By Rory Thomas

When it comes to working with a commercial printer, one of the most underestimated parts of the process for designers or customers is the amount of lead time to bake into a project’s timeline. In today’s technological world of instant gratification and efficiency, the question of “When’s it going to be ready” is often asked with the expectation that the turnaround will be fast, but for professional printing services, a rushed deadline isn’t always the best approach.

To understand the appropriate printing lead times for your projects, it’s important to know the true definition of “lead time.” In the world of printing, lead time includes set up, file handling, proofing, and any other steps that may be necessary before the job goes to press. While it may seem hard to avoid hectic schedules and short deadlines, the more lead time you can give the printer to get the job done right, the happier all parties will be and the better your results will be. 

Most commercial printers understand that time isn’t always on your side and can adapt their processes efficiently to meet short lead times, but here are some things to keep in mind to make sure your print job comes out on time with no errors.

Managing Projects Effectively

As you’re envisioning your print job, it may seem like a simple or fast order to complete, and it probably looks good in your project plan to have a quick turnaround time. But while ordering rush printing to fulfill a quick deadline is typically possible, it also does not allow much time for proofing or making adjustments. There’s also less time to spot and fix any errors along the way. 

When you choose rush printing, you are also leaving less room for communication between you and the printer regarding questions or changes. To maximize efficiency, it’s helpful for the printer if your project is set up to the exact specifications, but if you’re unsure whether the project is ready for the press, make sure to budget enough lead time for proofing and back-and-forth communication with the printer.

Realistic delivery times vary greatly depending on the size and complexity of the run, but thinking of every print job as a custom job that takes time to prepare, review, and approve can be helpful when planning your project.

Considering Proofing Time 

The goal of professional printers is always to get a project proofed and ready to print in a smooth process, but proofing is often the part of the process that gets delayed and takes a few repetitions before a job is ready to go to the press.

From the files you’ve sent the printer, high-resolution proofs will be sent back to you to proof. It’s critical for the client or customer to review these proofs for errors and approve them, which can be a challenging process at larger companies where multiple people need to review and approve proofs. If this is the case with your business or company, plan a reasonable amount of time for each person to review the proof and respond appropriately. It’s difficult for the printer to gauge how long this will take on your end and how many subsequent proof cycles will be necessary before the project is ready to print, so it’ll be helpful for you to understand what the approval process looks like on your end and plan accordingly.

What Are Typical Lead Times for Projects?

Your printer’s experience in the industry will make it possible for them to make a fair estimate of how long your project might reasonably take, but the printing method that you choose will largely determine how long it takes. Jobs that require digital printing often have shorter lead times and more streamlined proofing processes, whereas offset printing jobs take longer to set up and proof. Projects that involve laminating, embossing, or other finishing work may also require more time.

In general, the quickest types of jobs are small projects that do not require binding, including postcards, posters, or flyers. With this type of quick project, all that may be required for approval is a digital proof sent by email. Digital projects that are slightly more complicated, such as calendars, booklets, and magazines, can take around 10 business days with either a physical or digital proof sent by the printer. Different types of binding can add extra time onto the process, with saddle-stitch being the fastest and perfect-bound usually taking the longest. 

Projects that are both large and lengthy, including annual reports, books, and perfect-bound projects, often take 15-20 business and can be time-consuming to print and proof. These types of projects also often require at least one physical proof. 

While these standard turnaround times include one round of reasonable proofing, issues can and do arise with projects. Staying on top of every step of the printing process can help ensure that your project moves through each step as swiftly as possible.

Factoring in Specialty Production Time

It’s important to note that the standard lead times discussed earlier are for projects that do not require any custom finishing or mailing preparation. If specialty production time does need to be added, it’s a good idea to factor in at least another day or two for foil stamping, laminating, embossing, or other finishing processes. Additional time will also be necessary for assembly for mailing or mail fulfillment services.

On the subject of finishing processes, letterpress printing can be a great way to achieve an old-fashioned but elegant look that can be applied to invitations, envelopes, gifts, and letterheads. This process works by its own timeline and can’t ever be a rush job, but the gorgeous results it produces can help your project stand out in a heavily corporate world. Reach out to your printer to find out more about letterpress printing and what kind of expectations you can have for production and delivery of letterpress projects.

If none of the above project types fit what you’re looking for, talk to your printer. They will help you plan a reasonable timeline that works for everyone and gets the best results.