Existential thoughts that invade my brain when I can’t sleep

For example, is “printer” still the right word to describe what many shops now do?

Among the thoughts that have been percolating in the recesses of my brain, especially when I can’t sleep, is this: What is a printer? Or more precisely, is printer still the right word to describe everything that so many graphic arts firms now do? Should we change the word “printer” to something else, or should we redefine what a printer actually is.

It used to be simple. A printer used a press—of any persuasion—to apply ink or toner to a substrate, likely paper, to disseminate information. It’s impossible to overestimate the impact that act has had on society for almost 500 years, so we have big shoes to fill.

Then, as revenues waned, came calls for printers to adopt marketing, communications, data management, analytics, logistics, supply chain management, printing with additives, and so on, while new technologies made it possible for everyone to technically image just about anything. It’s heady, and wonderful, and confusing. Is this still printing?

Ambivalence about printing

During the past year, I’ve come across several examples that illustrate the confusion and ambivalence about the term printing. At a user group earlier in the year, I heard a presentation from a company that had ventured far outside what a traditional printer usually does and embraced data analytics, audience and brand development, and business consulting – to substantial success. 

I approached the CEO after his talk and put this question to him: Does he have a name for what he does, or does printer still cover it? No, printer, did not cover it, he said, and they had actually taken the word “printer” out of their name. They were aware of the situation, and he was intrigued by the question but being too busy with actually making money, did not have much time to devote to the issue. Fair point – that’s what editors are for. 

I’ve had the same conversation with a local company. They have a niche they’d like to own and offer all manner of services that go far beyond the traditional printer’s menu. They too felt the moniker “printer” was too limiting but had yet to come up with a precise name for what they do. Both these companies, like so many others in this industry have, in fact, deleted printing and its derivates from their names. 

I’ve also heard presidents and owners refer to their firms as communications companies, or marketing companies, or as change drivers who bring added-value solutions to the supply chain and enable end-users to create unique customer experiences. Or something like that.

Dispiritedly, I’ve also encountered a few companies with strong roots in this industry and an income statement that relies heavily on actual printing, yet who refuse to admit they are part of the printing industry. Reps from one such large enterprise, in tongue- and logic-twisting PR verbiage that I can only assume they perfected in a masters-level class on spin, told me it was bad for their brand to participate in an event associated with the printing industry. 

Boundaries and identity

Now, I do get that businesses need to follow the money, and I applaud “printers” who push the boundaries. But between printers who think it’s damaging to be associated with the industry, and printers who don’t know what to call what they do, it seems to me we have an existential identity issue.

The reasons this has me preoccupied are two-fold. On a micro level, at each individual company, if you can easily name what you do it becomes easier to market it. And if you can articulate what you do, then it’s easier to put strategies in place to achieve that. On a macro level, it’s hard to unify an industry that does not coalesce around a clearly articulated shared purpose or function. 

So, I’m going to try a little group think, and maybe see how many of you read to the end. What do you think is a better word than printer? It’s hard, because printer is a good word, it clearly explains what you do, and it conjures up certain images and expectations in the minds of clients. But, it just simply doesn’t seem to be accurate anymore.  

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