Tuesday, November 21, 2006
More Print Than Not
Desktop publishing is more than software, it's a series of connected events that make Moore's Law so interesting. It's the incredible decreases in prices and sharp increases in capabilities of equipment that have made it so. A $1000 scanner is almost considered “high-end” in today's digital photography world, and has features and capabilities when combined with modern software that are far more capable than a $200,000 scanner of 1980. The range of equipment has certainly expanded. A 5-megapixel camera can often be found for less than $200. A 1 megapixel camera in the 1980s was $25,000 and was virtually limited to industrial applications.
These changes are small compared to the destruction of barriers to the costs and time involved in content creation that they caused. Designers just used to design. They'd need a prepress practitioner to translate their work into print, and the costs involved seeded the market conditions that would make desktop publishing explode, and be taken for granted today. Of course, it needed an enabling platform, and that turned out to be the Mac, introduced in 1984 to great fanfare. I remember sitting in on an interview with a big New York ad agency in 1990 that saved $100,000 in typesetting costs their first year after adopting desktop publishing.
There were other transitional aspects that proved interesting. Designers who used desktop publishing found that their clients were getting confused. Desktop publishing output of job mock-ups created to test ideas or layouts looked like they were almost final. In the past, clients were given drawings and sketches, often colored using markers, so it was obvious that they were getting ideas-in-process. Now they were getting output that looked final, and would start nit-picking fine design issues or complaining about text kerning, when it was too early in the process to even consider those items as the final concept had not even been settled yet. Designers had to be careful. Other designers found that their ability to create near-final mock-ups quickly was actually landing them jobs. As clients were auditioning a parade of designers to work on a new campaign, the ones that showed up with near-final looking mock-ups rather than rough drawings and sketches appeared to be more skillful, thoughtful, and time-efficient. Because pitching a new client was risky, the amount of time and effort to allocate to prepare for a meeting had to be carefully weighed. Clients felt that because the designer took the time and the effort to make the mock-ups was a sign of their potential commitment to the project. The fact that the desktop published images looked “more final” was a competitive advantage against “traditional” designers. In fact, those desktop-produced mock-ups were produced in far less time. Some designers used the “extra” time to produced mock-ups of yet more alternative approaches for the prospect client.
Printers and typographers had similar experiences. A typesetter found a simple solution: output work in process on blue paper just to remind clients that what they just received was not final. Clients were used to getting bluelines as proofs in the past, and this was a subtle message that the desktop publishing output at that stage was similar. Just think, however, that a job had to go all the way to film to even have a blueline. Jobs took time, and time was money, and things took twice as long and cost twice as much as expected, too often.
By the time the project got to the blueline stage, the supposedly last round of changes and revisions were identified and approved. Then the final proofs would come in, with yet another reminder of how much further changes would cost in time and dollars, and those would be substantial. Author's alterations could become contentious as to who's fault it was, client or printer, but good printers prided themselves on how they always had signed-off proofs at each stage of the process. They could charge appropriate rates to go back and restart the work or augment what had already been done. Some older typographers would claim, privately, that author alterations were half of their billings, and the most profitable part of their business.
These topics are brought up now, because it is often assumed that non-print activities comprise more of the print shipments dollar than ever. This is now part of the industry's common wisdom. It is clearly not true to anyone who can remember all of the time and monies clients would have to spend just to enter the print process at all. All of the camera work, paste-ups, mechanicals, proofs, scans, more proofs were not billings for ink-on-paper, even though that was usually the job of printers. Because desktop publishing has extracted the equivalent tasks from the printing industry and put them in the hands of designers and non-printers, it is actually more likely that ink-on-paper actually comprises a greater part of the value of commercial print shipments than ever before. None of the “value-added” services that are frequently discussed in the business come close to the costs of design, production, and other prepress that were naturally embedded in all print billings of the time.
When one studies the productivity of the industry, there is a curious crossover period in the 1990 area. Prior to that time, our industry's productivity exceeded that of other manufacturing businesses. After that, it has been consistently lower. It is not a coincidence that significantly improved versions of Adobe PhotoShop and Illustrator hit the market at that time. The loss of high-margin prepress tasks is something that the industry still seeks to economically replace. Most of the “non-print” or “value-added” billings that are regularly referenced in today's industry literature and publications do not have the same economic impact, nor the reliable flow of daily revenue.
So here it is more than 20 years later, and we're still feeling the effects of Aldus PageMaker, even though the product has long ago been replaced by QuarkXpress and Adobe InDesign. Desktop publishing is now such a natural part of the printing business one wonders what we would do without it. There would be no digital printing without desktop publishing, and neither would there be computer to plate systems, except in the most extreme circumstances.
But what's next? It's clear from Adobe's recent acquisitions that video, especially mobile video is at the top of their to-do list. We may not think that holds any future for us, but e-books with embedded video have to be created, produced, and managed by some business entity. The management of images and design elements that work in media of all types have to be coordinated as well. These were all at the heart of that old prepress business, but we didn't know it at the time. That workflow that we had, and the trade practices that were built around it, was a barrier to the creation of print jobs. Desktop publishing smashed that barrier down, reducing production costs and creating a more flexible and richer creative environment, despite the obvious and notable problems with standards and consistency it had, and essentially solved, along the way.
Economists sometimes refer to what happened as “creative destruction.” That's a strange phrase, in light of our industry, as desktop publishing's creative destruction elevated the capabilities of creatives to the point where once sophisticated and costly prepress tasks are now almost thoughtless mouse clicks. It actually created more creatives. There are more creative businesses, workers, and freelancers than before. More is expected of designers, in terms of their skills and creativity, and their access to imaging technologies, than ever. It's our task today, as entrepreneurs and an industry, to find where the next opportunities of creative destruction will be, and lead their charge.
Desktop publishing revolution background
1984: Apple's Super Bowl commercial announcing the Mac
background on “creative destruction”