by Margie Dana

If I could come up with a foolproof formula for efficiently and effectively evaluating printers, I'd patent it and retire to a warm, sunny clime a wealthy woman.

Unfortunately, I am in no danger of trading in my desk chair for a chaise lounge anytime soon. Evaluating printers is very challenging. Most people think printing is a commodity and that every printer is created equal. It ain't so.

Because I am regularly asked how to evaluate printers, I thought I'd share some of the reasons why this is a challenge - one that requires knowledge and industry expertise:

People take printing for granted. Someone wrote recently that printing is the "invisible visible" industry. Everyone uses it but very few know anything about how it's done.

  • There are approximately 40,000 printing establishments in the US alone.
  • Most of these firms are independently owned and operated - meaning, they are all different.
  • Printers differ in many ways - price, equipment, capabilities, quality, and service come to mind.
  • Printers' capabilities are primarily determined by the equipment they have. Unless you have a full appreciation of what all sorts of printing equipment can do, you can't match a job with a particular printing firm.
  • In general, printing companies are lousy self-marketers. Most of them do very little (if any) marketing. So even if printers within a few miles of you are perfect for your needs, you may never know about them.
  • The names are changing. Some firms are taking the word "printing" out and inserting words like "marketing," "communications," and "media." They're doing this to appeal to a different and broader market and to indicate they've grown beyond print. I just worry that the printing part of their business will get lost.
  • There is no one-source, comprehensive directory, either online or in hard copy, of every existing printing establishment. It cannot be done. Not only do names change often (see above), but also...
  • The printing industry itself is riding a wave of change - there are many consolidations, printers are acquiring or are being acquired by others, and the US loses about 1000 printing firms each year.
  • Printing can be purchased over the Internet, giving customers yet another way to purchase printed material.
  • Printing technology is confusing to non-professionals. So much of a printer's value to customers is wrapped up in his or her technical strengths. And those strengths have to match up with your particular needs.
  • Print customers are often blinded by low price. Like everything else in this world, you get what you pay for.
  • The language of printing is foreign to many people. If you're new to buying or are just an occasional print buyer, it's intimidating to hear terms like JDF, cross media, web-to-print, remote proofing, MetalFX, XM screening, and trans-promo. If you don’t understand a term or concept – ask. For if you don’t “get” what the printer can do, how can you evaluate his services? (Printers could describe the benefits of their equipment better to prospects, to be sure, but many don’t.)
  • Printing is customized manufacturing. This is the single most overlooked fact about printing. Your particular job, with all of its detailed specifications and requirements, must be taken into account when you're evaluating printers with whom to work. Put another way: getting printing done right takes work - and a lot of knowledge.

People take printing for granted. Someone wrote recently that printing is the "invisible visible" industry. Everyone uses it but very few know anything about how it's done. During a dinner party last weekend, a woman to my right asked what I did for a living. I paused, and then I told her that I specialize in speaking and writing about printing and print buying, and produce educational events that focus on the same.

"What's there to write about printing?" she asked. It is a common reaction. It's as though someone, or some group, decided long ago to make printing look far too easy - or someone had the bright idea to wrap it in a cloud of mystery. This low profile (bordering on no profile) contributes to the problem of finding and evaluating printers.