Paper tips: How do I choose the right paper?

5 min read
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In printing, where appearance is everything, you may be tempted to order the highest quality paper you can afford. But is top-of-the-line paper the right choice for your project? Here's why it may not be.

Quality means different things to different people. To the editor, quality may mean informative copy, pleasing cadence, no typos. To a magazine's advertising director, quality might mean advantageous placement and color that matches the advertiser's proof.

But to the production staff, quality is tied to one relationship: ink on paper. Because production quality is judged by how ink looks on paper, infusing quality into your designs should be a simple matter of choosing the highest-quality paper so ink will look its best. Failing that, at least you should choose the highest-quality paper you can afford. Right?

Wrong. Choosing paper is more complex than spending a lot of money. In fact, you shouldn't think about choosing paper based on the highest quality available, or even the highest quality you can afford. Rather, you should figure out the most appropriate quality paper for your needs. In the real world, most appropriate equals best.

Conformance Isn't Everything

Let me explain. In print production, quality is a result of conformance to some accepted standard. Quality control focuses on eliminating any variation from the standard.

We production people spend most of our time in this area. We know the performance characteristics we can expect from various standardized paper grades and basis weights, and we expect paper manufacturers to keep those performance characteristics consistent from one roll to the next. In fact, most of us judge our own performance and that of our vendors on conformance quality alone.

But conformance quality is only the first step in achieving quality. It's important, but it's not everything. If all you're worried about is conformance, then you assume there is some absolute standard of quality that you can reach with each job. The truth is, there is no absolute standard of quality in our business. That's because we're in the business of selling an idea or an image, not the paper or ink they're printed with. In our business, ink on paper may be the end product, but it is not the end purpose. The end purpose is creating a product that will satisfy our customers.

Get the Message to the Market

To do this, we must ask ourselves whose standards of quality are most important? There is only one answer: Our customers are the ones who must determine our standard of quality. Do we know what they want?

Most publishers assume that their customers want the best sheet available. I remember one publisher who told me that he wanted a No. 2 sheet for his start-up magazine because it was a shelter book directed toward high-income readers who expected elegance in everything they bought. Furthermore, he was convinced that national ad agencies would be impressed by the quality of his magazine and would make purchase decisions based on the superiority of his book. "All I have to do is lay my magazine next to the competition. The agencies won't be able to resist when they see what their ads will look like in my magazine," he said.

"Wait a minute," I said and rooted around for a copy of "Parade," the nationally distributed Sunday magazine printed on newsprint, and "Archaeology," a slick monthly printed on a No.3 coated sheet. Both were running identical ads touting a limited-edition figurine. Obviously, the figurine manufacturer wasn't very fussy about paper quality. She apparently cared much more about getting her message out to the market, never mind the form that message took.

Research and Analyze

How can you find out what your customers want? The best way is to ask them. I'm a big fan of reader surveys. I also love to noodle around with demographics; a science that has grown more sophisticated every year as retailers match buying patterns to individual households. I also keep track of letters sent to my publishing clients and to me. I take special note of complaints, always thankful that someone cared enough to try to set me straight. When all else fails, I take a look at my competition and try to figure out why they have made the strategic and tactical decisions that they have.

I learned the importance of all this from the publisher of a florist magazine years ago. She had hired me to help produce a makeover of her trade magazine. The publisher analyzed what the readers were looking for. She asked floral designers in the area, and she talked to the company's field representatives. She compared her vision with the competition. She had her ad director talk to advertisers to find out what they were looking for.

Identify Customer Needs

The publisher concluded that the new version of the magazine must be on at least a No. 3 free sheet, with a 7-point cover. The reason was, her customers needed very high-quality color reproduction. The advertisers wanted exact color matches of their ribbons, artificial flowers, high-style containers, new hybrid blooms, etc. To them, the difference between a bluish pink and a magenta pink was highly significant. Similarly, the readers wanted exact color matches so they could replicate the designs in the magazine.

For a trade publication, we chose a Rolls Royce-level paper. But our reasons for making that choice were based on specifically identified customer needs, not what quality would make the art director's layouts (and ego) stand out best; nor what quality would win prizes at the next industry show; nor even what paper would make our accountant the happiest about the bottom line. We accomplished all those goals, but we did so only by the way. Our real goal was customer satisfaction.

It was a lesson I've never forgotten.

Copyright © 2002-2004 PaperSpecs Inc.

© 2006 PaperSpecs. All rights reserved. These articles were reprinted with permission. PaperSpecs is the first online paper database specifically developed for paper specifiers. Your all-in-one online swatchbook - always up-to-date, comprehensive and fiercely independent.

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