Freelance Matters | How to work with a printer

February 28, 2012


I get emails asking about the printing process and finding a great printer more than anything. So, in this post I’m going to tell you how to find (and develop a relationship with) a great printer. In an era where everything is cheap, fast, digital & online developing vendor relationships is somewhat of a lost art. But it’s important. Especially if you want to be a print designer.

One of my favorite printers, Julie Harman from Heritage, started working with me 6 years ago as a newbie who knew nothing about printing (they don’t teach you this stuff in design school!). She gently guided me through the print process and to this day I give her loads of credit when it comes to my success as a print designer. I actually interviewed her to get some insight for this post and she gave me lots of tips and pointers that I’m eager to share with you.




I first started working with my printers 6 years ago when I got my job at a small ad agency. I was lucky in that they were vying for my business – but if you’re a small freelance designer you’re going to have to go out and find someone willing to work with you.

• Ask a friend, teacher or mentor for a recommendation.
• When you contact a printer be sure to name drop whoever recommended you.
• Be honest about your experience – let your printer know if you need guidance through your first print job.
• Be willing (and eager) to learn – My printer Julie is willing to invest her time in designers who are open to learning about the process.
• Julie says: “A good printer is one that will ask you questions – things like ‘What are you going to do with this project? Who is going to be viewing this?'”

Ask your printer for a tour. This will help you understand the life of a print job from beginning to finish. There is a big difference between a digital vs. a 2-color letterpress job – seeing it in action will help you understand the costs involved.

I have a handful of printers I work with. One does letterpress while another does great (and inexpensive) digital jobs. I have my go-to when it comes to small 2-color offset lithography jobs and another for large-format jobs. Different printers will have strengths in different areas. I’ve been using the same handful of printers for years.

I would like to mention here that the only online printer I ever use is MOO for business cards from time-to-time. They have great customer service and a quality product.

Otherwise, I use local businesses and I’m loyal to the printers I utilize. It might cost a little more but it’s well worth it to know I’ve got real people doing their best to make my jobs look great on paper. These relationships have paid off big time over the years.



I’ve been obsessed with paper since college. I remember going to the Neenah site and requesting free samples while still in college. Over the past 7 years I’ve learned which stocks are the best for digital, offset and letterpress. I’ve had very expensive, hard to find paper over-nighted from Germany, and I’ve used scraps leftover for smaller budget jobs. In fact, my own business cards are printed on chipboard scraps my printer found between reams of paper out on the press floor.

My point is that learning about paper is an ongoing process. When you get a tour from your printer be sure to ask about paper. They’ll explain the difference between coated, matte and uncalendered stocks. And if you ask nicely they may give you a couple swatch books for reference (be sure to ask them how to read the swatch books too).

When I asked my printer Julie the #1 thing a designer can do to make a job go smoothly from start to finish she had 2 words: print specs. The best thing you can do to make a run without a hitch is give your printer as much information as possible. I do this by providing print specifications. Here’s an example of my print specs.


You’ll want to tell you printer:
1. A job description
2. Quantities
3. Final trim size (folded and flat)
4. Printing (letterpress, digital, offset) – You’ll notice here that I say “4/4” this means it is four color process and double-sided. So if I say 2/0 that means two-color, single-sided.
5. Paper – specify paper. Sometimes here I’ll give a couple options and my printer knows to pick the one that is easier to get or most cost-friendly.
6. Any other special notes (like die cuts, assembly information, etc.)
7. Proofing information – do you need a printed mock-up or will a PDF work just fine?
8. Deadline
9. Final delivery information – is it going to you or directly to the client?

You might even include little diagrams if your job is particularly tricky or involved.

Printing is not cheap but a great printer will help you find alternatives to cut down costs. When you’re on a budget something usually has to give – either the print method (you may have to go with a 2-color litho job instead of letterpress) or paper (which can account for about 1/3 of the cost when it comes to printing).

When you request an estimate from your printer you will need to provide them with print specs. Be sure to request a few different quantities – the more you print the better price break you get – this is due to minimum paper orders and set up fees. So sometimes a 500 piece job will only be dollars less than printing 750 or 1,000.

If your estimate comes back too high ask your printer for creative ways to get it down – it may mean using a different print method or paper stock.

NOTE: When you share your quote with your client be sure to account for tax. Also, it is standard for designers to mark up printing 10% – 25% to cover coordination costs. Handling printing is a service that you should be compensated for.

• No job will ever be perfect. There will always be minor flaws in every print job – embrace it as part of the beauty of a medium like print.
• Learn the difference between digital, offset and letterpress.
• Learn how to set up your print files. Ask your printer for a tutorial on the best way to package your files or export your PDF for printing.
• For custom letterpress jobs or huge expensive jobs you might request to be there for a press check to make sure all the photos, embossing and colors are coming out properly.
• I like to give my printers 2 weeks average to complete a job. Sometimes certain jobs will take longer if they require special binding or letterpressing. And if I’m in a bind or a job is digital they are usually completed in about 1 week.

If you have any additional print questions ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer!

• Freelance Matters | Estimating & Billing
• The time I cried at the printer
• Best in Print

Copyright © 2020 Kathleen Shannon LLC. Photography by Greer Inez and Sarah Becker Lillard. Theme by Maiden Sites. Privacy.