Answering “how much does printing X cost”

ink fountain

When in the preliminary stages of a graphic design project involving print, people often contact me asking something along the lines of “How much for 1,000 business cards”. While it might seem that many business cards are more or less equal, there are a dozen factors which dramatically affect the cost of printing, and without knowing more about your desired outcome answering the question accurately can be tough.

While it’s a reasonable assumption for clients to make that the cost of putting ink to paper should not vary much, different outcomes can require significantly more labour on behalf of the printer and also need additional equipment to achieve the desired result.

The following information applies to pretty much all printing – letterheads, label designs, packaging, envelopes etc. – for the sake of this article I’ll refer to business cards alone. Printings costs are affected by the following:

Colour – Business cards are not printed 1 at a time. Depending on the project, anywhere from 4 to several dozen cards are printed onto a larger sheet of paper – as shown on the diagram below – before being cropped and sorted into their individual orders.

business card printing layout

Because of this, the colours used dictate how a printer must perform the work.

Many cards are printed in CMYK, this is the standard 4 colour ink combination which you probably have in your home/office printer (though some may have 6 or 8). Because colours are combined when printing with this system, multiple orders can be printed on a single sheet, as shown in the diagram below.

cmyk business cards

In the above example, a printer has 25 jobs set on 1 sheet. To print 1,000 cards for each order, printing plates are created for each colour (used to apply ink to paper), the press has to be set once and 1,000 sheets are printed. This is obviously a very efficient method of printing which keeps costs down.

Not all jobs can be printed in CMYK though, for a few reasons. The first is that some colours are simply not achievable by mixing Cyan, Magenta, Yellow & Black. Colours like vibrant oranges, bright greens, pinks etc. just can’t be made this way. To achieve these, an individual pre-made colour – called a Pantone, PMS or spot colour – has to be used instead.

The other reason is consistency. Because CMYK is a mix, printing the same thing on 2 different printers can have slightly different results. If one colour is running a little heavier or lighter during a print job, it will alter the final colour to some extent. Because PMS colours are pre-made and not mixed during printing, but applied in a single pass, the colour is reproduced exactly each time.
This consistency is especially important for branding where colour plays a key role. Think ‘Coca Cola red’, ‘Barbie pink’, ‘Twitter blue’, ‘Nickelodeon orange’ and so on. Having constant variations in the colours of their promotional materials would be detrimental to the brand.

There are thousands of Pantone colours, so the chances of a printer having 2 jobs at the same time which use the exact same colours (and other elements…) are basically non-existent. Because of this, jobs are printed like so:

pantone business card printing

In this situation, to print 25 orders of 1,000 ‘standard’ 2 colour business cards, plates are created and 2 ink fountains are filled with the correct colours for the first order, the sheets are printed, then the press must be completely reset for the next order including new plates, cleaning the ink fountains, refilling them and so on… For every order. Obviously this is a lot more labour intensive and the cost of the cards goes up.

Common stock (that’s your paper), colours and divided labour make for cheap printing. The more you vary from this, be it due to the number of colours used, the type of stock, varnish (usually gloss, matte or satin), extras such as die-cuts, spot varnishes, embossing, foil-stamping etc. the more labour and materials are involved in your project.

There are also different printing methods like offset printing (used in the example above), letterpress printing and others. Each have different capabilities, limitations and requirements. What seems like only a little extra on top of a ‘regular’ business card can in fact be nearly the same amount of work as the card itself.

Because of all these factors, a reasonably thorough understanding of what the final product needs to be is required in order for any hope of an accurate quote.

Things to consider when having business cards designed and printed:

As a client, and especially at the beginning of a project, you’re probably not going to know every last detail for your upcoming printed materials, and nor should you be expected to. That’s why you’re working with a graphic designer, after all. There are a few factors to consider though, which will help in getting a more accurate quote.

If you have an existing brand identity, can your corporate colours be printed in CMYK or will they need to be Pantone?
How many colours will there be?
What kind of stock and finish do you want?
Will you want any ‘extras’ like embossing, a spot varnish, or die-cut?

A set of business cards could be anywhere from $200 to $2,000 depending on what’s required. With these questions answered, the processes required to achieve your desired outcome can be narrowed down and a more accurate quote can be given. Image credit.

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