking has been used by papermakers in Europe since the 13th century. The main purpose of watermarking was to differentiate paper from competitors’ paper. The watermark would often be a symbol indicating the paper’s characteristics and origin.

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Until the middle of the 15th century, books in Europe could only be copied by hand or by using woodcuts. “In the latter case each page of text was treated as if it was an image and then printed by hand by rubbing the back of a sheet of paper placed on the inked surface of the woodcut.” The invention of letterpress printing “is regarded as one of the foundations of modern society”. Although Koreans were already using moveable type moulded in sand, Gutenberg in Germany created metal type that was precise and regular in appearance. Because the size of each piece of type was standardized, the final printing surface was perfectly flat and this led to the invention of the printing press in Germany.

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Letterpress printing was born in Mainz, Germany in the 1440s and by approximately 1458 it was in Strasbourg, and 1459 in Bamberg. The first print shop in Lyon was operating from 1473 onward.

Printing spread quickly, and by the end of the 15th century, more than 250 towns in Europe had print shops. The two most important centers of production by that time were outside of Germany: Venice and Paris were putting out the most titles. 

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The work of an early press operator was very difficult. The hours were extremely long (14-hour work days in the summer) and the operator did not need to know how to read. The compositors — the ones putting the moveable type together into flats that could be printed — needed to be sufficiently educated and therefore were paid higher salaries than the press operators.

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Have you ever thought about how many type-related terms have Italian names? This is because Italy had a great influence on the early typesetting and printing industries. The earliest printers in Germany were using Gothic letters (see photo above) based on type styles from medieval manuscripts. However the Italians were quick to create a new "Humanist" style, using lowercase letters invented in Italy in the 8th century (the “Carolingian minuscule”) and the capital letter style seen on Roman monuments. The Germans arriving in Italy began to use the Humanist typeface style as well, and gradually the German printers in Rome created a typeface called “Roman”. “Italics” also came from Italy, although in Italy italics are known as “corsivo” (cursive).

It took more than three quarters of a century for the book to go from a manuscript format to a printed style of its own. Certain elements began to be established, like the title page, and identifying information which indicated who produced the book. Pages began to be numbered; running headers were invented to give guidance to the reader. 

Rags were commonly used for the creation of paper for several centuries. More than 80 kinds of vegetable matter were mixed with rags in attempts to make an affordable paper. Inventors tried thistle, maize, nettle, straw, pinecone, potato and more! By 1870, paper made from wood came into widespread use. At the time, newspapers were flourishing and affordable paper was needed.

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In the 17th and 18th centuries, scientific and technical books were sought after by the educated public. Botany, medicine, anatomy, and history became topics that any educated individual could learn about from the printed materials that were appearing on each topic. Traditionally, skills and knowledge in art and architecture were transmitted only from master to pupil in a workshop, but soon those masters began to have to compete with printed manuals conveying the same information. Skills that were once transmitted orally or by everyday practice were beginning to be transferred theoretically through printed materials. For example, dressmakers' patterns could be printed and distributed with greater ease (see image below).

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So much of what is taken for granted in our digital era was a complicated process in the early days of printing. Re-sizing one image during the 1800s could take several hours on a device like the one below:

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Three-color printing was invented in 1719. This was particularly helpful for making scientific illustrations more readable; previously any color had to be added by hand. But until the 19th century, coloured printed images remained rare and expensive. Only with the invention of chromolithography in the early 1800s could good quality images begin to be reproduced on an industrial scale, using CMYK. Chromolithography really took off in the 1860s and was used until the 1950s.

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As color printing became more popular, the travel industry began to use color posters to advertise trips to exotic destinations like Algeria and Tunisia. (It's hard to even imagine a travel advertisement today that doesn't use color!)

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The industrial revolution led to the graphic revolution. As industrial capitalism grew, the need for marketing, advertising and “brand image” promotion grew. At this time, advertisers and printers began to need the help of graphic artists.

In the 19th century, advertisements had been regarded with mistrust, but by the end of the century, publicity became one of the driving forces behind consumption. Publicity agents became popular in the early 20th century, taking complete charge of ad campaigns. Instead of simply informing customers, their job became to persuade them. In France, the poster was a very popular form of advertising and it remains a more popular form of advertising in France than in other nearby countries to this day.

Posters and graphic communication were also used for a lot of propaganda during the turbulent eras of World Wars 1 and 2.

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The title “graphic designer” became standard only recently, but was invented in 1922 by an American type-designer named William Addison Dwiggins.

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During the second half of the 20th century, graphic communication changed radically as printing, production of administrative documents, and information technology merged. Computers changed the rules of the game. Printers incorporated computers into typesetting and page layout IT networks. Desktop publishing began in 1984 with the launch of the Apple Macintosh. The ability to print in-house revolutionized the printing industry. 

I thought this sentence near the end of the museum's exhibit summarized how radical the changes have been to the printing and graphic communications industry in just a few decades: “Today the simplest personal computer provides even the most modest user with graphic tools far more powerful and productive than the specialized machines and systems used by the printing industry before the digital revolution.” It's a fun era in which to be a communicator, book designer or graphic designer — we've come a long way! And if you're even a "modest user" of page layout software or printers, the Museum of Printing and Graphic Communication is worth your while if you visit Lyon!