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Printing Impressions-September 2003 Column
Looking at the Future
As a teenager in the 1950s, the future fascinated me. I wasn't alone; magazines, movies and newspaper articles were filled with visions of America in the next century. Much of it showed a world that resembled a Jetsons cartoon with airborne family vehicles powered by some sort of magnetic drive and ultra-modern cities with homes floating in the sky.

As we moved through the '60s, with jet travel becoming commonplace and travel to the Moon a new reality, a clearer picture emerged. For now it was a sure bet that, by the turn of the century, travel to Mars and beyond was certain and supersonic jet travel for all would be the norm. New York would be a mere two hours or less from Los Angeles.

Well here we are in 2003 driving a car firmly on the ground, powered by an internal combustion engine. It still takes five to six hours to fly from New York to Los Angeles, and the plane looks very much like the one we flew more than 30 years ago. The grand experiment in supersonic travel is no more and was only available to the very wealthy anyway.

Moreover, no human has set foot on the moon since the '70s, let alone Mars. Yet we live in an extra-ordinarily different world, as personal computers and the Internet have made an impact far beyond our predictions in almost everything we do. Ironically it was communications that soared, not transportation.

Accelerated Changes

So why did all these experts fare so badly in envisioning the future? And why is it important to you, the printer? Well, perhaps the airplane you fly looks the same, but the graphic arts industry sure doesn't. My guess is that most of us printing industry old-timers fared just as badly, if not worse, foreseeing today's printing industry. Particularly since it was the past 15 years of the last century where change accelerated into fast forward as print was dramatically affected by the new technology. Technology that, for the first time in print's long history, was changing our role with the customer.

During the first 85 years of the century, change occurred at a digestible speed, and basically involved better production methods and new innovations that gave the printer more to offer the customer. At first, even the new world of digital imaging tools like Scitex meant more revenue for the printer. All this changed with desktop publishing. And desktop publishing was only the beginning; new innovations enabled the customer to easily perform tasks once solely in our domain. Add electronic media--the most formidable challenge printers have ever faced--and, for us in the printing industry, the future comes all too fast and has us on a wild ride that could quickly lead to disaster if we don't plot the right course. So perhaps we can help our planning by taking a quick peek at why the expected didn't happen while the unexpected did.

Although commercial supersonic air travel was technically feasible, it wasn't economically feasible. And even government-sponsored ventures that are non-profit, like a manned trip to Mars, were just too costly. So the criteria for the future isn't simply can we do it, but whether it can be done economically. I am sure that it isn't a major surprise to say that money is a major factor in future direction. But, as much as we understand the importance of money, printers all too often dismiss the paradigm changes brought on by customer appealing economics. Here are some examples that are more relevant.

Three years ago I wrote a column about how, in the late '80s, Arnie the Typesetter told me that desktop publishing would never happen. According to his logic, designers would never set their own type because they needed his exquisite typography. Nothing less would do, thus he was safe. How about press proofs vs. Matchprints and Cromalins in the '70s--I clearly remember many color separators (remember them?) claiming only a press proof would ever do.

Or professional drum separations vs. customer-generated separations on inexpensive scanners in the late '90s. And, one of my favorites even though it is not in the printing industry, major brokerage firms in the mid-'90s that refused to believe people would ever buy stock over the Internet. "What, trust their money to cyberspace? They need a real person to talk to," they surmised. I could go on, but the idea is that commercial supersonic flight didn't happen because of money, while the above did happen because of money. Parameters changed because of appealing economics.

The lesson: don't judge the future using current parameters. All too often we look at the future with our eyes focused only on today. Chances are that if your customers see something faster and cheaper, they may sacrifice traditional values and create a paradigm change. Interestingly, I still hear designers talk about the old days of the great typography provided by professional typographers. But they never could or would go back. The parameters that Arnie, the typographer, thought would never change are gone forever.

Does that mean that anything that's faster and cheaper will force a paradigm change? And will it happen right away? Not necessarily, and furthermore putting your company too far ahead of the curve may be as dangerous as ignoring new innovation. You invested and it didn't happen. Or you invested and it happened, but you were financially exhausted by the time it did. Or you kept watching and waiting, nothing happened, so you dismissed it and woke up the next morning to find it was here.

I can vividly recall the early days of desktop publishing. Many thought it would never be suited for commercial printing. Some thought that professional typesetting and mechanicals would completely disappear the next day. Both were wrong. It took a few years, giving some credence to the nay-sayers and frustration to the early adopters, but one day we did wake up and typographers and mechanicals were gone forever.

None of us are prophets who can predict the future with certainty. Moreover, even if you know a paradigm change will happen, the exquisite entry timing is an elusive task. But there are some things we can do.

Trips to industry shows are very important. Go with an open mind and concentrate on the unfamiliar rather than hanging around a familiar booth with your old pals. GATF is a great resource. Read industry publications, go to seminars, and learn, learn, learn. But don't bury your head in industry stuff alone.

Look at what your customers are reading and looking at. Read publications and go to seminars from other industries, particularly high technology. Most of all, don't look at something in terms of the old familiar parameters. Chances are it will happen if it saves your customer time and money, even if some traditional print values are sacrificed.

New Proofing Options

For example, 30 years ago only a press proof would do. Eventually Cromalins and Matchprints became the norm. Were they as accurate as a press proof? No! But they were cheaper and faster, and could do the job. A parameter had changed. Soon another paradigm change will occur: cheap, store-bought, ink-jet printers will become the basis for remote proofing (proofing at the customer's desktop) and remote proofing will become the norm. Yes, I know it's happening now, but I said it will become the norm. However, although I am confident it will happen, I can't tell you when.

So here's what you do. First take it seriously and start learning and experimenting. Start talking to unfamiliar companies like Perfect Proof. Become more familiar with Epson, HP and other brands of ink-jet printers. Discuss it with your top customers. Let them know that you're investigating new ideas.

The key here is to learn and have an open mind. Don't get discouraged or dismiss the idea, but also don't discard your current proofing system or throw a bunch of money at this just yet. When you think you are ready, implement it on a small scale with a few select customers.

Remote proofing using ink-jet printers becoming the norm is an example of just one near-term prospect. There are many others. Why not start identifying them, even if they don't sound plausible? And, most of all, start thinking beyond today's parameters. It might mean you will be in business tomorrow.

Harry Waldman

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