Tagged Blog Posts

PrintUI—Words Fail…

Last year, I wrote about Korzybski’s semantic theories—especially the problems generated among humans who confuse words (symbols) with the objects they represent. Since I’m in the business of words, I’m forever hopeful that we’ll figure out how to use them well, and resolve our differences with rational discourse. However, having just returned from a publishing event, I can tell you that we have a long way to go.

At the event, I heard sophisticated versions of arguments that began to sound something like, “Print is dead…” / “No, it’s not!” / “Is so!” / “You take that back!!” Even with all the smiles and social niceties, it was pretty clear that the transition between print (still important) and digital (still confusing and chaotic) is creating a great deal of discomfort and anxiety.

So, let’s look at some of the words we seem to be confusing with their many referents. “Print,” for example, can mean the physical product: ink on bound sheets of paper. It can also mean the complex, expensive manufacturing and distribution process that publishers must manage in order to get their words, pictures, and ads into the hands of readers. It can mean a bad environmental practice (“Don’t print; save a tree!”)—or a good one (“Paper is a sustainable resource!”) It can also be used in a derogatory sense to describe social change, namely the shift from “outdated, static” print to “modern, hip, dynamic” digital communication.

Other words, like “healthcare” or “guns” have far more semantic problems, of course, but we’re in the communication business, so I’ll stick with one that affects us professionally. When we say or hear the word “print,” it’s very likely we won’t understand the legitimate passion or feelings of the person arguing for or against its future. Making progress in developing a publishing strategy depends on connection and understanding—something that can only be achieved if we agree on what words mean.

The first takeaway from all this is to recognize that there are multiple referents or objects for every word we use. Some of these are simple and literal, while others are more abstract. English is a particularly tricky language in this respect. New meanings and nuances are generated continuously—even for words we normally take for granted. Marketing professionals are in the business of inventing new meanings for old words—just to get our attention. However, if we pause for a moment, and consider the possibility of multiple meanings (“levels of abstraction,” to use Korzybski’s phrase,) then we can begin to calm down, truly listen to the other guy, and perhaps find some real solutions.

Those of us who work in the print medium would do well to make words part of the solution, instead of the problem.

–John Parsons

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PrintUI—Silver Cloud / Dark Lining?

At the risk of channeling the late Andy Rooney, I have a bone to pick with cloud computing and its adherents. Like all business trends, “The Cloud” (capitalization required) has achieved meaningless buzzword status. It has also attracted its share of pretenders, predators, and puzzled participants.

Let’s be clear from the start: cloud computing is not new. It used to be called client-server computing, with dumb terminals tethered to big mainframes. The limitations of that world led us to rely on increasingly powerful and more affordable standalone computers, using the network for communications and data transfer, but relying on our own devices—and Moore’s law—to crunch increasing amounts of data.

The Internet, itself a product of the client-server world, is changing all that. Web-based server applications are on the rise, while personal computers, phones and tablets are the not-so-dumb terminals. Cloud disciples hail this—sometimes justifiably—as a huge benefit for consumers and businesses alike.

Unfortunately, hype is outracing reality. Here’s an example…

Like many, I’ve begun the switch from local to Web-based information. In my case, the catalyst was music, specifically the Apple iPod/iTunes combo. I was coaxed into digitizing my CD and LP collections, buying tracks and albums online and, most recently, backing up the whole thing in iCloud. Despite my misgivings,* I dutifully installed the latest versions of Apple software and relinquished more and more of my data to an Apple-managed server somewhere on the planet. The same is happening, slowly, with my e-book collection, with “my” data residing on servers owned by Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, DropBox, and other companies.

There are benefits. I’m immune from losing my music or e-books if a device fails catastrophically. I can access stuff remotely on many different devices, without the need for stacks of CDs or USB drives—assuming I never lose my password. So long as Apple, Amazon, et al, don’t mess up, I’m in pretty good shape, data-wise.

