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Printing Impressions-September 2000 Column
Where We’re Going
We don’t know where we’re going until we know where we’ve been. You’ve not only heard this before you probably live by it more then you realize. But is it still true in today’s world where last year (maybe last month) is ancient history? If it isn’t, then how do you know what to do? Good question, I’m glad I asked it and you should be too. In order to aid our quest for an answer we’re going to travel back to those thrilling days of the 70’s and 80’s when there were Typographers. Do you remember them? Let’s look at Arnie and the decisions he made

Arnie was living the good life reaping the rewards of his small typographic business. His first crisis, in the mid 70’s was traumatic, but he handled it. He made the change from hot medal to photo type. A little late and a little reluctant, but he did it. There were some bumps but Arnie was still enjoying the good life. The second crisis was ignored and Arnie, like so many Typographers, went out of business. The good life ended.

I am sure you’re well aware of the key difference between the transition to phototype and the desktop publishing revolution. One was a change in manufacturing technology. The other was a total change in customer parameters which is, by far, the hardest change to predict.

Arnie was savvy enough to realize the importance of new and better manufacturing technologies. For, although typesetting hadn’t changed much since Otto Mergenthaller invented the Lanotype machine over 100 years ago, he still was well aware of the positive impact of manufacturing innovations. This was much the same for printers installing new technologies such as computerized consoles for printing presses. After all, we’ve all seen these wonders. We all know you either do it, or get left behind. We’ve all been there.

“My customers are fanatic about kerning, leading, and all the other exquisite elements the professional typographer adds to the final product”, Arnie exclaimed. “Are you crazy!” “Do you think they’re going to give all this up, do it themselves, and settle for less then what I give them?” This was just the beginning of the barrage Arnie hurled at me as I chatted with him about desktop publishing, now looming on the horizon. Much more was to follow, but I think you get the idea. Unfortunately drawing from where he had been was going to destroy his business career. The good life was about to end.

Arnie could use the knowledge of where he had been to draw upon for the phototype transition. But the total change in his customer’s attitude brought upon by the rapid acceptance of desktop publishing was completely absent from anything he had experienced or could imagine. He was on top and had no idea that he was facing a do or die decision, or perhaps he did and just refused to accept it. No question his options must have been terrifying. He could have become a service bureau which would have been a difficult and costly transformation into the unknown, successfully accomplished by only a few typographers. He could have merged with another company that was more progressive. Or he could have just taken what money he had at the time and gone into another business.

Try to imagine what you would have done in Arnie’s situation and be certain to factor out hindsight. Aren’t you glad you don’t have to face this decision? But before you breathe your sigh of relief realize that you’re facing or going to be facing decisions at or near this magnitude. One example is the future impact of the Web. At a recent trade association seminar on the impact of the Web and in random discussions with other printers, I thought I heard Arnie’s echo. “My customers aren’t going to send their file off into some void.” “They want to see a hard proof, anything less is unacceptable.” “They depend on their relationship with me.” They need me or my salesperson to hold their hand.” There’s more but once again you get the idea. The Web will move our customers into a whole new era of how they buy printing, particularly short run color. How do you move with them or better yet how do you lead them? Unfortunately many printers aren’t at the state where they’re even pondering these difficult questions. They haven’t been there before.

“We don’t know where we’re going until we know where we’ve been”, is actually true despite what you’ve just read. The key is “who” is “we”. If we is just you and your company then your part of that vast breed of myopic printers that look solely at their own past experiences. We must assume a far broader definition as you learn, read and extrapolate from other situations. Arnie’s story is a good example of how familiar customer parameters can dramatically change. But we also need to draw from other industries. For example can you recall when stockbrokers thought it was an absurd notion to believe that people would actually invest their money over cyberspace without personal contact with a trusted broker? They never contemplated the change in customer parameters that resulted in the enormous success of online trading. Does this sound like some of the stuff we’re now facing?

Have I over simplified all this? Sure, these decisions are vastly more complex. For example, even the change from hot medal to phototypesetting wasn’t as simple as I might have indicated. Particularly, when you realize the variety of systems that first appeared, most of which rapidly disappeared. So realizing the importance of phototypesetting was only half the battle, picking the right system was a task some might have wanted Einstein to do for them. We all know CTP (computer to plate) systems are here, but picking the right one is not easy. And even more challenging is even if you realize that the Web is part of our future, what do you do about it?

No one can accurately predict the future. But we need to know and experience more than just the latest from DRUPA and Graph Expo. We have to open our minds and eyes to see where others have been and where they’re going. Remember we now perceive desktop publishing to be part of our industry but it didn’t come from traditional industry suppliers. Most important we need to be fully aware of changes and potential changes in the thinking patterns of the print buying public. These changes can affect you far more then anything happening at DRUPA. This is the basis of this column. So join me in upcoming issues both in readership and response as all thoughts matter. For we need to consider a variety of thoughts to help us peer into the rapidly approaching future.

Harry Waldman

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