When I was a first year student at Ryerson University’s School of Graphic Communications Management many, many moons ago, I remember being invited to an OPIA dinner. I was especially excited because the speaker for the night was a very prestigious and iconic figure in the industry. When we arrived at the point in the evening when it was time for the speaker, I could not wait to hear the words of wisdom that soon would follow. The speaker rose, walked confidently to the microphone and said “the printing plant of the future will only have two employees: a person and a dog. The person’s job will be to feed the dog, and the dog’s job will be to prevent the person from touching any of the machinery.” Today, of course, I understand that this was a clever opening line to the discussion that followed on the importance of productivity, reducing human error, and a concept that much later we would label as automation. At the time however, I found myself questioning whether or not I had made the right career choice. As it turns out, I did.
I consider myself very lucky that I have seen such a revolution of change in such a short period of time. When I started in premedia (prepress then), film stripping, document cameras and contact frames were the bread and butter. In a short time I saw these things migrate into drum scanners and imposed film output on a filmsetter. RIPs became smarter, faster and more intuitive. Filmsetters were replaced by platesetters, proofs were output digitally, and automation sped up production. While some jobs did become obsolete over time, other new jobs emerged, and generally speaking, all was right with the world. Then something interesting happened, and it changed everything: digital media began to compete with print on a serious level.
The Early Days of Digital Media
Although it may seem like it sometimes, digital media did not spring up overnight. Like print media, it has evolved over time, albeit at a faster rate. In its humble beginnings, digital media was simpler than it is now. The relationship between print and digital media was much like that of two siblings. Print, the older sibling, did not have time for its younger sibling, yet tolerated digital because so many others insisted that digital was cute, and that it needed to be included in print’s activities. Like a true younger sibling, digital followed as print led the way, happily accepting hand-me-downs. A static, non-interactive version of a printed magazine for a web page here, or a PDF of a printed manual there, was enough to satisfy digital’s needs. Print and digital did not always get along, and sometimes digital tried to challenge print, but in most cases print, being older and stronger, prevailed.
Eventually, as always seems the case, the younger sibling grows and matures, experience and knowledge equal out, and the relationship dynamic changes. And so it was with print and digital.
The Evolution of Digital Media
At some point in time, people began to realize the true potential of digital media. Why try to replicate printed products digitally, when there are aspects of digital that add a new dynamic to the user experience in ways that print cannot. Why simply display the transcript of an interview with a celebrity when you can also provide the audio, or better yet, a video of the interview? Why have static ads when they can be animated? Why not have the ads become a portal to provide consumers direct access to goods and services with something as simple as a click? This realization has changed the use of digital media, and it has evolved into what we have today. Websites are no longer static, non-animated pages laden with text; rather, they are dynamic, interactive tools that attract users with new and exciting ways of disseminating information. Gone are the days of simply regurgitating print materials verbatim on the web.
Over the past decade, digital media has continued to grow and become more complex. Just as the print side strived for automation to increase productivity, so has the digital side. Websites were linked with databases, and as the databases change, so do the websites. Quasi-intelligence was built into digital media that allowed websites to change the content they displayed based on geographical location of the end-user. Ad content could be varied based on user demographics that could be gathered and tracked on sites that required user accounts. Security protocols improved, making things like online banking and e-commerce viable. It wasn’t long before the reality was that as long as you had a computer and were connected to the Internet, there was so much you could do. And still digital media evolved, and soon it offered something that it could not before: portability. Of course we all know how that turned out.
Portable computing is a significant advancement for digital media in today’s ever-connected world. Devices like smart phones, tablets and e-readers have freed the dynamic world of digital media from the confines of the computer. Now we can pay our phone bill on the train as we travel into work. We can catch up on emails, read the latest e-pub or digital magazine or newspaper edition. We can read and update statuses, tweets and posts. We can purchase, sell and inform.
There are some people that believe digital media has surpassed print. They believe that digital media can do the same things as print, only better. They believe that print is harmful to the environment and that the destruction of forests for the sake of paper must be stopped. These are people that believe that the time of print has come and passed. Of course there are others that advocate for print. They speak of sustainable forestry and recycled content. They compare the carbon footprint of printed materials to the carbon footprint of portable devices that are being disposed of and replaced at alarming rates. Some argue that there is nothing as efficient or practical for disseminating large amounts of information as a book. I don’t pretend to be an expert when it comes to these arguments, but what I can say is this: I think there are pros and cons to both print and digital media, and don’t believe that one can necessarily negate the other in each and every case. For example, it would be hard to replicate the convenience of online shopping in print form. Similarly, I don’t think a digital cereal box would hold much cereal. But more importantly, I believe that in today’s society, print needs digital media and vice versa in order for both to be successful.