The downside is the truly tenuous nature of the “tether” between me and my data. Last week, for reasons yet unknown, iTunes 11 and QuickTime apparently had a quarrel, making it impossible for me to manage my music collection. Various devices could still play their locally-stored songs, but my collection was essentially frozen, and all but inaccessible. Emails to Apple were unanswered; I was on my own. (I stumbled on a “solution” of sorts—namely removing QuickTime.)

For most consumers, cloud computing only works if a delicate chain of software and systems work flawlessly together. Even if all the links were owned and controlled by a single provider, they don’t always perform as expected. Software is, by nature, prone to unexpected failures. Large software companies have a vested interest in their own success, and in defeating their competitors. To make cloud-based content as stress-free traditional media would require cooperation that may be at odds with the bottom line.

I am not by any means advocating a return to standalone PCs and stacks of ZIP disks or CDs. I’m just saying we should look very hard at the practical realities of cloud-based content before we lightly abandon the reliability and lack of stress to be found in other media—like print.

–John Parsons


* Unlike physical recordings or print books, cloud-based content operates under very different economic and legal rules. As long as I don’t make additional copies, I can re-sell or give away my physical albums or books, or include them in a legal will. This is next to impossible with digital music and e-books.

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PrintUI—Print Different

Print DifferentThis is typically the time of year when columnists, pundits, and bloggers look back at the past year, and ahead to what the next one may bring. Assuming the planet will not end altogether on December 21st, here’s my retrospective and glimpse forward for the printing industry.

For some, the Mayan apocalypse may actually be welcome. Popular opinion places print (erroneously) on the endangered list. Many things we traditionally associate with print, like newspapers and ad inserts, are in decline, at least in North America and Europe. Companies associated with such things are also struggling—mostly with each other—for what they see as a dwindling food supply, so to speak. The traditional business of print is under extreme duress, surviving by larger companies assimilating smaller ones, or simply filing for bankruptcy.

However, believe it or not, this is not a doomsday scenario. Printing companies and once-profitable print niches may fail, but print itself is a medium that will survive and even thrive for the foreseeable future.

First, let’s look at the obvious. Packaging alone is a huge growth market, totally immune from digital. In the signage market, print does have competition from digital, but the cost and supply chain variance will insure the health of the print side of things for a long while. Both of these “niches,” if something so large can be called that, have enormous technical and logistical challenges—especially as more general commercial printers try to compete with existing specialists—but the demand is huge, and growing.

Second, we should never discount the growth potential of more “traditional” forms of print, like business collateral, direct mail, catalogs, and even publications like books, magazines, and newspapers. To be sure, the days of super-high-volume offset work are passing, but there is still an intrinsic value to using a printed piece in lieu of a digital screen.[1] As long as digital-variable-on-demand printing remains viable,[2] then the medium itself will thrive.

What needs to change is not print, per se, but the business values of those who provide the service. Printing is no longer a simple industry—offering a predictable, high-quality, manufactured product at a competitive price. Instead, printing is a complex service industry, meeting a wide spectrum of needs and, ideally, creating a complex mutual partnership.

At the risk of over-using the example, let’s think about Apple’s iconic “Think Different” campaign.[3] What did it do for the mundane world of computers that a similar outlook could do for a 550-year-old industry, steeped in old-school manufacturing notions?

At the root of Apple’s re-invention of computing was the user experience. The goal was to capitalize on the “ah-ha” moment that accompanied a consumer’s first interaction with the iPod, the iPhone, or the iPad. None of those devices was truly original, but users’ experienced them as “Different” in a strongly positive way.

Maybe the print world needs the Jobsian hubris and fanaticism that has made Apple—rightly or wrongly—the thought leader it now is. Attitude alone won’t cut it, however. True invention must equal (at least) the arrogance of those who think print is still great.

