Press Gang

Personality and designer-friendliness count as much as technical expertise in this year’s printers survey.

One of the greatest challenges of being the best is continuing to raise your standards to maintain pole position. It is particularly hard in a field such as printing, which demands such a high level of craft work against a background of ever-changing technology. Yet London printer Westerham Press has managed to beat all comers by a substantial lead for the third year running; it has been voted best overall printer by design groups which were selected for the quality of their print work.

Helen Richardson, print manager at Pauffley, has high praise for Westerham Press. “They have the winning combination of a very strong team and excellent repro and print skills, working with up-to-the-minute equipment,” she says.

Westerham has managed to fight off the challenge from Fernedge, which shot up the charts for overall quality last year and remains in second place this year. But Westerham loses out to its rival in the charts showing which printers are most used and those that are best at meeting deadlines and delivery.

The chart-topper wins hands down, however, as best overall printer, scoring most points also for annual report work, best print quality and repro work, being best at organising work and handling problems, as well as for its technical ability. In addition, it is deemed to have the best personality and attitude to the designers it works with, though it isn’t credited with being particularly flexible.

But quality of this calibre doesn’t come cheap and Westerham, closely followed by CTD, is voted the most expensive – a point which possibly accounts for Fernedge being the most used. And it only ranks equal third in terms of giving value for money.

Designers tend to rate “user-friendliness” of printers above most qualities, taking a certain level of technical expertise for granted. In this category Westerham takes top vote, scoring more than double Fernedge’s total of votes.

“Communication between our suppliers and ourselves is the key to a good quality product,” says Liz Grahame, head of print at literature specialist Addison Design.

But the ability to try out new things to help a designer move a concept forward is also valued. Words such as “proactive”, “taking responsibility” and “ownership [of a project]” flow from the pens of designers and print managers. But we could do with more print businesses prepared to take this stance. “The industry has too many average printers, not enough risk-takers,” says Kieran McGinley, production director at The Attik’s London office.

At the end of the day though, it’s a combination of everything that makes a great print job – not least the input of the design consultancy. “Some printers are very good at printing, but no good at client liaison and aren’t flexible,” says Roger Felton of Felton Communication, which specialises in charity and public sector projects. “Some printers bend over backwards to please, but then screw up on the finishing,” he adds.

Citigate Lloyd Northover production director David Pritchard says: “The best print suppliers deliver consistently good work with the minimum of fuss and often to the tightest of deadlines. Production standards have improved; quality of service is harder to find.”

Though important, state-of-the-art kit is not necessarily the deciding factor in choosing a printer. Most design consultancies are less interested in the equipment than the results, though the onslaught of digital printing techniques may change this. Overall chart-topper Westerham does, however, share top slot for equipment with Royle Corporate Print, though Fernedge doesn’t even feature in the charts. Expertise, attitude and service generally appear to be more important to their design consultancy clients.

According to Fonda creative director Ian Pape, “Good samples and an impressive print works are one thing, but it’s the sales directors and overall service that need to be right.”

But, as Adrianne LeMan of annual reports specialist C&FD says, there is no such thing as a perfect printer. It depends on the job. “There can never be an absolute ‘best’,” she says. “Quality being equal, printers must be chosen on size of job, delivery requirements and price.”

Many of the printers nominated in this year’s survey are specialists in brochures and annual reports: Fernedge tops the one chart, Westerham the other. Stationery work has its own specialists, with Benwell Sebard topping the charts this year. Fernedge makes an appearance in joint second position, alongside FS Moore and Solways, but it is the only printer to appear in the stationery charts that also ranks for brochure work and annual reports.

For reasons of convenience, most of the printers nominated in our trawl are UK-based, and often local to the design group. But that isn’t the only option, particularly for longer term projects such as books and some brochures.

“More and more we are working with overseas printers that are targeting the quality end of the market. We currently work with German, Dutch and Swiss printers,” says Browns director Jonathan Ellery.

Maybe as electronic transfer becomes even easier we’ll hear more of this approach, putting the squeeze on UK printers trading only on basic service or the biggest presses. Then quality, personality and service will be the deciding factors for all print choices.

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