While “book learning” is all well and good, in my opinion nothing beats hands on experience.
While undertaking my studies in graphic design years ago and learning about printing – the printing equipment itself, printing processes and how to prepare print ready artwork for clients – by far the most useful information wasn’t learnt in the classroom, but when volunteering for work experience at a printing house.
How to find the right printer and learn all you can:
Finding local printers should be relatively easy. A Google maps search for “printing house your area” should bring up plenty of results, but before you start emailing everyone within a stone’s throw, you want to make sure you’re contacting the right printers to maximise your experience.
Like in any type of industry, printers vary in size and specialise in different areas. Printers also have more or less modern equipment which use varying printing processes to achieve the same results. On the smaller end of the scale, some may only provide basic offset printing services, and while still interesting, this will limit your learning experience.
You’re not there to learn the basics, right? You want to learn it all!
Stay completely away from the “instant” type printers where they run you off a hundred business cards in 20 minutes for a few bucks. The equipment used here are mostly high end digital printers – basically a ‘big brother’ version of the printer you have at home – and there’s not much to see here.
As you expand into more areas and larger companies, printers will offer offset printing ranging from a 5 colour press (CMYK + either a varnish or additional Pantone spot colour) to 12 colour presses used for complex jobs with multiple additional colours or multiple varnishes.
Some will offer letterpress printing. Compared to traditional offset printing this is a completely different world. You know those vintage wooden blocks of type? You know those 600gsm cotton business cards with the deep impressions you love to see? This is where they come from.
Others may specialise in finishing services. While some printers do handle this work in-house, things like foil-stamping, laminating, mounting, embossing and drilling are often outsourced and not handled internally. My personal favourite, colour edging/edge painting, is one that is often handled by book binders, and not printers themselves, even though they may have edge painted business cards in their portfolios.
Even something you’d expect to be dull like binding a magazine together is a sight to see. A lot happens with those pages and spools of wire before they end up as a saddle stitched magazine. Vacuum tubes are involved, can you guess what for?
Find somewhere where you’re going to see a variety of work in progress, ideally including the initial steps such as the creation of printing plates or blocks, setting a machine and filling the ink fountain(s), printing itself, and finally cropping the stock to create the finished product.
What to expect from the printer, a few caveats and some common courtesy:
During my search I emailed a dozen or so printers asking for a few days work experience. Not surprisingly I didn’t hear back from many of them, and few politely refused, and finally 2 were kind enough to offer me a couple of days work.
The printers are running a business and ultimately work comes first. A full workload, or other factors may mean be they’re not in the best position to accommodate you. Don’t worry if you get a few knock backs, just keep approaching printers and you’ll find one.
When someone does offer to have you, it’s unavoidable that you’re going to be somewhat of an inconvenience for them, no matter how minor. They have to show you around, time spent explaining things to you is time not spent working, and assuming everyone wants you to end the day with all your fingers, they’ll be keeping an eye on you throughout the day.
Between the interesting bits, there is some boring work to be done. Deliveries of ink and paper need to be unpacked, active jobs need to be moved from printer, to binder, to guillotine, and finally finished print jobs need to boxed for shipping. It’s reasonably for them to get a little labour of you for the exchange. You really can get a lot from the experience, so be prepared to give a little.
It will be worth it.
What advice would you give budding graphic designers and students to improve their knowledge? Leave a comment and let me (and them) know.