Adapting to Change
If you ever set type by hand, if you’ve ever operated a Linotype or a Ludlow, if the terms “slug” or “chase” or “foundry” or “Hell Box” bring back thoughts of “back in the day,” you may relate to this story.
No, this isn’t a story of nostalgia, and I won’t try to convince you how great things used to be. In fact, if you are familiar enough with a letterpress shop to remember the heat and the noise, I don’t have to tell you how much things have improved as we evolved into today’s digital print technologies.
I want to tell a slightly different story: A story about adapting to change.
Printers and typographers “back in the day” worked in a challenging environment. Hot metal type was difficult to work with and the working conditions were deplorable. It was not unusual for a typographer or press operator to lose body parts while setting up and/or running a job.
But the product was noteworthy. Type was crisp and sharp, and until the introduction of photo type, crisp type was…well it was just what printed words were supposed to look like.
All of that changed when photo type evolved in the 1950s and 60s. The vats of molten lead were out. Photo type relied on chemistry, and photo type machines made less noise. Workers no longer needed to wear steel-toed boots and thick gloves. Moreover, photo type was scalable, meaning different point sizes, and different effects (italic, bold, etc.) could be set from a single template using photographic optics. Photographic films were used to capture images, corrections were relatively easy, and the entire process was inexpensive and fast.
There was one small problem: Photo type lacked hot lead’s crispness. The letters weren’t quite as sharp, and if one looked closely one could see the edge fuzziness inherent in photo type. Many a (Linotype) typographer was seen examining photo type with a loupe and declaring something like “Look at this crap! My customers will never accept this quality. They want ‘real’ type.”
We all know the outcome. Hot lead typographers resisted the inevitable change and photo type evolved to become the standard. Oh, there are still a few hot lead shops around, and many of us keep a windmill for perfing and die-cutting, but for the most part lead type has become irrelevant. You see, typographers failed to understand their customers’ needs. The features that made hot lead important to the existing industry paled in importance to customers’ requirements. At the end of the day, customers were willing to sacrifice a little quality for speed, flexibility and lower overall cost.
This story comes to mind because of a recent thread on one of the print management sites. A question about digital print was raised, and the discussion followed a similar pattern. Some relegated digital print to short run jobs and opined that it would never be accepted in long-run situations, whatever that means. Another said that short-run markets were more forgiving. I guess that means that if you don’t need very many pieces, you should be willing to accept lower quality.
In my opinion, these guys just don’t get it.
There are a few really big in-plants that have the volume to support a five or six-color press, but remember that 80 percent of in-plants employ 12 or fewer people, and their run lengths tend to be shorter than what one would expect to produce economically on a six-color press. In the world of higher education, for example, take away the few major publications most colleges and universities use—view books and alumni newsletters for example—and the average run length ranges from 1,000 to 2,500 pieces. Offset for these shops may not be an option. Not unless it’s outsourced.
Many, if not most in-plants have migrated to digital production, including digital color. Graphic design staff and print production folk have worked together to maximize the effectiveness of print collateral using in-house assets to fulfill the mission of supporting the organization’s print needs.
So while the commercial printers and big iron press guys channel the letterpress operators of old claiming that digital color is “OK” but it’s not “real printing,” savvy in-plant operators are meeting customer needs and expectations, on time and under budget, with often moderately priced “copiers.”
And that brings us to another story.
A few years ago I presented a session at an in-plant conference in which I argued that offset print is dead. To prove my point, I gathered files of actual jobs from the host institution and sent them to several in plant managers. I selected managers who had access to an array of both digital and offset production devices. Each was asked to produce copies of the jobs and bring them to the conference.
The samples were displayed in the seminar room. Conference participants and sponsors, including service and sales representatives from a large, well-known offset press company, were invited to examine the pieces and identify which were produced on digital equipment and which were produced on offset presses. If digital output is indeed inferior, as many would have us believe, the judges should have no problem separating the two.
The results were astonishing. No one—not a single participant, including the big press guys—could consistently separate the digital print from the offset work.
Let me repeat: not a single participant, including the big press guys, could consistently separate the digital print from the offset work! Some made a few correct selections, to be sure, but there was never a consensus on which were produced using offset or digital technology.
When I reflect on this story I can’t help but think back to the hot lead typographers who let their perception of quality blind them to the customer’s reality and the underlying lesson: Customers define quality.
Ray Chambers, CGCM, MBA, has invested over 30 years managing and directing printing plants, copy centers, mail centers and award-winning document management facilities in higher education and government.
Most recently, Chambers served as vice president and chief information officer at Juniata College. Chambers is currently a doctoral candidate studying Higher Education Administration at the Pennsylvania State University (PSU). His research interests include outsourcing in higher education and its impact on support services in higher education and managing support services. He also consults (Chambers Management Group) with leaders in both the public and private sectors to help them understand and improve in-plant printing and document services operations.