Monday, February 4, 2008

Creating and Printing Successful Promotional Materials

At a recent trade show, when people found out I was a graphic designer they all had horror stories about problems getting printed materials like brochures, flyers and catalogues produced.

“Took me hours and hours to get the computer files produced myself. And then the printer said my files wouldn’t work. Something about resolution of the photos being too small. Whatever that is.”

“The design is ok, but the printing is sort of blurry. Took forever to get it delivered.”

These are themes I’ve heard over and over in my 25 years of being a graphic designer. So how can you avoid some of these situations yourself? I’ll try to give an overview and some tips in this article.

It All Starts with Marketing

You’d be surprised at how many people get done with a piece and then find out that they didn’t really define their market. Or define what it was exactly they were trying to accomplish with the brochure and who their audience was. So the piece, even though well designed and printed, falls flat.

Do your marketing homework before you start. You’ll be able to make easier decisions and use your budget in an efficient manner.

Here’s a couple of questions to ask yourself:

Who’s Your Audience? Where do they live? Are they families or are they single? Male or female? Ages? What income levels do they have?

Look for common denominators and try to correlate them with successful sales. You want to fashion your brochure to talk to the specific audience that spends money with you. Or if you think you’ve got them covered, to the next largest audience who you want to reach.

What’s your Message? What do you want the customer to do exactly? What method is involved?

Doing it Yourself

Ok, you’ve done some homework and know what you want to accomplish with your piece. And it’s just a simple flyer, or you have a limited budget, and want to create it yourself.

Get Organized. Gather all your information, photos and available artwork together. It makes it a much more efficient process if you don’t have to keep hunting for stuff. Have one person in charge of the project.

Jan Neilsen of Neilsen Graphic Services, a print broker, works with both designers and people designing their own projects. “Put one person in charge and empower them to make decisions. Working with a committee is inefficient, and can get expensive when people keep changing their minds.”

Keep it Simple. Keep your design direct. Remember that only about 15% of an audience reads everything. Don’t bury your most important marketing information in the body copy, repeat it elsewhere as a sub-head for instance.

Type: Use just a couple of typefaces and colors boldly.

Avoid all caps – caps and lowercase are the easiest to read. Use a column that’s not too wide for the same reason. Use size and weight of type consistently for heads, subheads, pull-quotes and body copy, it helps organize the material for the reader.

Artwork: Use a couple of photos larger, rather than a whole lot of photos in a small size. Or group them together so that they become one unit, rather than scattered all over the page.

Let your marketing decisions and audience information guide you as to the specific look and feel of your piece.

Less is More. Cut out what isn’t directly important to selling your product or service. Then edit, edit, edit, and have several people proofread it, preferably someone who hasn’t seen it.

Use the Correct Software. Spend a few bucks and get the right tools for the job. Word processors won’t work for most printed materials. They don’t offer the means to output the files at high enough resolution, or create color separations that a printer needs.

Some software packages I like are Adobe Pagemaker or InDesign and Adobe Photoshop for photo editing. They come with ready-to-use templates, free trial versions and there’s lots of tutorial books available for them.

Resources for Graphics.
Ask the manufacturers for photos and artwork. Ask them about “co-op advertising” reimbursement. Sometimes if you use their logo or photo in your materials they will help you with the cost.

The web has lots of “stock”, ready-to-use photos, illustration and typefaces available.

Be Aware of Copyright Issues. You can’t just “borrow” a photo or copy an illustration or design legally. They are owned by their original creator. Ask first, and you can usually negotiate a fair usage up-front.

Talk to Your Printer. Find out how specific files should be created in order to print your project correctly. Ask to talk to their pre-press department directly. There’s no question too dumb, and they are there to help you with the process.

Says Neilsen; “Your printer is really trying to do what you want, so talk to them and trust their advice.” He continues, “But have realistic expectations. It’s a manufacturing process and there’s time and quality limitations.”

