Wide-format printing used to mean outsourcing to a printer. Richard Wentk investigates whether the technology is a worthwhile in-house investment.
As inkjet technology has matured and become more affordable, designers, artists and agencies alike have started to wonder if having an in-house wide-format inkjet can replace outsourced printing. The advantages are obvious - instant turnaround, in-house quality control and speedy proofing. When deadlines are tight, it's more convenient to produce samples to order immediately rather than waiting for a professional printer to squeeze the job in.
But in some respects such considerations are missing the point. Creative output across a range of unusual and inventive media is an added specialism for any studio or agency. Having access to more creative output - and importantly, understanding it - in turn stimulates more creative ideas. What's more, for commercial studios and designers, it's not hard to imagine a studio selling signed fine art-quality posters of design work for a premium, as a sideline.
Industrial print designers such as the Graphic Systems Group have built up a carefully managed solution service, which offers complete creative direction, asset management, rights management and enterprise-level workflow. With an enviable collection of brands on its books, GSG's secret is that it's not just a print service - instead it plugs itself into the workflows of agencies and clients to offer a transparent answer to output problems of every size and scale.
This kind of all-in-one solution is difficult for smaller design studios to compete with, which is why GSG's clients are mostly top-flight blue-chips. But even if GSG's digital facilities can't be emulated, some of its creative thinking can. A recent example was a Harry Potter store makeover in New York. Instead of limiting itself to a poster design, GSG created stick-on designs on 3M Controltac Graphic Film, which could be applied to walls to create a simulated castle look. Combined with suitable flooring and furniture, the section of the store was transformed into a Harry Potter grotto. By thinking beyond the boundaries of a conventional print project, GSG was able to add a memorable twist to a point-of-sale experience. In this case, stick-on designs blurred the lines between print, interior design and architecture.
While poster printing won't go away any time soon, other media - including vinyl, banners, backlit transparencies and outdoor papers - offer possibilities that stretch traditional ideas of what a print project should look like. And for paper print itself, size is becoming less of an issue. The latest Scitex printers can print on outdoor paper in widths of up to 5m, with length limited only by the available roll size. It would be difficult for a start-up to justify buying one of these monsters, but just knowing that ultra-grand-scale printing is now available for hire can change the way that a creative project is planned.
The outsource option
Nick Pye runs Agent8 Design and he doesn't see printing as an essential service for clients. "I'll outsource anything over A3, or a run over about 10 or so. I have an old Epson 1290 here and also a newer R1800. Both of those get a fair amount of use doing proofs and concept material for clients. To be honest, the outlay for high-end printers is outside of our remit. If I need that service I go to local printers who specialise in it. As far as I know, all of the other local small design studios tend to outsource. It's not just the cost - I'm running a graphic design company and I'd rather spend my time working on a design than managing a print run."
Elsewhere, small-scale design and print can work, but is often limited to relatively small niches. Keith Cooper is a commercial photographer and designer. He uses Epson large-format printers to create poster-sized examples of his work, which he then sells to a variety of clients for a range of applications, from promotional stands where the prints have been laminated onto foamcore, to interior design and art printing where prints are framed and hung.
"To be honest, wide-format is an absolute minefield if you only know a little about it, especially if you're aiming to produce a quality product," he says. "Even with colour calibration, I know how much effort I put into getting prints right for myself - and I'm only relatively picky. It's cheap to get A1 or A0 prints made at a print shop, but if you want precise colour with a wide gamut, it's a hell of a job, and it's very difficult to make any money on it."
So why make the effort? Aside from quality, there are other advantages to working in-house. "As a commercial photographer, I find that the prints are extremely useful for getting me known. I put a name and URL on all of my prints, and potential clients see them. The printing itself isn't a money maker, but it's a useful tool for PR as much as for direct revenue."
Cooper's approach isn't unique, but it is unusual - instead of thinking of print as the final and least interesting stage of the design process, custom prints can become part of a local viral marketing campaign. This only works because custom printing can be used as a showcase for both print quality and visual skills. Professional printers are unlikely to take the same kind of care over someone else's work, so for this approach to be successful, the prints have to be exceptionally good, and the target audience has to be visually and technically aware enough to appreciate them. The catch is the time and expense. For niche markets such as fine art and photographic printing, the results can be worth it.
As Cooper explains, there's more involved than just buying a printer and installing it in a corner of the studio. "I hear this all the time, from people who buy a medium or wide-format and don't understand how much work is needed to get the most from it. There are basics such as maintenance. If I go away for a few weeks, I have someone come in and turn the printer on for a while every few days to stop the heads clogging. Another key challenge is colour management. I have a lot of profiling and colour-control equipment here. All of it is necessary if you want accurate colour matching and good reproducibility. You can pay someone to make a profile for you from a test print, but it's very much easier and faster to do it yourself. It also means you can swap media as you like for specialised projects."
"The other point is that I use a RIP, which is invaluable as an accessory," he adds. "You get better control over layout with multiple prints on a page and better control over ink use. A RIP is particularly useful for specialised or third-party media - combined with a custom profile you can tune the print and ink to give the very best results. I couldn't imagine working without one, but buyers don't appreciate that RIP prices are proportional to printer prices and can add 25-50 per cent to the package price."
Even with the printer and RIP software, there's more to come: "I also use a Mac server, which handles file backups too. This is more of an option - there's no reason why you can't just use Photoshop for one-offs. But combined with the RIP it offers professional print spooling and remote management."
Initial investment isn't small then, and running costs in time and money are very significant. Overall, the experience is completely different from buying an A3+ semi-desktop and using it casually for occasional samples. So can design and print be made to work in a single studio? One successful example is Inprint Design. As Mark Davis, the studio manager, explains, "In-house, we use an Epson 10600 and a 9800, running an Onyx RIP. Ink costs are significant, with the 10600 costing £107 a cart and the 9800 costing £45. In terms of content, we do design and production work for pop-up displays, large-format A0 posters and optional lamination. We do general commercial design work but we have a close relationship with Bradford University, so we do a lot of what are called showcase posters. We can then add a gloss laminate and mount onto foam board or PVC."
Davis points out that to make large-format design and printing financially viable, you have to keep the printers running constantly. This in turn aids self-promotion, as the more creative and inventive output they produce, the more they build their profile. Even so, Davis admits that building a client-base who will call on your design and print needs regularly is key.
So what's the consensus? Designers seem to agree that design is more interesting than print and that printing in large-format requires specialist skills and experience, and extra investment in technology beyond the printer itself. The most successful large-format print and design studios have a captive niche market they can rely on. So the business case for investing in large-format has to be very strong. In a nutshell, large-format is expensive, bulky, time-consuming and slow. While there are some narrow commercial situations where the benefits outweigh the costs, especially for high-end corporate clients, there has to be evidence of a strong market before it's worth making the investment. For smaller design houses and start-ups, wide-format in-house is often difficult to justify.
But is this missing the point? The most interesting possibilities for designers come from understanding what the largest printers and media can do. Even if the work is outsourced, being able to offer clients ultra-large-format products on specialised robust media can give designers a significant advantage. You don't necessarily need an industrial printer in your studio, but creative output offers possibilities that aren't available if your interest ends at glossy A0 on perfboard. As GSG's Harry Potter project shows, technology now places less of a restriction on the artist's imagination. Designers who think big, rather than just thinking wide, are going to give themselves an impressive creative edge.