The next great idea—probably a hybrid of print and other media—can’t be buried in a corporate culture stuck in the 1950s. Because printing serves human needs, and because humans are infinitely complex, it follows that there are an almost infinite number of possible printing innovations in our future. The only question is whether “different” printing will come from today’s printing companies, or from the next Apple of the print/mobile/whatever world.

–John Parsons

[2] Industry thought leaders have predicted that the ever-increasing efficiency and quality of digital print—approaching and eventually exceeding that of offset—will result in a tipping point, possibly before 2020, where digital will be the preferred approach for nearly all printing applications.

[3] No, it shouldn’t have been, “Think Differently.” The phrase was not about how we think, but about what we should be thinking—namely, the concept of “Different,” and the products that have that distinction.

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PrintUI—What Makes Paper So Special?

When discussing the merits of print communication, pundits like me tend to fixate specific applications like publishing or business communication, but don’t say much about the medium itself: paper. There are preconceptions about its inconvenience in dealing with large quantities of data (true) or its negative impact on the environment (false). However, we don’t often think about the thing itself: that sheet of mashed-up fibers on which we make our mark. Despite the realities of digital media, paper continues to be a medium of convenience, cost-effectiveness, and versatility.

The history of paper sheds some light. The word of course comes from papyrus—which is not paper as we know it, but a laminate of a specific plant. The Chinese invention we know as paper (about 100 A.D., give or take a century) involved squeezing water out of a plant fiber slurry to produce a thin sheet of writing material. As the technology made its way across Asia, the Islamic world, and eventually Europe, it replaced common but often inconvenient or costly media like bark, bone, animal skins, and (most inconvenient of all) stone.

Civilizations certainly existed without paper. However, rapid, disruptive change often followed the introduction of this new, more convenient medium for communicating ideas. Just as digital is a catalyst for change today, so has paper been for centuries.

When print advocates defend their choice of media, they often cite the aesthetic experience—the “feel” of paper that is preferable to that of a screen. Some go so far as to claim that the tangible, touchable, tactile nature of paper creates a greater sensory “footprint” in the brain, and is therefore more engaging and effective in communicating ideas to humans. This could be true, arguably, because we’ve had hundreds of years of collective experience with paper, and only decades of experience with screens.

Another somewhat philosophical argument for paper is that its lack of rich media pizazz is actually an advantage—less distraction, more focus, a better medium for our admittedly too distractible minds.

The part of me that simply likes print gravitates towards these arguments. However, the case for paper is actually more prosaic: boring economics. Paper has succeeded through the centuries, and is likely to be viable for a long time, because of plain old cost issues.

Let me explain. Paper—and by extension print itself—provides an extraordinarily high visual experience for a remarkably low cost. On the communicator/publisher side, this is arguable. Print has manufacturing, storage and transportation costs that digital does not.* However, on the consumer side, the cost of print is negligible. Special devices and networks are not required, technical support and e-waste are non-issues, and paper disposal/recycling is well-established—or even free. Power requirements for the paper media consumer are pretty much limited to lighting. Paper does not have a built-in bias towards more affluent consumers who can afford devices. It is also less vulnerable to technology failures or obsolescence.

All this is not to say that paper meets all communication needs—far from it. However, it’s a real mistake to deride paper, or relegate it to the wastebasket, so to speak. Until digital meets the economic, environmental, and aesthetic needs that paper meets so well, we must hang onto both media, and look for ways they can work in tandem.

–John Parsons


* Digital is not free for the communicator, by any means. Digital storage, while dropping in cost, involves energy and management overhead that every business and publication must account for.

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PrintUI—First Impressions

It never pays to resist or deride innovators—especially in the world of print. The clerics and inquisitors who warned us about the dangerous innovation of Herr Gutenberg (himself a pious man) ended up on the losing side of that technology argument. William Morris decried the industrialization of the printed word, and even went so far as to make his own type and paper, and print his own books by hand, but the giant printing factories of his day thrived.

