Creative Print Proves Essential at UK University
When Helen Clarke, Print and Post Services Manager at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, U.K., started in her post in January 2020, there was a certain pressure to prove the in-plant’s worth. She set about gathering information from her team of 22 employees that would help her put together a clear explanation to the university that said, “this is why you need us.”
As it turns out, an external influence, namely the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, sent that message in a much stronger fashion than Clarke ever could.
“Even in this environment where there are so many more people working from home, print has been something they have needed,” explains Clarke. “During [the first] lockdown, the university closed, but our parcel service didn’t, so five members of our team kept coming in just to deliver parcels to the students that were stuck on campus. So we kept going, and it was just security, one of the halls [dorms], and us that stayed open during that time.”
Located in the English Midlands, about 110 miles north of London, the 80,730-sq.-ft. facility produces print for every reason the university may need it, such as marketing materials and brochures, lecture notes, exam papers, student coursework submissions (including large-format posters), vinyl signage, acetates and wallpaper, and ID cards. The in-plant also uses variable data printing (VDP) to produce engaging campaigns such as golden tickets and graduation celebration cards, while also utilizing VDP for COVID safety reasons, such as producing letters for every undergraduate parent and every member of staff advising of university measures to maintain safety.
As one might imagine, the busiest area for Clarke and the team currently is the parcel service, as many isolating students turn to online shopping.
“We are processing, on average, somewhere between 600 and 1,000 parcels a day,” Clarke notes. “We’ve got a whole new system in place due to COVID where we can let students that are self-isolating inform us that they have parcels on the way, and we then have a group of student volunteers who come to us every morning and collect all the parcels for the isolated students and deliver them directly to their bedrooms. That’s a huge logistical operation at the moment.”
The sudden need for personal protective equipment (PPE), and the obligation for the in-plant to provide PPE and COVID signage to the entire campus, has also cemented the department’s essential status.
“Some of the signage we sourced externally, and some we printed ourselves,” says Clarke. “The production of PPE is completely removed from what we normally do, ensuring gloves and antibacterial spray and hand gel are delivered everywhere on campus. As our health and safety teams sign off their risk assessments for reopening buildings, we are then providing all the PPE that they need to meet those expectations, so that has been a huge change.”
COVID Drives Online Ordering
Another COVID silver lining for the in-plant is the boost it provided to the online ordering system. Not only did the pandemic mean the team finally had the opportunity to take a step back and rethink its services, the nature of the virus necessitates minimizing touchpoints and limiting people gathering, so online ordering began to make the most sense.
“We have had an online shop for about 10 years now, and it was always in the background doing a little bit of work, but not hugely used,” explains Clarke. “Now, it’s our primary source for print. We’re trying to stop people coming in. It’s so much easier to be able to say to them, order your work through here, and then we’ll deliver it to you, and you never have to come anywhere near the building.”
Clarke has no intention of putting the e-commerce genie back in the bottle as pandemic precautions ease: “It makes it so much easier to manage your production centrally. We have a ‘while you wait’ service on the counter, and if a large order comes in that massively impacts the rest of the queue because you’ve got two people taken up with one job. With the online shop, we can manage it much better because we know how jobs are going to come through, so I think it gives us a much better management route to get the jobs in.
“It also means that the customer uploads the file and picks the finishing options, etc. and confirms they take full responsibility for everything that they’ve selected. So it actually puts the responsibility back on the customer to make sure that the jobs come through to us correctly.”
Using EFI MarketDirect StoreFront has also significantly improved the in-plant’s workflow and has been particularly beneficial during the pandemic as it has enabled students and staff to access print services off-site via VPN.
Beyond Print and Post
The in-plant’s larger organization, Creative and Print Services, is distinct in that it offers much more than just print and post, providing graphic design, Web design and development, video production, and photography. This was set in motion by a fundamental change more than a decade ago that saw Creative and Print Services move from facilities management to marketing, which has been significant in demonstrating that print and digital services work harmoniously in an omni-channel environment.
“We’ve always had a Web designer within the design team, but now we have designers that sit across Web and print design,” Clarke says. “This means that when they’re designing for print, they’re also considering how to interpret and adjust that design for online. We tend to use print as a route to digital. For example, in the summer we sent out a postcard that was just a message to students to let them know we were still thinking about them and signposting them to all our COVID information.”
Combining print with these additional services also creates a reassuring uniformity to the university’s branding and external image.
“You can see across the whole campus, both physically and on the Web, that there is a consistent view, and if our services weren’t combined in the way that they are I don’t think we would have that,” Clarke explains. “When you’re sending materials out to students, you want them to see Loughborough in a certain light, and if they arrive on campus and it’s what they were expecting, then it makes things so much easier. You’re breaking down barriers before they even get here.”
A Mandatory Supplier
A key component of this consistency of branding is the fact that Creative and Print Services is now a mandatory supplier, so any design requests must be made through the in-plant.
“A few years ago the university changed its brand design, and that really helped put us in a much stronger position to be able to be in charge of the design work,” Clarke notes. “Now we’re a mandatory supplier, so if anybody wants anything designed, whether it’s a poster for corridors or it’s a brochure to send out to prospective students, they have to come to us. It has shifted the relationship, because now we’re not having to fight to stop work going out; that’s completely in our control, and we can make sure throughout the process that the brand is being maintained and managed well.”
In addition to helping prove that the in-plant is essential to the university, the pandemic has also utilized print’s unparalleled ability to convey trust.
“Even little things, like the university sending parents of every student a letter from the vice chancellor reassuring them that we’re going to do what is necessary to keep [their] child safe, or a letter from the COO sent out to staff to say a personal thank you. If they had simply sent an email, it wouldn’t have had the same impact,” she points out.
“Things like that make the university realize [print] is not going to go away, it is needed, and all we’ve got to think about is how do we use it in different ways to how we used it before,” Clarke concludes. “The university is not in the place it was in January, that’s for sure. It’s not questioning our existence, and it’s acknowledging that we can provide even more to the university than they thought we could.”
Karis Copp is a U.K.-based journalist and communications specialist. With a background as a writer and editor in the print industry, she writes about print and technology news and trends, reports on industry events, and works with businesses to help them tell their stories and connect with their customers. Follow her on Twitter @KarisCoppMedia.