Why Digital Media Needs Print (and vice versa)
I don’t think I am going out on a limb when I say that the dynamics of print have changed greatly with the evolution of digital media, or that some sectors of the industry have been hit quite hard as a result of digital media. What I am saying is that I think that digital and print media, in their broadest definitions, are similar but different. Both can survive without the other, but they both do best when they work together.
In 2011 I attended two conferences about direct and targeted marketing. One conference was print-focused while the other was digital media-centric. The conferences were literally only weeks from one another. Despite the different focus of each conference, the theme from both groups was the same: print campaigns do better when they have a digital media component, and digital campaigns do better when they have a print component. Interesting.
It is not just direct marketing that benefits from a symbiotic relationship between print and digital media. When done correctly, digital and print media can complement each other in other sectors of the industry as well. Take newspapers for example. I personally prefer a printed newspaper to a digital edition because I do not get data connectivity on most parts of my commute to and from work. I like the free daily newspapers because they are compact and easy to carry. I also like the fact that many of the articles have QR codes that I can take note of and scan when I do have cellular data to read more about something that interests me. I like the fact that when I do, I get a mobile site so I do not have to try to navigate a full site on my iPhone. Similarly, I like the digital editions of some magazines as a complement to my printed subscription. The supplemental material can be very good, depending on the magazine. While I own an e-reader and a tablet, I would be lying if I said the experience reading a book on these devices comes close to the satisfaction of a good printed book. I like being able to easily jump around the pages, flipping backwards to refresh my memory on a plotline that happened earlier. Having said that, I will often take my e-reader with me when I travel because it is lighter and takes up less space in my carry-on baggage. I love looking at paper flyers, and I like the fact that I can see something in that flyer and then order it online, with my smartphone.
I understand that different generations view technology differently. I have been teaching at Ryerson for over a decade now, and I see how the role of technology and digital media has evolved with the young men and women in my classes. Social media and portable computing play a pivotal role in many aspects of my students’ lives. I have also noticed something very interesting. For each of my classes I provide a PDF version of my lecture notes for students to use. Being in a graphic communications course, our students know how to annotate a PDF and how to use a computer to record ideas. What I find curious is that year after year, a good majority of my tech-savvy, electronically gifted students print out the PDF to bring to class and annotate it the good old-fashioned way – with a pen. Having said that, they like that there is an electronic record of the notes that they file and organize accordingly.
And so it seems – for the time being – print and digital media work best together. Many traditional printers have caught onto this idea and have transformed themselves into dynamic solution providers that provide both print and digital solutions to their clients. In return, end users enjoy the bounty of a rich and diverse media experience that blends the best of print and electronic media. Personalized web portals, QR codes, PURLs, e-commerce sites, loyalty programs, e-pub and tablet publishing are just some of the digital media solutions that many printers are offering. This is the reality today – print and digital co-existing and complementing each other. This relationship is still relatively new when we look at the grand scheme of things, and although there is no question that there are benefits to such a co-existence, the relationship between print and digital is not quite as harmonious as it could be.
Seamless Integration: The Missing Link
When I speak to colleagues in various sectors of the industry, the biggest concern I hear about projects that run in both printed and digital forms is the lack of standardized, seamless, automated integration between print and digital. Again, the extent of this varies from sector to sector, but basically it boils down to this: how can I design once, distribute many? With profit margins tight and competition high, time (or lack thereof) can make the difference between a profitable or a losing proposition. If a product has to be designed once for print, then again for the web, and then again for a tablet and/or e-reader, the time and human capital consumed in the process can be significant. The more time spent repurposing materials, the less profit there is to be had. In the world of print, where standards, specifications and automation have been stable and effective for a long time, the variability of the digital realm can be hard to manage. It is not that there aren’t standards and specifications for digital, it is just that there are so many for each of the different types of digital media, and they change all the time. Just look at the Web as an example. It started with HTML, and progressed to XHTML, CSS, ASP, PHP, Flash and most recently HTML 5. At any given time, you may encounter any combination of these standards on various websites. Which one should we use? Is there one-size-fits-all?