You get the idea. Innovation always has is detractors. Print is certainly no exception. Let’s take a true-or-false quiz:

  1. Offset will never replace gravure.
  2. Phototypesetting will never match the quality of hot type.
  3. Desktop publishing will never replace typesetting (or anything else).
  4. Nothing can replace the color quality of film.
  5. Nothing will replace real printing presses.

At some point in time, most people would have answered “true” to any one of these statements. These days, however, the certainty of these denials is eroding in the face of technology innovation, combined with relentless economic pressure.

This brings us to the last statement. Printing presses as we know them—offset, gravure, and flexo—are still the dominant way to put images on multiple sheets of paper, plastic, or whatnot, but that is changing. At this year’s Graph Expo, for example, I counted only four or five offset presses on the show floor, while the new upstarts—digital presses—were everywhere. Buying a new offset press is becoming rarer; buying a digital one is becoming the norm.

On the quality issue, digital is now meeting (and in some cases exceeding) the quality levels of analog print. Speeds are increasing, as are the paper handling and finishing aspects of digital print. Long run lengths are still the domain of “regular” presses, but that too may be changing over time. Most important: the per-sheet cost of digital print is falling, which will eventually put offset on the same road to obsolescence as letterpress.

Of course this will take a lot of time. Even the unchallenged advantages of digital print, like incredibly low makeready and variable data printing, will not make offset or flexo obsolete overnight.* Offset will be with us for a while, as will flexo. Even gravure will survive, if only to make printed electronics instead of long runs of magazines or catalogs.

The point is that digital print is emerging from the onus of professional scorn, and is becoming part of the acceptable norm. Many of the scorners will go out of business, while some will create new business models and learn how to thrive. Innovation, however disruptive, will survive the early failures and shortcomings—to become the accepted way of doing things.

Now, if only we could refrain from ridiculing the next new thing. Someday, perhaps sooner than we think, digital toner and inkjet presses may be the hidebound technology, the “old school” approach.

What will you be doing when that happens?

–John Parsons


* This has a lot to do with business practices. We may have the digital technology to create a customized “run of one” printing process, but we really don’t know how to manage or profit from it yet.

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PrintUI—Consumer Media Choices: Paper or Silicon?

Quark Software Print-Mobile Playing CardNot all that long ago, our communications choices were limited to print and some form of analog broadcast. Computers changed how we created media, especially for the printed page, but not the medium itself. Of course that all changed with the Inter-Web and its latest incarnation: mobile devices. In the rush to go mobile—our collective “digital binge,” if you will—it’s fashionable to dismiss print altogether. That would be a serious mistake.

I was reminded of this by some announcements by a company that—like print—has been ignored lately. Quark Software (remember them?) recently announced their multi-channel Quark Publishing Platform, and a new version of App Studio, an environment for creating customized tablet apps with XML, HTML5, QuarkXPress, and (wait for it) InDesign. Rather than focus on moving away from print and towards digital, the company has elected to embrace both.

Businesses and publishers should not have to choose between print and mobile to communicate with their audience. The two media are not mutually exclusive; each has benefits that the other cannot easily provide.

Let’s start with the easy one: mobile. Digital content does offer immediate, live access to ever-changing data. In theory, an app or a Web page can always reflect very latest version of a story—like when CNN reported that the Supreme Court had struck down a key provision of Obamacare. (No, wait…) More importantly, it can connect more easily with other data, and include engaging “rich media” that print cannot.

Print is certainly out of favor in the mobile age, but it should not be. First of all, it has an extremely efficient creation, production, and distribution supply chain. It’s highly-automated and inexpensive to produce. It’s not only familiar and comfortable for many, it’s also really stable. A printed piece won’t disappear or become obsolete with the next wave of technology.

