Find work experience at a printing house; Advice for design students/new designers

letterpress feed table

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.

11 thoughts on “Find work experience at a printing house; Advice for design students/new designers”

  1. I began my early work at The Arkansas Democrat (before they were the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette). I too would recommend that anyone who wants to know exactly how “things are done” do this.

  2. I’m a firm believer in experience wins hands down. Some of the best designers never picked up a book or did a course.

    Get the experience wherever you can but unless the place you are working for is not your goal destination, learn what you can and move on. A designer (like most professions) is a lot more employable when they have job compared to being unemployed.

    A valuable piece of advice I was given as a jnr designer was never stay more than 2 years in one place and learn everything you can while your there.

  3. Excellent advise, There is nothing like “hands on” experience teamed with “book learning”. I worked for a printing company, several publishers and started my own company focusing on designing books. The “hands on experience” where you actually see the actual process and problems when a designer doesn’t follow production specs/parameters when designing/publishing a book was invaluable.

  4. I think that interning under a company who does letterpress printing would be a great experience. However these companies are hard to find.

    I searched for a month for a printing company who designs for their customers as well. I didn’t learn much from the design side of the business as they were churning out at least 5 projects a day for their customers, such as leaflet designs, business cards etc. However I did learn more about how the printing process works and it allowed me to think of the end process when starting a project.

    Has interning in a printing company influenced how you do your projects?

  5. We offer work experience to design students or recent graduates in the oft missed and valuable field of pre-press and getting designs to print, this is a sorely missed area and we are always happy to help.

    But, really disappointed in the “never stay more than 2 years” advice, that is not really good for the employer as they are the ones, usually, who provide the time effort and training to get that person up to being a skilled and chargeable creative member of the team.

    If we stopped doing that because the young designers coming through are only going to stay for a short time, get as much experience as possible and then use that at the next job, does not auger well for the design industrious, as maybe you will find that employers will no longer employ less experienced people.

    Remember we want people to be members of our team, and not just transient members.

  6. To me, hands on experience in production (print and digital) is essential for every designer. It shouldn’t even be a question.

    It will make you a better designer, a faster designer and will provide you with more job opportunities throughout your career.

    If you start your own business, you will know the true value of a project, how to quote and how to handle it from start to finish.

    In turn, your clients will have confidence in your ability and will keep coming back. You will know where mistakes have been made, who is ripping you off and who isn’t.

    It will set you apart from the field and you will just get better and better.

  7. When I studied design – about 15 years ago now. We learnt a lot about design and design theory but hardly anything about actually printing a job. For most of my class the first actual job they printed was their business card.

    In my second year I made arrangements to spend two weeks in a Perth printer and boy did I learn a lot. Tips and tricks I’m still using today.

    Another aspect I learnt was how to talk to printers, asking the right questions in the right way they are more than happy to help. I watched designers come into the press room big noting themselves and talking down to the printers. The printers took delight in watching them screw up. A bit of respect goes a long way.

  8. In regards to your comment Mark, I understand totally where you are coming from. As an employer you would want some return from your investment in that person.

    However, to clarify where I was coming from, for a person new to the industry the most important factor in their career is to learn. One company will only show their viewpoint of operation, whereas gaining information from different work places will give a more rounded education e.g. If you only had one teacher throughout you whole school career all you would know is that one teaching style.

    Back when I was a jnr, over 20 years ago, our wages were pathetic but that was the trade off for the experience. I have worked for both large and small agencies and among all that some time with both large and small printers both post and pre-computers. Because of my history I am able to walk into any situation and work with no hiccups in regards to a learning transition.

    I respect printers for what they do (I work closely with them), and maybe if a young person wants to be a printer your viewpoint has weight but in this case we are talking graphic design and a young designer will not learn all they need to learn from working with only one printer or from a course or a book.

  9. In my opinion, there is NO better way to learn… It will serve you the rest of your career! They won’t let you get away with crappy files, wrong sizes and poor resolution, bad fonts and no bleeds. You can’t get away with letting pre-press deal with it.

    I worked for a printing company that specialized in nightclub work and quick turn around. I left there 10 years ago but to this day they call me when they need a job for a client, because they know they will get a job that will not cause headaches.

  10. Having work experience in both studio and a print/pre-press environment is crucial to the development of an early design career. It teaches young designers what is expected of a print file, the process, how to communicate with printers and what are the baseline expectations in a studio.

    When I first started my studies, it was required of us to seek out work experience in both a studio and a print/press press environment and hand in an evaluation of our time in both. As students we also went in a group (pre-arranged with the printers) to observe the different printing facilities and to meet the local companies.

    These experiences were part of my diploma level course, which I I learned a lot more about the fundamentals of the design industry than Griffith or QUT could provide with their bachelors degree in communication design/design. A piece of paper isn’t everything. It’s finding the right mentors and having the right initiative.

  11. I couldn’t agree more! Knowing how a job is actually produced is crucial to being a successful designer. Understanding production makes you a better graphic designer.

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