Small businesses and promotional designers have long known CafePress.com as the go-to site for making (and also selling) customized goods, everything from logo coffee mugs to rock band baby t-shirts. Around the holidays, individuals might use CafePress to design custom holiday greeting cards, or make a photo wall calendar. But is it any better, faster, or cheaper than other sites that offer the same service, such as Snapfish, Zazzle, or Editors’ Choice Mixbook?
In my experience, CafePress has a good and reliable service, that’s even better if you have a designer on hand to create a final image with professional tools, like Photoshop or Illustrator. If all you need to do is drop a logo or pre-made image on a product and bulk order 50 of them for your employees or customers, the service is fast and efficient. But those of us who need a lot of guidance when laying out our own goods might find CafePress’ designing and editing tools lacking.
For the purpose of this review, we chose not to evaluate CafePress on its marketplace capabilities, but readers should note that CafePress does allow users to sell their creations through the site.
Sizes, Styles, and Price
I’d been evaluating a variety of services for making photo wall calendars, when CafePress came to mind. Indeed, the site isn’t limited to businesses buying customized products in bulk by any stretch. You can design and purchase a single wall calendar, or mug, t-shirt, sweatshirt, iPhone case, and dozens of other products, too.
The number of templates for custom calendars seems modest when compared with Mixbook’s dozens of options. The editing tools for calendars and mug and glassware designing, likewise, didn’t further my own creativity to any significant degree. T-shirts and other wearables get special treatment, though, with additional tools for adding text, changing the font, and dropping in shapes (graphic objects, like stars, hearts, and arrow). But even clothes design comes with a barrel of restrictions. You can’t change the dimensions or placement of images, as each product has its own specific placement and size for images. This also means you can’t add more images, like a brand image and a company logo. Any creative work really needs to happen offline in a separate editing program. CafePress doesn’t have the tools an amateur would need to actually create a design she had in mind.
For photo wall calendars, CafePress does include one “template” that’s nothing more than a blank canvas, letting you set images that take up the entire 8.5 by 11-inch space. Unfortunately, calendars only come in the one size, although you can buy either a 12-month ($19.99 plus shipping) or 18-month ($24.99 plus shipping) version. Mixbook, our Editors’ Choice for making calendars, offers a wider 11 by 14-inch landscape calendar option ($34.99) if you’re looking to super-size it.
CafePress’ price point falls well within the ballpark of other services. Sticking with the 12-month calendar example, Shutterfly hits the high end, but only barely, with its custom calendars starting at $21.99, and with the quality to show for it. Meanwhile, Zazzle takes the lowest starting price at $17.95. Because CafePress and Zazzle both target the small business market, you can nab a better deal when you buy multiple copies of the same item.
Online Design Tools
Once you pick a template from the available options (or go with the full-bleed “blank canvas” style, which lets you drop any photo or image you design right onto the page), CafePress walks you through the designing process. You’ll need to upload your images, which you can pull from your computer or import from Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, and SmugMug.
All the photos you might want to use sit in a bin to the left, with their thumbnails visible. As you place photos on the various month pages, they’re marked in the bin with a green checkmark icon, so you know which ones you’ve already used.
Editing tools for calendars include filters to make your image black-and-white or sepia colored, as well as buttons for moving, rotating, and zooming. Again, t-shirts and clothing have a few different tools, but actually remove the image editing abilities that you’ll find when making a calendar… which is odd. If CafePress has all those tools available, why not include them for every project? But that’s not the case. Design and mug, and you’ll find hardly any buttons at all for crafting your product. Make a t-shirt, and you can add text and graphic objects, but you can’t apply filter effects to your images. Try your hand at making a calendar, and you’ll have a completely different set of tools at your disposal.
One problem with the calendar templates is you can’t see the entire 12 or 18 pages before you begin designing a calendar. I found a simple two-toned blue template that I liked until I got to October and saw three image slots. I had assumed all the pages would have only one, based on the preview of the template. Nope. I couldn’t delete the additional images, either, so I scrambled to pick two more images that I hadn’t planned on using in the first place. You can’t change the template.
Other pages of this particular template left space for text, which I didn’t want to add. That was easy enough—I just didn’t write anything—but I would have preferred to minimize the space that was reserved for the text by increasing the image area. No can do in CafePress, whereas Mixbook provides this capability.
I also couldn’t change the style of the day/week grid on the lower pages of the calendar in CafePress, although I could using Zazzle.
Once I finished and clicked to purchase the calendar, I couldn’t make any further changes. Even worse, I didn’t get to proof my calendar page-by-page. Given the error-prone ways of most humans, I strongly feel the CafePress needs to add a “preview and confirm” section before allowing a transaction. When I realized the site wasn’t going to provide me with a preview area, I clicked a link that indicated it would let me make additional changes to my photo call calendar. I figured I might just go through it in the editor again, looking closely for any cutoff images or other problems. But the link never took me back to the editor. Instead, it showed a preview of the calendar’s cover only.
Overall, I thought CafePress had a decent and simple service, but the missing a preview step between completing your project and making the purchase is rather disconcerting.
Quick and Dirty
My customized photo wall calendar from CafePress shipped extraordinarily fast (I ordered it on a Sunday, it shipped Monday and arrived the following Monday, with one holiday in between). The quality looked good: straight trim, sturdy card-paper stock, and a standard wire spiral binding. A few of the images I used were of a lower resolution than I would have liked (sometimes you have to rely on other people’s photos for these kinds of projects), and it may be worth noting that CafePress never prompted me to consider whether this would cause a problem in the final quality. Not everyone understands why images come out pixilated. Shutterfly warns users when it spots potential problems with images and text size, which may save amateurs from buyer’s remorse.
If you’re confident in your design skills and need products quickly, CafePress is a reliable and good service for making custom products. But if you tend to rely on templates, or want editing tools that give you a little more control over your project, other sites offer a better experience for roughly the same price. Mixbook has a surprisingly good service, although you can only make photo books, calendars, and greeting cards. Zazzle’s a great alternative for businesses because it offers similar bulk purchase discounts as CafePress, as well as a huge catalog of products and a marketplace aspect.
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Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc