The print process

What makes a good printer? Design Week asks top print design groups what they look for. Report by Lynda Relph-Knight, research by Natalie Spencer

There is no such thing as a perfect printer. That is what we have learned from our first trawl of opinions among top print design groups. It depends, to an extent, on the type of job, the budget, timescales and location, quite apart from other factors.

Yet we find design groups going back to the same printer over and over again, despite claims by many survey respondents that it’s virtually impossible to pick out one that fulfils all the requirements. Very few were mentioned that didn’t make it into our top 20 “most used” printers, chosen for reasons ranging from quality of print and service, to value for money.

Most respondents managed to name a first choice, while some proposed a couple, citing different reasons. Browns director Jonathan Ellery, for example, gives both Westerham Press and the much smaller Pale Green Press as top choices. The variety of work going through the consultancy demands different skills, equipment and approaches, he says. Litho-Tech Colour Printers, meanwhile, comes “a very close second” to CTD for Lloyd Northover Citigate production director David Pritchard.

Interestingly, only the Europe-wide Landor Associates and E-fact, based in London but serving only German clients, mentioned Continental printers, though suppliers in The Netherlands and Germany are often upheld as the very best. Over there, we are told by creative hot-shots such as Una in Amsterdam, there is generally more respect between designer and craftworker, resulting in strong working partnerships. But the only nomination we received was for Dutch printer Chevalier, used by Landor Associates realisation manager Gary Dixon for brochure work.

Passion and relationships are key to survey respondents, particularly from highly creative groups. And they are finding these with UK print shops. Most play up the positives – and the best are impressed by printers that take responsibility and try to improve on a job, using their craft skills to rise to the challenge. Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks, for example, gives ability to solve “tricky” problems, quality of print and repro as attributes of his favourites.

“Friendly and very helpful” is how The Partners production manager Christina Boyes describes her star choice, Fulmar Colour, also applauding “quality print”, “excellent repro” and “accurate quotes”. Bosworth Field senior designer Jo Moore gives attention to detail as a reason for her top choice of Fulmar Colour for brochures and stationery, alongside customer liaison and service.

Inevitably, regional suppliers fare less well in our survey than printers based in and around London, given the high density of award-winning design groups in the capital. But, as our catchment was groups with high creative standards which are recognised leaders in their fields, several non-London groups were included.

Among non-London groups prepared to be quoted in this report, are Leeds consultancy Elmwood and Edinburgh’s EH6. Obviously, they don’t constitute a representative sample, but their top choices are as follows. Elmwood director and senior designer Alan Ainsley names Summerhall Press and Triangle – both of which it uses for literature – for being team-players, taking a pro-active approach to achieve the best result. EH6 production manager Alan Hollis, meanwhile, names local printer Nimmos Colour Printers for its flexibility and having an “un-bureaucratic” approach to client services. Both Nimmos Colour Printers and Summerhall Press score well in the listing for “best overall”, appearing in fifth and joint sixth place respectively.

Cost is an issue. But value for money isn’t the only consideration for designers. Fulmar Colour, Anderson Fraser and Good News Press share top slot in the “value for money” ranking, with all other printers mustering just one vote apiece. But, the fact that Westerham Press ranks joint third – with Pillans & Wilson Greenaway, Royle Financial Print and The White Dove Press – as “most expensive” doesn’t stop it topping the chart for the best all-rounder. CTD and Litho-Tech Colour Printers rank first and second respectively among the “most expensive”, but, like Westerham Press, they score high among the most used suppliers.

The charts ranking the printers most popular for particular types of project show the diversity of expertise there is out there. Most of our sample of design groups are involved with annual reports and brochures, so the listings for these areas are more comprehensive. Not all respondents handle stationery, which is why so few specialist printers are mentioned, and there was no consensus over direct mail.

It boils down to getting the right printer for the job, with the temperament to suit the style of the designer. That is where good relationships are seeded, and they appear to be the way to get the best results – and enjoy the process.

What we did

Design Week’s first survey of printers was born of a belief that the best results aren’t always achieved in dealings with printers.

For every success story we hear from designers, there are dozens of woeful tales of missed deadlines and quality that isn’t up to expectations. If you listen to printers, you’re likely to be treated to a similar catalogue of ills. It’s all down to poor communication, misunderstandings and lack of mutual respect.

It isn’t always so, though. Great work is done, largely through a genuine partnership between designer and printer, in which both takes ownership of the project and pride in the result. By highlighting these positive examples, we aim to encourage best practice.

Research for the survey was largely qualitative. We trawled design groups specialising in print which scored high in our recent Creative Survey (DW 26 June) or are recognised leaders in their particular field. We wanted to promote the best examples, rather than to perpetuate mediocrity in quality of design or print.

Consultancies were asked to complete a questionnaire, asking them to name their first choice of printer overall, as well as those they rated for services ranging from printing to finishing. Reasons were given to back up their choice. They were also asked to list the printers they used most often, for different types of work, and to indicate which printers they had the best relationship with.

Some two-thirds of our 60-strong sample responded to the questionnaire, including most top creative award-winners for print design. Most specialise in annual reports and other literature, which means their views of other areas, notably direct mail, showed little consensus.

Printers are ranked according to the number of votes they received for “best overall” or mentions made in other sections of the questionnaire. We have endeavoured to represent the views of respondents as accurately as possible. There are inevitably some gaps, but our findings are based on data supplied.

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