| Design Basics, Design Trends

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More and more I’m being asked (forced?) to use online printing sources for print design projects. As a graphic designer, one part of my services is to help my clients produce the final printed pieces that I design.

Business cards, postcards, brochures, etc. all need to be printed as part of the design process. And we’re all trying to save a buck and get things done at as low a cost as possible. These days that often means using online printers.

Follow the posts this week, as we talk about printing

In a series of postings that will run this week, I will explore printing options, explain why costs vary and share the results of some of my own printing experiments. I’m going to start this series by expanding on an article that was in my e-newsletter last year.

You’ve probably seen or used the services of online printing companies such as VistaPrint, OvernightPrints, PSPrint, or 123Print. These companies print business cards, postcards and other stationery items at very low prices. In fact, some even offer free printing, usually with the inclusion of their logo on your materials.

Why are they able to sell so cheaply?

  • Economy of scale. When you go to a local printer, they likely print a variety of different items. Monday they have a 2-color business card job, Tuesday they are doing a full-color brochure, etc. That means they have to maintain lots of equipment, and they need to do a different set-up before each job. With these online companies they set-up certain standard sizes, and they print everything 4-color. They are able to group together all these similar jobs and crank them out together.
  • Some of these companies are printing digital rather than offset. While digital printing has improved vastly in the last few years, there are certain things that offset printing can handle better.
  • Color accuracy and sophisticated proofing systems are not part of the job. With a good offset printer, you can expect a “contract quality” proof. Also, with a reputable printer you have someone on your job who is carefully looking at the quality, doing color checks and making critical adjustments on press to ensure a good result.

Some reasons we like these sources:

  • Price. Its most alluring feature.
  • Speed. It usually takes just a few days to receive your order.
  • Small quantities. Generally, you can order low quantities and still get economical pricing.

Some of the drawbacks:

  • Lack of paper choices. Generally, all the paper choices are coated papers which are not my first choice for business cards as they can be slippery and are not easy to write on.
  • Limited or odd sizes. You need to limit yourself to their stock sizes, and not all those sizes are traditional. Vista Print business cards, specifically, are not the traditional card size of 3.5″ x 2″ they are a hair smaller in both directions. In my mind, these usually stick out as looking cheap.
  • Lack of quality control. Certain design elements are not going to fare well under these circumstances. These include: precision cutting; gradations and large color blocks; very small, thin type.
  • Little or no personal contact. There are certain jobs that you like the assurance of a customer service rep or press foreman to feel confident it will look like you anticipate.

Have you used one of these companies or another online printer? Please leave a comment with your feedback.

My next post: my experiment with Visible Logic’s business cards.


  1. Pat Bailey | July 7, 2009 at 8:45 am

    As an employee of Penmor Lithographers in Lewiston, Maine, I realize on a daily basis, the benefits of printing with a reputable offset printer. Our clients and their designers usually like to be on press to do a final color check. If they are unable to be here, one of the owners of Penmor approves the color before printing. Having been in business for over forty years, Penmor has the reputation for high quality and great customer service. This is usually absent with an on-line printer. A quality product is a reflection of the reputation of any business. Penmor stands behind their product and guarantees satisfaction. The result – Professionals assisting Professionals.

  2. Emily Brackett | July 7, 2009 at 9:19 am

    Pat, thanks so much for your comment. I moved to Portland about 3 years ago and have continually heard great things about Penmor. When I was in Chicago, that’s what I loved about the vendors I used. I knew either I would go on press, or they would be looking out for me. I look forward to working with Penmor soon.

    Follow along this week as I reveal how things went with the online cards.

  3. Aaron | July 19, 2009 at 10:35 am

    Useful info, nice blog, thanks.

  4. Cory Rogers | July 22, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Great blog.. very informative! You nailed many of the positives and negatives our clients communicate to us about working with online printers.

    With the proliferation of online printing companies, printing has unfortunately become a commodity rather than a specialty. Many printing companies have sacrificed customer service, product customization and quality, in pursuit to provide the lowest price.

    We have a strong commitment to providing top-notch customer service, complete customization and superior product quality. While Copy Craft Printers was one of the first commercial printers to establish and online presence and embrace the internet we have not wavered on that commitment. We have kept our prices competitive with the other online printers and still offer personalized customer service, custom and high quality products. We like to think we are a local printer who just happens to have the majority of their clients spread all across the globe.

    Just because you are looking for the lowest price doesn’t mean you should have to sacrifice service and quality. The price of a product isn’t the only cost!

    Again, great post! Thanks for informing others about the pros and cons of online printing.

  5. Emily Brackett | July 22, 2009 at 10:05 am

    Cory, Thanks for your comments. I look forward to trying out your services. I think you have the right attitude about being a local printer with a national client base.

    BTW, I heard about via Twitter @MikeHosier

  6. Judith | October 9, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    I found your comments very informative. Maybe some of the online business cards printers aren’t the most ideal. Presently digital printing can not replace quality hands on printing plus the expertise of graphic artists onsite and the experience of a knowledgeable production manager. There will always be room for both. It is true that online printing is more cost effective and less time consuming there will be times we have to sacrifice quality work. Currently ordering online is just another option to be more efficient and cost cutting. One of the online websites that I have found very user friendly and quality work is printsmadeeasy.com. Yes, it is true that they offer free business cards but without the logo of printsmadeeasy. What a good deal if you wanted to try their serviceat no cost. It is a good opportunity to as they say test the waters. What do you have to lose.

  7. leaflet distributors | July 27, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    great job posting this one! helps a lot! thanks!!


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