Working With a Graphic Designer

Don’t have the time or ability to do it yourself? Seek out a professional designer to work with you, they’ll create a successful piece and have the contacts and knowledge to get it printed correctly.

Donna Lattin of South Pacific Island Travel in Seattle has had experience doing her catalogue both ways. “It was a really good experience to do the first catalogue myself because it gave me the experience to know what I wanted. But I wanted somebody else to do it the second time so I could do what I do best, sell dive travel.”

Selecting a Designer: Look at samples, meet with several designers. Don’t get hung up on working with someone who has designed exactly the type of materials you need, but rather check out their range of knowledge and experience.

Cost: Designers usually bill by the hour or project and rates vary. Sometimes an experienced mid-level designer can provide better service than a large agency. Avoid new designers directly out of school, they usually don’t have enough experience with printers. Ask for an estimate, but remember that all jobs are done on a custom basis.

On simpler jobs hiring a designer to create custom templates that you then can work with gives a professional touch across the board in your communications.

Printing Supervision:
One of the roles of a designer is to help you select a printer and work with them to supervise the production of the final piece, including helping to approve printer’s proofs and press checks.

Design Process: A successful design process usually goes in this order: Project Definition, Concept, Layout, and Final Art Production. These all require your input and approval, and changes get increasingly more expensive as the process nears completion. A good designer can help focus your ideas and information into a compelling printed communication.

Jan Neilsen says “A good marketing piece transfers more than information, it transfers feelings and emotions that make people act.” He continues, “I see people that do the former themselves, but miss out on the later. Design is usually the difference.”

Working With Printers

Printers come in all shapes and sizes. Some specialize in smaller format, one and two-color jobs, others in longer run, full-color jobs.

Develop a Relationship with Different Printers. While some larger printers will say they can do all your work, they can be too expensive for small jobs, such as stationery for instance. Giving the right job to the right printer will always be more efficient and cost-effective.

Long distance relationships with printers can be frustrating when it comes to getting changes done at the last minute. If you’ve gotten a low estimate out-of-state or country, check with your local printer to see if they can match it. Even if it’s a little more, you’ll save a lot of time and delivery charges.

Create Written Job Specifications. Compare apples and apples with estimates. Printers are all cost competitive and will usually try to match prices. Make sure you’re getting the same job and service from each of them. Remember, it may be better to pay a little more to the printer who gives you great service and answers all your questions completely.

Match your Project to the Paper and Press Size. They are generally made up of of two 8.5x11” pages and multiple pages are printed at a time. Presses and paper are designed to accommodate certain page counts or run lengths.

Donna Lattin adds, “It was a nice surprise when the designer told me we could print 24 pages for nearly the same cost as 20 pages.”

Remember the Complaint about Photo Resolution? It’s probably one of the most common errors people make when they start creating files for printing. You can’t use a web graphic at 72 dpi to print with; it will become pixilated (stair-stepped looking) when it’s reproduced at the much finer print resolution of 300 dpi.

Also, If it’s going to be in color you must create color separations in press colors of cyan, magenta, yellow and black (called CMYK), rather than the video colors of red, green and blue (called RGB). When converted from RGB into CMYK, the colors will shift, depending on their hue (luminous blues from dive photos can be particularly hard to reproduce).

Sounds complicated, and sometimes it is. Computer files can look ok when created, but they won’t always output correctly by the printer. Sometimes it’s their issue and sometimes it’s not.

This is where a professional graphic designer can help you. They can “talk the talk” with the printer, or adjust the artwork, to correct or resolve the problem.

Continues Lattin, “It’s better to let the designer work directly with the printers as they know the layout and technical issues involved.”

Communication is the Key

Good communication throughout the process is the key to success. Whether you are looking at doing it yourself, or working with a designer or printer, asking questions and taking the advice of professionals can save a lot of grief and expense later. The result will be a winning piece that you, and most importantly your customers, will be happy with.