Getting Good Graphics: Working with Customers

By Michael Malinski, CPP
The Review Magazine 2003

In order to produce distinctive graphics, you need to educate and work with your clients to get the right raw materials. I’m sure that just like me, every digital production person always receives correctly set-up files for production in plenty of time to meet their deadlines. Nice daydream, isn’t it? But let’s face reality, as ugly as it may seem. How may times have we received overnight packages with several puzzle pieces we need to put together to produce what the client needs? And usually the time in which we must produce the job is almost nil.

Let me lay out some of the production nightmares we face on a day-to-day basis:

  • Impossible timeframes
  • Working with clients thousands of miles away
  • Working with individuals who do not understand requirements for large format output
  • Pre-planning project specifications

Last year I received professional certification from the Industrial Fabrics Association International as a Certified Project Planner. It was a learning process from a number of perspectives. My certification is intended to demonstrate a high level of service to the client and the ability to produce a better product more efficiently. The final part of the process involved being interviewed by three of my industry peers. I was asked a question that I think is very important. Is the client always right? My answer was “no.” However, I still have to find a way to give the customers what they want, no matter what I’m working with.

I have taken that logic and what I’ve learned over the years to come up with the following procedure for managing a project.

  • Supply as much company and production-specific information to your client as
    you can
  • Make sure they understand the information
  • Provide an estimate

The estimate involves project pre-planning, making suggestions for art to be provided, analyzing what the client, will provide, and initiating the first file set-up discussion.

Taking clients to school

Many people in the industry do not understand the difference between vector and bitmap files, so I often give my clients a short overview, describing the characteristics of each. You may also find it necessary to educate your clients. Breaking the two concepts down to simple shapes and examples typically will get the concept across, regardless of the listener’s experience.

Images

You can begin by explaining that a bitmap image is a series of individual smaller squares or pixels that make up the larger image. Each of these pixels contains its own individual information. That information and how the computer will interpret it is dependent on whether the image is in black and white or color. The information will also be a determining factor in the final size of the file. Black and white images will produce files that take up less memory space on your computer than a color image. Keep in mind that the higher the resolution, the larger the file size. There will be times when producing a very large banner will requite a file that is so large, it is not production friendly. Talk with your production staff and have them make recommendations for set-up. You will also need to discuss resolution, or the number of pixels per square nick as it relates the final product’s image size. I give my clients guidelines for resolution in simple laymen’s terms. For the equipment and software that we use, the guideline is 300 ppi at one-quarter the size of the final output or 75 ppi at the full size of final output. If the file they have is not at these specifications, I recommend they do not increase the resolution in photo-editing software. This process does not typically achieve the desired results. I ask my clients to do their best to get higher resolution files or the original artwork, which can be scanned to the desired resolution.

Vector Art

The next step is to explain the concept of vector art, a discussion concerning the use of text in the layouts. When text is input into a graphic layout, like bitmap images, it has certain characteristics that must be addressed. Each computer has a set of installed fonts or typefaces. These fonts may be different from computer to computer for many reasons. I will ask my clients to have the fonts “outlined” before they are sent for production. This changes the attributes of the text from a solid shape to a series of lines the computer can read without the original typeface installed. This process will not change the graphic characteristics of the file that is sent; it will ensure that what is sent matches what is produced. Vector art is not only related to text, it is important with shapes, gradients, lines, etc. One of the major differences between vector and bitmap files is scalability. Bitmap art can be enlarged only to a certain point. After that, the edges of the images begin to look like stair steps. Vector files can be increased in size with virtually no limit.

Combing Text and Images

Next, it is necessary to discuss the combination of vector and bitmap elements in one file. We recommend that our clients use Adobe Photoshop image files and Adobe Illustrator native files. Our production software works best with these programs. The bitmap fields should be supplied in the native file with all the layering of elements intact. Images in the layout should be linked, not embedded, in the file. I also ask clients to include all the files associated with the layout on a disk. And make sure to request a color copy of the layout to color match with the end products. This is a necessary step, to ensure the result is what the client needs.

Your Customer Resources

I suggest that you take the time to put together a data requirement sheet to give to your client with all the specific guidelines for you system(s). Include any type of information specific to the process to help your client understand what you need. Write the information in a clear and understandable conversational style. The last thing you want to do is write something in a language that only a technical person can understand.
List the types of image files that work best with your system, i.e. layered. Photoshop files, tiff files with IZW compression, eps files, or jpeg files. Put them in order of preference. Explain why you have that order of preference. Raising your client’s awareness of your system requirements will create a well informed partner in the process. Eventually they will know in advance what you need. This type of partnership will benefit everyone involved.

State whether you prefer the files as RGB or CMKY color modes. Include the types of digital media your systems can read, such as DVD, DE, jazz, zip or files sent via e-mail. Tell your customer everything you can that is relevant to the process.

Even after your customer has all the relevant information about your requirements, he or she still may not be able to provide the artwork you need. You may have to reproduce the artwork for the client. This option may not always be possible, but it may be a viable option at times. Some artwork is a simple as text; other layouts may require scanning or photo retouching. One option ispurchasing a new image from a photo-resource company.

Use every tool available to you to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Sometimes you need more than jut the graphic files. If applicable, request the CAD fields that have been assembled for the project. One can extract exact dimensional specs from the files for production. You can also generate patterns and templates for production purposes. This is another way of exchanging in process project information via the Internet. These files are also very important if you product both frame and fabric

Customer Contact and Approval

Keeping your client up to date during the project is very import. Create strategies that let the client know the project is under control. Here are the strategies we use:

  • Color production layouts sent with print samples on the material of choice for color approval
  • Drawings and photos e-mailed showing project details and progress
  • Regular contact by phone or in-person throughout the project

Develop a system for approval of color, layout and any other piece being produced by your company. Send a layout showing dimensions and details of the piece being produced. Send a color sample of the material to be used in the final production. Attach an approval sheet to be signed off on by the client before production can continue. This I not only for your records, it also helps the client communicate with you regarding approval or adjustment of what has been done so far. Send drawings for approval to be signed off on. Ask questions at any point to clarify details

Never assume anything-always be sure!

Client Care

Your expertise and direction is very important to the success of a project. Your client comes to you because you’re an expert and can provide options and advice on the best solutions for their project. Whether you use dye-sublimation, ink jet, silk screen or photographic graphics, analyze the project and its specifics to determine what materials and processes will work best for your customer.

Making the job happen may require all the resources at your disposal. Depending on your production capabilities and /or your production schedule, you may need to hire a subcontractor. This is an excellent option we use on a regular basis. It’s very important to develop a network of support in every facet of the industry. Your goal should be to create a “one-stop shop” environment for your client. You can develop a secure relationship with your customers by being the type of company that delivers time and time again. You want clients that don’t even consider working with anyone but you.

Personal touches are also important-treating your client as an important individual. It’s like walking into a neighborhood restaurant where the owner greets you personally and knows your favorite dish and how you like it cooked. All is as you need and expect it to be. That’s the kind of atmosphere you want to create for your clients. And you have to continuously prove your reliability in delivering not only on time, but also with a quality product.

Remember there isn’t anyone out there who knows all there is to know about graphic production. What works today might not work tomorrow. Systems change, software changes and so do people. Don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know everything. Seek advice on projects. It helps you grow as a professional. One very important thing is to be honest with yourself and realize our limitations and those of your system. I will be the first one to tell a client, even at the risk of losing a project, that I cannot produce what is needed. Do whatever it takes to find solutions. Be a reliable source that produces and you’ll have a reliable clientele in return.