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Which printers do design groups like best? Who produces work that has the hard-hitting impact you are looking for, but also takes time to strike up a relationship with you and your clients?

What do design groups look for in a printer? According to Design Week’s second survey of the printing industry, the two magic ingredients are quality and building a good relationship. And the printers that fare well on those virtues have come top of our lists.

Other considerations in the survey are costs, technological know-how, sticking to a budget, keeping to deadlines and location. Most design groups find it difficult to choose a single printer for all jobs, but over the years have selected a happy few to rely on. Adrianne LeMan, managing director of C&FD, sums it up: “There is no such thing as a ‘best printer’. To stay in the business they must all offer the same level of service and quality. Things that make a difference are willingness, ability to make up for lost time and an understanding that deadlines are finite.”

There are, however, print companies which shine out within each category. Westerham Press, voted last year’s best overall printer, keeps its position, for reasons such as quality, finishing, state-of-the-art kit and personality. As Browns director, Jonathan Ellery says: “It has a continued ability to put ink down on paper better than anyone else at present.” Westerham Press is equal first in the “most used” category and holds top slot as the favourite printer for both brochures and annual reports.

A rising star is Fernedge, which shoots up from 12th to second equal in the best overall category. Johnson Banks creative director Michael Johnson names it as a favourite alongside CTD for its “personality” and “flexibility”. Print Forum is one of the top four chosen by Grundy Northedge, because it is “traditional in values and modern in procedure and efficiency”.

The charts ranking specialist suppliers show the diversity of experience on offer. Most survey participants create brochures and annual reports, so printers who work on these projects appear to be the most used. For stationery projects, specialist printers such as Martin Edwards and Solways make the grade, while in direct mail there was no general agreement.

While it is important to choose the right printer for the right job, it is also necessary to build good relationships. Designers want a highly flexible and attentive service that will solve their problems. The buzz word here is proactive: printers are seen not just as mere executors, but as people who can improve the brief and come up with creative solutions.

Most designers now value the fact that printers can be presented to clients and integrated into the working process. As Ian Pape, creative director of Fonda, says: “We tend to stick to the same printers for yearsä once you establish a good relationship they become your friends.”

Addison head of print Elizabeth Grahame, who cites The White Dove Press, Westerham and CTD as favourites, explains why she sticks with the ones she knows. “It takes time to build up a relationship with printers,” she says. “The best ones are those with a low turnover of staff, that are aware of your standards and the client’s requirements.” Johnson at Johnson Banks says there is also an economic reason. “Printers are quite expensive,” he says, “and once something goes terribly wrong on a high cost job, it’s very difficult to decide to go back to them.” He admits that things have gone wrong with his favourite, CTD. “But they had the temerity to admit it and make up for their mistakes. And that is what makes the difference.”

Sometimes corporate clients or Government agencies appoint their own printers, forcing consultancies to establish new relationships. “It’s bad if they turn out to be unreliable, butä if they are good you find new ones that you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered,” says Grahame. Pape, whose favourites include CTD, Litho-Tech and G&B, doesn’t exclude the possibility of approaching new printers. “The Design Week survey is a good way of finding new ones,” he says.

Costs are an issue for design groups, but it is difficult to chart the most expensive printers or the ones which are best value because so many elements interfere with any calculation.

Expense depends on the nature and budget of the project, but also varies according to the printer’s available slots and even the time of year. However, costs do not seem to impinge too much on consultancies’ choices and the search for quality remains the primary criteria.

CTD, Litho-Tech and Westerham may rank among the most expensive suppliers, but that doesn’t stop them from cropping up in the top ten most used. Johnson, for example, cites CTD as both the best and the most expensive, the latter element interfering little in his choices.

Location also determines the choice of printers. All the names cited this year are UK-based, except for Belgian printer Verstraete. This may be because designers prefer to have printers nearby in case of emergencies. Edinburgh’s EH6 production manager Alan Hollis says he is impressed by the quality of work produced by Leeds printer Triangle, but geographical constraints have prevented him from using the company. Distance can be a problem on jobs with short schedules and small budgets. “It makes me a bit nervous if I can’t be there within a short car’s drive to solve a problem,” he says.

Hollis’ overall favourite choice is – like last year – local company Nimmos Colour Printers for its “high standards of quality” and because “they relish a challenge”. Another Edinburgh-based printer that ranks well is Summerhall Press, described by Elmwood project manager Jan Hirst as having “an attention to detail” and “being good at working closely with designers”.

Have printers improved over the past years? According to David Pritchard, production director at Lloyd Northover Citigate, “Technology has enabled most printers to obtain effective repro and print, blurring the differences between printers.” And since he knows he can expect good quality from most of his suppliers, what counts for him now is good project management and consistency, which he finds at Westerham and Royle Press. Hirst sums it up nicely. “A lot of printers can print well,” she says, “but what we are looking for is reliability and a positive relationship.”

The best printers in this survey are therefore those that go beyond what is expected of them – the ones which produce consistent quality and offer an imaginative approach to the job.

What we did

For the second year running, Design Week has conducted a survey of printers, asking top print designers to choose the best according to their strengths. Compared to 1998, there are no major surprises in the survey results, although the rise of Westerham Press and Fernedge in the chart of “most used” printers, as well as in the “best overall” category, demonstrates that quality does go hand-in-hand with popularity.

Overall, designers seem to have a happy relationship with their chosen printers. Almost all stories were of positive interaction, mutual respect and trust. Some designers admitted to having discovered new names in last year’s survey and to have tried them out, but the general trend is that you stick to who you trust.

Like last year, we trawled UK design groups of all sizes which were ranked in our past Creative Survey or had won 1999 Design Week awards. More than half of the design consultancies contacted sent us back their reply.

We asked consultancies to name their favourite printer in terms of quality, and to specify which printers they used for annual reports, brochures, manuals, stationery and direct mail. We also asked them which printer they rated the most expensive and which they considered best value for money.

They were asked to rate different services from printing to finishing, but also more interpersonal skills such as handling problems and their attitude to designers. Specific choices were backed up by comments which helped reveal the elements that make a relationship between a printer and a designer special.

The time put into compiling the forms was invaluable. It gave us not only a panoramic view of who ranks where, but also an in depth understanding of designers’ needs and how printers can respond to them. This survey may not cover all the names in the business but it is based on data submitted. We hope that in the future more companies will supply us with information.

See “Results Tables”

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