The Client’s Guide to Print

Print is my favorite media to work with and, as such, I love to help my clients manage the printing process. Transforming a piece from a digital PDF to a printed product that you can hold in your hand is a reasonably simple process if you’ve done the requisite planning to make the magic happen.

However, since so few people have had the privilege to work so closely with printers, the process can seem a bit daunting from the outside. To help mitigate some of your printing anxiety, here is a quick run-down of what you can expect when you decide to slap your design on to paper.

Step 1: Paper and finishing

Before you even get started throwing images and fonts at your designer, you need to consider the end product. Since print is obviously a physical medium, you’ll need to spend time thinking about what the end product will look like and what function it needs to serve.

Paper is one of my personal favorite places to start. Each type of paper, or stock, is unique in its own way and changing the paper can dramatically change the way your piece looks and the way its recipients respond to it.

For example, an elegant gala with a vintage 1920’s theme might use an uncoated, off-white stock, whereas a brochure for an industrial company would likely use a shiny, clean white stock. Each stock has advantages and disadvantages in terms of printability, longevity, and cost. There are literally thousands of stock options so it’s important to review your vision first and make sure your paper fits into it.

Finishing is also incredibly important to your project and must be among the first things considered. If your piece will mail, are you putting it in an envelope or mailing it by itself? What type of postage will you use? Is it small enough to mail flat rate or will you be charged an additional fee at the post office? All of these aspects are hugely important to consider as you don’t want to get saddled with unexpected costs at the end of your project and you definitely want to be certain it can get to its intended audience without any issues.

Finishing can also include details like folds, custom die cuts, and even foil or embossing. All of these features add exciting dynamic aspects to your piece but need to be incorporated in the very beginning to avoid confusion and extra costs down the line.

Step 2: Design for print

Now that you have all the groundwork laid, your designer will take the helm for a while. Designing for print is much the same as designing for web in principle but includes many unique challenges as well.

During the review process, your designer may point out any potential issues with fonts sizes, image resolution, or issues that may arise as a result of the piece’s layout. Be sure to remain flexible during the process but never be afraid to share your opinions honestly – not every request can be accommodated but we can always find a way to compromise.

For more insight into the designer’s side of the print process, check out our article here.

Step 3: Estimates

When the design is about 80% complete or when you’ve received your first mostly-complete draft, it’s time to get the process started with the printer. If your piece is especially complicated or if you’re sticking to an absolute budget, I would recommend scooting this up to Step 1.5 – make sure that you’re comfortable paying for the final product before you get started designing.

Most projects, however, can wait until you’ve got your design nailed down before reaching out for a quote. If the designer has worked with printers before, they may have a recommendation on who you can contact based on your project’s needs but, if not, feel free to reach out on your own.

You’ll need to know some basic information about your project in order to get a quote such as size, any folds or cuts, any binding, mailing, or fulfillment work that needs to be done, the type of paper, the colors of ink, and the quantity. We established most of this in Step 1 but if you have any questions, your printer or your designer are perfectly equipped to answer them.

You can ask for a few different quotes if you’re trying to see what’s in your budget but you can also always ask your sales representative where their price breaks are. A printer should never charge you for a quote.

Once the design side of the project is completely finished, you may need to return to the printer for a final, updated quote if the type of paper, the quantity, etc. has changed. The printer will need a 100% accurate quote with your seal of approval on it before they will start working on your job.

Step 4: Payment

Most print shops do not ask for a deposit upfront – and they should never ask for payment in full before the job is printed – but most do require that you fill out a credit application so they are guaranteed to get paid upon delivery. These are simple forms that your sales person will email over to you but that must be completed before they will start printing.

This process is usually only required for new clients so subsequent projects will skip right over this step.

Step 5: Final files and proofs

Now things are getting really exciting! You or your designer will send over a print-ready PDF (or the native files if the printer requests it) and you’ll be ready to receive your first proof.

Proofs come in two forms – digital or hardcopy. A digital proof is just a PDF of your project that gives you one last chance to check spelling, layout, images, etc. I would strongly recommend that both you and your designer review this proof as both of you will be looking for different things and the more eyes you have on it, the better. The printer will likely send you this type of proof by default unless you specifically request a hardcopy.

Hardcopy proofs are usually reserved for more complicated projects or higher quantities. Some printers charge to create a press proof for you while others will do it as a complimentary service – be sure to ask your salesman in advance if you would prefer this type of proof. Many printers also offer the option to see your piece get printed in real time at a ‘press check’. While this applies largely to offset pieces, your printer should be able to accommodate something if you are worried about the way the piece will print.

Step 6: Printing

Now that everything is in the hands of the printer, people start to get excited to see their final product and start asking “when will it be ready?”. While there is no exact answer to this question, there are certain industry standard expectations based on the quantity and complexity of your piece.

Always start by asking your salesman what their timeline looks like and let them know if you have a deadline you need to meet. However, some basic guidelines include 2 – 3 days for small digital pieces in small quantities like business cards and postcards, 3 – 5 days for larger digital jobs and some small-run offset jobs, and 5 – 10+ days for anything with higher quantities, custom cuts, embossing, foil, binding, or mailings. Again, these times can vary hugely depending on the printer and the project.

Step 7: The final product

Finally, the printer will send you an email or give you a call to tell you that the glorious moment has finally come – your project is finished!

Most larger printers offer local delivery on their company-owned trucks or they will ship your pieces to you for an extra fee. Additionally, if you want to avoid the shipping costs all together, you can see if they’ll allow you to come by the shop and pick up your pieces yourself.

Make sure to inspect any boxes when you receive your shipment and check to make sure that your piece is the right size and on the right stock, all of the pages are in-register, and that nothing funky happened during binding and shipping.

And that’s it! Get ready to enjoy your fabulous new print piece and the fruit of all of your hard labor!


Got more questions? Feel free to contact us and get all the info you need to make your next project an absolute success!

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