How to Plan for Proper Lead Times in Your Printing Process

As a designer, business owner or consumer, when you’re hiring a commercial printer, the question invariably comes up: How long will it take to get the job done? It’s smart to build a fair amount of lead time into your project timeline.

Lead time, in printing terms, is how much time it will take for setting up, file handling, the proofing process, and any other obstacles that can arise before the project actually goes to press. It can be a moving target, subject to both mechanical and human error, so it’s recommended that you give both yourself and the printer a little extra time whenever possible to get the best possible result on your project. Allowing the right amount of lead time when you’re planning a print project will keep everyone happy and will give you the excellent results that you want.

Everyone has a busy schedule and often short deadlines to work with, so printers try to keep lead times short and efficient. Still, there are some things you can do as a customer or a designer to ensure a mistake-free, on-time printing job.

Good Project Management

It may look good in your project plan, but assuming that you’ll be able to quickly turn around a printed piece is not always realistic. Rush printing is possible, but requires a job to have very little proofing or correction, and provides less time to correct any errors. Choosing rush printing also means that your printer may not be able to communicate with you about questions or changes, so it’s extra important to be sure that your project files are set up to exact specifications and ready to print. If proofing is part of your project process, or if you’re not sure your files are press-ready, be sure to leave enough lead time so that your printer can communicate back and forth with you during business hours about any adjustments or corrections.

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It’s probably no surprise that project delivery times vary widely, depending on how large your print run is and how complex your project is. It may be helpful to think of every print job as a custom order, requiring time to prepare, review and approve.

Proofing Time

Proofing is often the point in the printing process that most commonly gets delayed on the print schedule. The proofing cycle can sometimes take a few repetitions before projects are ready to print, although the goal is always to keep the process moving forward smoothly.

During proofing, your printer will send you high-resolution proofs from the files you’ve provided to print. These need to be carefully checked for errors, reviewed and approved by the customer or client. Sometimes, with large companies or organizations, this is a multi-step process requiring more than one person to sign off on the proofs. It is suggested that you plan plenty of time for people within your business or group to respond appropriately with any requested changes. Your printer cannot reasonably predict how long this review and return process may take on your end, or give you an accurate estimate on how many additional rounds of proofing may be required before approval is given to print. It’s best if you make sure you’re familiar with how the approval process will work for your project and allow extra time at this stage to get everything right.

Typical Project Lead Times

Your printer will be able to make a good guess about appropriate lead times for most kinds of projects. Digital printing processes, for example, require less lead time thanks to fast setup and proofing capabilities. Projects using offset printing take longer to set up and run proofs for, and projects with extensive finishing work, like embossing or laminating, will take additional time at the end of the print process.

The fastest type of job is small projects that can be digitally printed and don’t require binding, such as posters, flyers, or postcards. In this type of project, your printer may not create any physical proof at all, and instead ask you to approve digital proofs of the project via email.

Slightly more complicated, yet still digitally printed projects such as folders, brochures, sales and promotional materials, calendars, booklets, and magazines, will usually take about 10 business days, including proofing. Your printer may give you either digital or physical proofs of this type of project, depending on its complexity and your needs. Different types of binding can affect production times; saddle-stitch is the fastest, followed by wire coil binding. Perfect-bound projects take the longest and may add time to your estimate.

Large and lengthy projects, such as books, annual reports, catalogs, and most perfect-bound projects, are more time-consuming to proof and print, and it is estimated between 15 and 20 business days needed for production, with at least one round of physical proofing nearly always necessary. Bookbinding services fall into this category.

In general, these suggested project lead times include one round of reasonably quick proofing and corrections. Of course, complications can and do arise in many cases, and it is suggested that you stay on top of each step in the printing process to shepherd your job through to its scheduled production date on time.

Specialty Production Time

It’s important to also build in extra time after printing for any finishing or mailing you’ve requested. The times above assume ordinary print jobs without custom finishing or mailing preparation; you should plan on adding a day or two on the end of your timeline if your project includes things like foil stamping, embossing, laminating or other finishing processes. If you are producing a printed product that includes assembly for mailing, or actual mailing fulfillment services, additional time will be needed for that too.

One other note on specialty printing processes: Letterpress printing is an elegant, old-fashioned look that is well-suited to invitations, letterheads and envelopes, and gifts. This process works by its own timeline, isn’t possible to rush, and is one that may be unfamiliar to our modern, busy corporate world. However, you will fall in love with the beautiful results it can give. Talk to your printer about what kind of expectations for production and delivery times you should have for any letterpress project ahead of time.

If you’re unsure whether your project will fall into one of the suggested lead times outlined here, talk to a printer about your project. They can work with you to create a reasonable timeline that works for everyone.

Rory Thomas is the managing partner at Thomas Group Printing, a fourth-generation family owned and operated commercial printer in New York City, where he helps some of New York’s largest and most innovative brands look great on paper.


  • Chris Barclay says:

    What are your thoughts on moving away from the traditional process of working with a specific print house and rather outsourcing it to a printing platform? Platforms that simply upload a file and press print and the company takes care of all of the time-consuming proofing etc?

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