Now add to this the complexity of designing materials for tablets and smart phones. There are Apple (iOS) devices, Android devices, Blackberry devices and so on. Will something designed for one display correctly on the other? Is it optimized for Apple’s retina display? What are the implications of that? The variables that need to be considered are significant. In some ways, it feels like history repeating. I remember the way PostScript 3 changed the entire dynamic of RIPping files. Thanks to the PDF architecture of PostScript 3 we were able to switch from pre-separated (and therefore pre-screened) workflows to composite workflows, which in turn allowed us to switch from a ‘RIP many output many’ workflow to a ‘RIP once output many’ workflow. What the industry needs now is a standardized design once, distribute many (DODM) workflow. There are tools that attempt to do just that, but again they aren’t standardized. Not everyone is doing everything, and most of those that are doing something are all doing it differently. While there is value in uniqueness, imagine if each printer had their own proprietary versions of illustration, image manipulation and desktop publishing software. What if each of these proprietary systems exported proprietary file formats that would be used for output? Every printer, proofer, and RIP would have to be able to read, interpret and process every one of these proprietary file formats. Without a common denominator, there would be chaos, and file sharing would be impractical. Luckily in the print world, PostScript, and then PDF, became that common denominator. Like I said, it is not that digital media does not have standards; just that there are a lot of them, and in some cases more than one for a specific process. With choice comes variability, and with variability, automation becomes a greater challenge.
Print and Digital Media: Harmony in the Making
I believe that the key to a truly harmonious relationship between print and digital media will be the ability to design in a way that is media neutral using tools that we are all familiar with. The way to achieve this, I believe, is to agree upon standards and specifications that enable us to distribute designs to multiple platforms easily, without the need for extensive operator intervention or file repurposing.
There are many tools that exist today that can assist printers prepare files for cross media distribution. Some are simple yet powerful, like the built in features of Adobe InDesign, or Quark’s App Studio that integrates with InDesign (and QuarkXpress of course). Some are powerful and complex standalone systems like vjoon’s K4 Cross-Media Publishing Platform, and there are many iterations in between. There are many tools that can perform many different functions, and these tools are getting better everyday. What is still lacking, however, is a lack of consensus on what file formats are best for each cross media application.
As an example, let’s look at tablet publishing. Many people believe that a good file format for tablet publishing is HTML 5. It is dynamic, based on a known open standard, and works well on most devices. I think that HTML has great potential, and I am learning as much as I can about it and how it can benefit our industry.
There is also an older, stable file format that is device and platform neutral that can accurately render information across multiple media formats. In fact some may say it was the first of its kind: PDF. PDF is also a known ISO standard, and it is a file format that printers are used to dealing with on a daily basis. New PDF standards like PDF/X-4 are more suited to cross media applications than their predecessors. They allow RGB data and ICC profiling that can aid in consistency of colour across devices, allow for linking to external files and databases, and allow for the embedding of multimedia elements, which can be separated from printing elements using layers. If the same PDF can be used for print and digital media, the potential for variation between the two mediums is reduced. We are not talking about the same scenario as in the old days where static PDF content is displayed on the web. This is similar dynamic modeling and functionality as HTML 5 in a PDF.
One organization that has been looking seriously at the idea of using PDF as a file format for cross media applications is the Ghent Workgroup (GWG). The GWG Cross Media Sub-committee has been working hard “to determine how the GWG can standardize and improve the processes for the use of PDF in [electronic] media” (http://www.gwg.org/cross-media/). I like the approach the GWG is taking on this because they work and consult with other international organizations and do not work in a vacuum. Based on the last presentation of the sub-committee, I believe a specification for the use of PDF for cross media is close at hand, and I will give it a serious look when it is complete.
Personally, I do not have a preference for any one particular standard over another for various digital media applications. What I do know is that printers in all realms of the industry need a way to distribute information through multiple channels efficiently and easily. Output-neutral design and publishing are becoming more and more of a necessity.
When I walk into a printer these days I am glad I am not greeted by a lone person and a dog. I am also proud of the strides we have made as an industry through technical innovation, automation and dedication to advance our craft. Naysayers will always exist, but I believe print will continue to thrive because we can adapt and change. What “print” means a decade from now may be different from what it means now. What we “print” might not be the same. Maybe the term printer will be replaced with something like “content distribution specialists”, or “cross media services”. Whatever the case may be, what I know right now is that print media needs digital media and digital media needs print media. If that is not the formula for a long, harmonious relationship, I don’t know what is.