The “save a tree” argument won’t wash either. If the printing process is well managed—using print-on-demand, online ordering, and paper from managed sources—then it is truly a sustainable medium, probably more so than digital, with its unknown carbon footprint and energy consumption overhead.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for print is the fact that it has a low “technology footprint” for consumers. They only need to be literate, and have sufficient light to read. There’s no requirement for a special device, the right operating system, or a reliable connection. It may be a bit Luddite to say so, but reading print is just plain easy.

This should not discourage anyone from communicating via the mobile Internet—or any digital means. Without any doubt, mobile connection is the next “really big thing” for communication and commerce. However, it is not an exclusive medium. Print-centric companies who cover their ears and hum when the subject of mobile comes up are headed for failure, but so are those that imagine print is dead. Both are essential. Those who figure out how to communicate well in either “language” will succeed.

–John Parsons

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PrintUI—The Perils of Print+Mobile

QR Code fail at the subway stationLast week, I journeyed to Chicago for this year’s Graph Expo, the annual trade ritual for the struggling print industry in North America. Occurring only a few months after drupa—the worldwide version of that experience—Graph was something of a re-hash. My editor at Printing Impressions acknowledged this when he commissioned my upcoming article on digital presses, but we both agreed to look for anything new.

One of the “new” things I found was not on the show floor. Taking the subway to and from my hotel, I saw a horrifying combination of print and mobile technology in the form of an Illinois Lottery sign. Placed next to the Twitter and Facebook icons was a QR Code—a common enough occurrence on any sign these days. The problem was that the scannable code was tiny, and the poster was 16-20 feet away, on the other side of the tracks! I took this photo only seconds before the train came rushing by.

(I never got close enough to find out what the QR Code’s landing page was. The poster itself did not give a clue, breaking all the rules for using 2D barcodes in the first place. Given the placement choice, the only logical mobile message would have been, “You are about to die.”)

To be fair, I later saw the same poster on other platforms, where users could safely scan the code. The failure was in not knowing every possible place the poster would be situated. However, this campaign brought to mind the business perils that printers and their customers face on a daily basis: Combining print and mobile is a great idea, potentially, but the results can be disastrous when one fails to think things through.

Back at the show, I saw several vendors presenting solutions that involved adding mobile in various ways to increase the value of print. The audience was not paying much attention to mobile, however. Considerable floor space was devoted to increasing print-on-demand capabilities via the latest toner-based or inkjet press technology.* Also receiving attention were vendors offering Web-enabled print specification and online ordering, like my friends at (shameless plug) PrintUI.

Perhaps print-to-mobile is just too new for complete coverage at an event of this type. Certainly there are enough embarrassing failures (see above) to make conservative printers cautious about it.

The fact is, however, that print and mobile technologies—combined—are greater than either one can be by itself. Print offers tangible messaging benefits that no digital technology can match. Mobile is not just the next big fad; it is also an indispensable tool for consumers and business professionals to dig deeper, accessing relevant information in ways that benefit everyone.

Combining these two media successfully is the challenge of this decade, and the subject of future blogs.

–John Parsons


* Conspicuously absent from the show were conventional offset presses, of which I counted only four or five. This is partly because of the industry shift to digital printing. It is also a reflection of the slow economy—plus the fact that the good folks at McCormick Center charge in the neighborhood of $200,000 to install a big press for a four-day event.

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PrintUI—Survival On Demand

In nature, a species has to either adapt to an ever-changing environment, and increasingly efficient competition, to survive. Sudden, drastic changes make survival less likely. One popular notion is that such a change—an asteroid impact, an influx of volcanic activity, or what have you—brought about the extinction of dinosaurs 60-plus million years ago. Actual scientists differ on how these creatures met their end, but the story is still a useful metaphor for industries like printing.

Over 1.5 billion seconds ago—50 years—the printing world was ruled by giants, by the likes of Lithosaurus Rex if you will. High demand for print, a complex manufactured product requiring expensive, specialized equipment, supported higher prices and a wide variety of prospering businesses.

