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Exposing the Hidden Costs of Branding

Exposing the Hidden Costs of Branding

A little knowledge prevents excessive hidden costs.

Just because a design looks good doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Unfortunately, some graphic artists are oblivious to the hidden costs of their designs and one of three things is at play in this situation:

A) either they really don’t know what their designs will cost you over time,

B) they haven’t really thought it through,

C) they erroneously think the extra costs are a reflection of their talent (fortunately, this worst case scenario, is a rarity).

As a print professional I’ve seen this played out in a few cases and it’s disheartening, especially when the client is a struggling new business or non-profit organization and an unscrupulous designer violates their trust.

I remember one private non-profit school that thought they had found the perfect out-of-state design team to help them “rebrand” their school. Prior to the rebranding effort they had a very professional and well-recognized brand identity in the upper class market they served. Their new out-of-state design firm thought the school needed an “edgy new look”. I doubt, however, that the designers ever even visited this campus, which had been built up on an old homestead, where the centerpiece of the campus was a remodeled two-story 19th century barn and the whole campus looked and felt like an old western homestead.

So the design firm create an edgy, modern, new logo for the school, (which, of course, would require all new signage, new bus advertising, new t-shirts, new marketing materials, new parking passes, new internal documents, and new web work) and they made sure the new logo used 5 different Pantone colors, several of which could not easily be converted to process colors without adversely effecting the image.

You don’t need to be a printing expert to understand that the more colors you use in a design the more costly it is to create every single printed document. When multiple colors are used in a design, or the design involved a photograph, the typical production method is to convert all the color to cyan (C), magenta (M), yellow (Y) and black (K). These are the 4 process colors (commonly referred to CMYK) and virtually all printed photos, art prints, magazines, billboards, and almost every other printed image is created using these colors. Photographs easily convert to CMYK but the Pantone colors are completely different.

There are literally thousands of specific colors defined and used in all the various industries. Paint uses one standard, fabric uses another, the auto industry has its own set of specific colors and the most commonly defined set of colors used in printing is the Pantone Color Matching System (PMS Colors). Each set of colors (fabric vs. print vs. automotive) use their own pigments, binding agents, stabilizers, drying compounds, and mixing formulas. And for the purpose of this article, suffice it to say, that not all Pantone colors convert well to CMYK colors.

Getting back to our story about the new logo for the school… the new logo used 5 different PMS colors. Printing presses come in different configurations and the more colors that can be printed at one time the more expensive is the press, and (logically, it follows) the printed materials produced by the more expensive presses are priced accordingly. Typical printing presses are configured in 2 color, 4 color, 6 colors, etc. and the incremental costs between these configurations are not linear but geometric. For example a 4 color press would likely cost 5 or 6 times as much as a 2 color press and an 8 color press would cost 3 to 5 times more than a 4 color press.

These are general statements but from the standpoint of the costs relative to the school, the new design of 5 PMS colors dictated that they would need costly new levels of technical expertise for all their production work: large screen-printed bus signs, internal forms, T-shirts, parking passes, student ID, newsletters, brochures, marketing literature, letterhead, invoices, checks, envelopes, etc. and the cost for each of these items skyrocketed.

Of course not knowing what I’ve just explained about how the new design resulted in complicated new production methods, the staff on the campus were horrified to learn of the extra costs for every single item they used in their operation and marketing. Certainly, school officials had,budgeted money to hire the professional design firm, but, they had not budgeted extra money to pay for the new production methods needed to print the new design.

Since the school had been in operation for decades they had a clear understanding of how much each line item in their budget would cost. Unfortunately, that knowledge was based on the old logo not the new one, and no one on the schools branding team was print savvy enough to know what impact the design would have on production costs, nor did they ask any of their affiliated vendors for input on the new design. Many of their print partners heard for months that a new branding effort was underway, but none were consulted until the final design was selected and approved.

As you might have guessed, when the staffers began to realize what the new design would cost their particular departments they immediately started to compromise that design to stay within their budgets. And what was intended to be a school-wide brand quickly degraded to fragmented subsets of the new design. One billboard company converted the 5 PMS colors to CMYK screen-print ink, another department asked their printer to convert the logo to shades of gray, another wanted to go back to the original two colors used before the change, and across the board the benefits of the new brand were overshadowed by the constraints of the budget.

Did the graphics design firm know what impact their design would have on the school’s overall budget? I don’t know. Did they care? I don’t know! If they didn’t know, shame on them because that’s their business. If they did know what the hidden costs would be, and failed to mention it, than shame on them for putting the art (form) above the utility (function).

Of course, the final responsibility rested with the school’s new branding team, but their knowledge base was in education, not graphics or print, so the graphic artists should have advised the branding team that the new design might result in additional production costs. With that information, they would have made an informed decision about all the design options.

What can you learn from the school’s mistake? First of all, assume graphics designer are more involved in the art (form) of the design than the use of that design (function). You’re responsible to think about all the ways the logo is used now, or could be used in the future, and don’t be shy about getting outside input from production specialists. You need to set limits at the beginning of the interaction and ask the designer for a breakdown of all their costs.

As a final example, I worked with one designer who purchased a photograph for our mutual client. It was a picture of a plant that the designer used as background art and it was so light that you could barely even see the flower in the finished printed document. She charged the client $1800 for that picture which she purchased from an on-line photo source. I asked her about the expense and her comment was (and I’m quoting her), “I don’t care. It’s not my money.” I believe that attitude may be more prevalent than any of us want to believe, so you need to set some limits and really understand the designer’s pricing structure.

The lessons

1) When you hire a graphic designer, unless the design will be used exclusively on the web (where you can use all the colors of the rainbow without effecting the price) realize that the more colors used in the design the more costly it will be to print anything utilizing that design.

2) If there are many colors involved make sure the colors can be converted to CMYK.

3) Finally, when you hire a graphic designer, ask what kind of production experience they have. If they’ve never been out from behind their computer, I would caution you to ask a professional printer for a quick evaluation before you sign off on even a preliminary design.

4) Have a frank discussion with the designer about all the costs of their design process and the production costs.

Finally, be aware that in design, even the simplest things can make a huge difference in cost. Black on White vs. White on Black seems like basically the same thing, right? But having spent over 25 years in the printing profession, I assure you, those two things are as different as night and day. Ask for a free evaluation of the design from a print professional and avoid the hidden costs.


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