Navigating the Paper Maze

With so many great paper samples and swatchbooks to choose from, it’s hard to know which ones to order, which ones to keep—and which ones you’ll use. Our production expert offers some useful tips for firms of all sizes.

Saturday is sample day at most supermarkets. Customers can eat their way through the produce section (exotic melons, juicy pineapple cubes), the service deli (salmon dip on toasted baguette squares), the ethnic aisle (sushi rolls, miniature squid tentacles) and the wine department (OK, the wine samples are a fantasy). The point is: You try something, you like it, you buy it. If you hate it, you smile politely and move on.

Sampling paper can be similar if you’re shrewd and if your printer cooperates. To sample paper like you would pineapple, ask your printer to tack on a new sheet at the end of one of your regular press runs (on a web press) or throw a few sheets on the stack (on a sheetfed press). Either way, you get to see exactly what your designs would look like on the new paper.

If your printer is unwilling or unable to offer this kind of sampling, you must enter what I call the "sample maze." The sample maze is a labyrinth made up of stacks of samples from mills that would love for you to buy their products. To attract your business, they send you printed brochures on any subject that will catch your eye and amuse you.

The reason I call this a maze is because if you kept it all, your office would soon resemble one of those corn mazes you see when you’re driving through Iowa. If you venture inside, you’ll quickly wonder if you’ll ever reach the end. Instead of corn, your maze is made of all the paper you’ve stacked up. You know how to reach your desk and the door, but visitors can get lost for days.

So how do you manage all this paper? The best way to start is to be ruthless about exactly what kinds of paper samples you really need. If the only sheets you ever use happen to be only the sheets that your printer stocks, then you don’t need to keep any paper samples at all. Instead, whenever you have a new project to print, visit your printer and ask to see your options.

I used to think this was a poor strategy for designers because it severely limits your choices and, hence, your designs. Truly creative designs utilize the characteristics of a given paper to enhance the design. For such creativity to flourish, I once believed, you need access to all the papers on the market.

Now, however, I think relying on your printer’s more restricted paper options is a good strategy. Here’s why: Most printers offer a variety of grades and weights from a set number of paper mills with whom they cultivate a close relationship. These papers are the workhorses that the printers run every day. The advantages of buying paper through your printer are numerous:

  • You get a good price because of the volume of paper the printer consumes. Paper prices are generally passed along to print buyers without a lot of profit margin built in for the printer.
  • You get reliability because the printer knows how these familiar papers behave on his equipment.
  • You get guaranteed availability of the paper you select, both because of the volume of paper on the printer’s floor and because the mills serve their biggest customers first.
  • You get the negotiating power of the printer if something goes wrong with the paper. Mills have a strong interest in staying on good terms with large-volume customers.
  • You get an immediate solution to your paper problems if a glitch develops, whether it’s a bad batch of paper or a screw-up with the delivery. Generally, when such problems occur, printers substitute a better grade of paper for your missing stock—without raising prices.

The biggest disadvantage of buying paper through your printer is the reduced number of choices. To avoid this restriction, some designers buy their own paper. This is most common for large-volume print buyers (e.g., magazine and catalog designers) that have enough clout with paper mills to ensure that problems of availability and quality will be remedied quickly and easily. It’s also common for tiny-volume print buyers (e.g., designers who work on wedding invitations or other limited-run projects) to purchase their own paper because they can run down to the stationery store and buy another packet if they run out.

But what about mid-sized design jobs? For these projects, some designers use a paper merchant. Paper merchants broker large volumes of paper, just as printers do, so they, too, have good relationships with mills. Plus, they usually have ties with a greater number of paper mills, so your choices are vastly increased.

If you use a paper merchant, be aware that, from the printer’s point of view, you’re supplying your own paper. So if anything goes wrong, you’re responsible. Of course, no printer is really in the business of telling you, "It’s your problem, so deal with it." On the other hand, the level of responsibility that a printer may feel is highly dependent on your status as a print buyer. If you do a lot of business with a given printer and you have a good relationship, the printer is more likely to step in and help you get more or different paper quickly. If you shop around for printers or you have an adversarial relationship with your printer, you could be in real trouble.

What does all this have to do with collecting paper samples? Simple. You may think that the point of compiling lots of samples is to stimulate your creativity, and that definitely is a perk. But the ultimate point of paper samples is to sell you paper. There’s no sense in holding onto a paper sample that you can’t use because the mill won’t make the paper available to you. There’s also no point in having a paper sample from a mill that won’t help you if the batch of paper they sell you is bad. Nor is there any reason to have a paper sample on which your printer can’t print for technical reasons.

In this regard, paper is no different than pineapple. Remember that smiling clerk in the grocery store who handed you a chunk of pineapple on a toothpick? The clerk also had tubs full of fruit to sell. The smart buyer is the one who buys only what’s needed, at an affordable price, from a reputable retailer, for a practical purpose. Anything less is too hard to swallow.

HOW June 2006