Keeping Print Flexible with Prepress and Design Services

At a single gymnastics event, pro photographer John Cheng might shoot between 40,000 and 120,000 digital pictures, depending on the size of the tounament and the number of contestants. He makes his living by selling those images to the gymnasts’ families. It is the kind of business that requires rapid turnaround of a vast number of images.

Based in Connecticut, one of the most popular items in Cheng’s portfolio is collage images. Creating collages requires separating the gymnasts from the original background of a photo and layering those silhouetted images over a new background image he also shot. That means painstakingly drawing clipping paths around several images. To create one collage could take between two and three hours, and he was doing all the work himself. Realizing that portion of his business wasn’t very lucrative, Cheng decided to drop the collage offering from his service menu.

But his clients would not let him. The demand to resume offering the collages was so great that Cheng decided he needed to find another way to process the images besides sitting on his computer for hours on end to create the images. He contacted several local companies that offered such services, and it became clear that the prices they were quoting just would not fit his business model. He would either need to continue to leave the collage offering out of his list of services or price the service out of reach. Neither was a good option.

Cheng attempted to get answers to his dilemma the way most of us do today: he “Googled” it and discovered a company in India that specializes in just the type of work he needed. The firm does retouching and clipping paths as their main business. He sent them a few sample images and, within 24 hours, had finished images and a price quote that was about a fifth the price he had gotten from U.S.-based vendors.

That price difference isn’t really typical, according to Raj Shah, who founded the company in Mumbai that performs the work for Cheng, but he estimates that his U.S.-based clients routinely save 40 percent to 60 percent on average when they send work to him. Shah keeps a staff of 15 graphic artists busy from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., five days a week, in his graphics studio, Global Solutions India, which he founded 10 years ago at the not-so-ripe age of 19. What might come as a surprise is that several U.S. clients we spoke with confirm that, although price is certainly a factor, quality is the bar by which work has to be measured. Cost is actually secondary. In fact, some clients had tried U.S. sources first, but found the quality to be lacking in comparison to the work done in India.

Shah understands that sending work overseas can be a sensitive issue for his U.S. clients. “At times, clients are sensitive and we understand their concern. But we are living in [a] global market, and even India sends a lot of business to U.S. and other countries. Similarly, we have WalMart and other U.S. companies doing business here, so it wouldn’t be right to have restrictions on anyone.”

Nancy Starkman, who owns Star Print Brokers in Bellevue, WA, has learned from experience that not all overseas service providers put quality first. “When discussing outsourcing, just like printers or designers in the U.S., or printers and designers overseas, not all resources are created equally. What my company brings to the table is that we’ve already tested and approved our vendors, and we stand behind our work. We do volume work, so we get lower trade rates.”

Overseas Quality: Some Good, Some Not So Good

Starkman warns that finding a good service provider overseas can be costly and time consuming. “If clients are interested in going direct, they have to work out the same issues we did long ago and take their losses unless they are lucky with the first vendors they try. When working overseas, you don’t have the protection we do here in the U.S. You can’t complain to the Better Business Bureau. Filing a lawsuit is not a much of an option either, so you take your chances.”

Like Shah, Starkman feels some resistance to using overseas providers, and her company also does a considerable portion of its prepress work in the States. “Personally, I would rather keep jobs in the U.S. whenever possible. But independent authors and small publishers need to compete in the marketplace, so, depending on the situation, it can work well for them. If they can’t compete, their livelihood may be at stake.”

The general tendency is to design in the United States and print overseas. U.S.-based service providers are used “for superior design work, not basic production and layout,” Starkman explained. “It’s pricey, but worth it for the clients who need only the best.” She also finds that overseas animators are often the best solution. “The animators [there] are really great!”

Richard Sohanchyk, owner of OnPoint Image & Design in Pelham, NY, is both an outsourcer and outsourcee. “One of our primary services is to function as the design/production studio for small ad agencies, printers, and art directors. It’s roughly 50 percent of our design/prepress business,” he said.

But Sohanchyk also sends some of his work to freelancers. He has learned some lessons when it comes to outsourcing. “Never pay hourly on a design project or you will get raked over the coals. I’ve taken estimates from designers, doubled it, added my markup, and still ended up 20 to 30 hours beyond that. I have a set price list for logos, identity, brochures, newsletters, etc., along with corresponding project fees I will pay. I make allowances for overtime, which does happen, but you really have to safeguard against time sheet abuse.”

Alicia White, a Dallas-based designer, sees communication skills as an important factor in creating a relationship with any outsourcing partner. “There are two things to consider: 1) who talks to the client directly, and 2) how do you handle multiple revisions? If you are okay with your freelancer communicating with your client, be sure it is understood that the freelancer works for your company,” White stressed. “He should not represent his own design company—he should represent you.

“As far as revisions, this really needs to be clarified up front with the client and the freelancer. It wouldn’t be fair to the freelancer if he quotes a project based on two revisions and you ask him to do itty-bitty minor edits without compensation.”

Across the Atlantic, Kelvin Clarke owns allpointsmedia in Bournemouth, U.K., a firm that specializes in service for publishers to outsource part or full magazine production, including prepress. “The main reason publishers like this service is fixed costs. Normally, the magazines are produced at a page rate without extras, so their costs are consistent month by month. Publishers are also able to save on IT costs by outsourcing...they are able to concentrate on sales without the problems of copy collection, which is normally the most time consuming part, and page make-up.”

While the market for outsourcing prepress functions has developed more slowly than outsourcing for press work, it is clearly a growing trend. Once limited to specialty work (such as creating clipping paths and retouching), a growing number of overseas providers offer a full package of services, further dwindling the number of U.S. prepress workers. PN