Then came the asteroids. Digital technology not only made printing efficient, it also increased the potential supply—allowing more companies to print with less investment and labor cost. It also changed the demand side, introducing competition from information on the Web, as well as the instant gratification of iPhones, iPads, and Kindles.

As any printing veteran today will tell you, businesses that cannot adapt will cease to exist. The old models of high volume printing are changing into short-run (or even single-copy run) ecosystems. The remaining giants are chasing ever-smaller orders, while nimble upstart companies are finding ways to aggregate small orders or add unique value to print.

The Print On Demand (POD) process itself typifies this struggle. Using Web-to-print ordering and digital presses, it is now possible to print something immediately after it’s been ordered, eliminating the inefficiencies of mass production and saving money that would normally be spent on storage. Even customers with limited budgets can have their print projects done without the high costs associated with traditional print. POD even allows a customer to customize his or her individual purchase.

The problem is that the printed product itself is seen as the least valuable part of the equation. Instant service, convenience, and facilitating a customer’s design ideas are the perceived value. Printing businesses must find ways of doing the latter—profitably—or risk becoming an undervalued commodity provider.

So, what will become of companies formerly known as printers? In nature, every animal has its own niche, but when two animals go after the same niche one of two things happens: one of the two dies out, because the competitor is simply better suited to that niche, OR one finds a new niche, even if it’s very similar to the old one, to avoid the competition. The printing process is changing radically, but will companies who used to just provide printed products be able to outperform their competitors? Will they simply succumb, move on to entirely different businesses,* or adapt to the POD world as a different species of business?

It’s commonly held that birds evolved from dinosaur-like animals. Who knows? Maybe there’s an Archaeopteryx-like business potential in the printing companies of the future.

–John Parsons


* Don’t discount this possibility. There are quite a few gravure printers contemplating the move to manufacturing “printed electronics.”

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PrintUI—Print Is…

PrintUI - print is not deadThe question “is print dead?” is superficial nonsense. The real question should be: “What is print, and why should we care?”

Print is everywhere, and is likely to continue for many, many years. Putting oil-based ink on ground-up trees may decline,* but it will be replaced by other printing methods—like toner or inkjet—a lot more often than by electronic facsimiles. Radio was changed (but not eliminated) by television. Similarly, print will be changed by digital media and new business models.

Many of the businesses we associate with print are in distress. The golden age of high demand and limited supply of mass-produced printed materials is over. Large printing companies that were based on selling mass quantities of print are under siege, to put it mildly. Surviving printers are either in a race to the bottom—selling a commodity for the lowest possible price—or are looking for ways to redefine their businesses. In both cases, the process of putting text and images on a sheet of something will endure.

Full disclosure: I love the print medium; I always have. My fingers are no longer stained black, and my paper cuts are new few and far between, but I still smile when I experience “that new book smell,” or hear the rhythmic roar of a printing press. Every time some media pundit declares that “print is dead,” I wonder how many times a day he has read a sign, opened a package, put on clothing with a label, clicked “print” from their PC or tablet, read a bus schedule, handed out a business card… Well, you get the idea.

Change is a good thing. Digital media has great potential, but more so when used with print rather than as a replacement for it. Print can provide a stable “snapshot” of a particular story or idea, while digital media can show parts of that story or idea while it’s still in flux. Both perspectives are important.

As the physical process of printing becomes more automated—more of a commodity and less of a personal service—printing companies are looking for new ways to add value to what they offer. The trouble is that many are just talking; few are doing it. Very few are combining print and digital media in ways that live up to their full potential.

So, in the next series of blogs, we will explore some of the ways that “companies formerly known as printers” can combine their sense of craft and personal service, their manufacturing know-how, and the potential of new media and information technologies, into a long-term business.

Print is not dead, nor is it “just restin’.” It just has a way more complicated life than we ever imagined.

–John Parsons

* …or not. Paper from managed fiber sources is probably one of the most sustainable media we have. Coal-based power for digital media is not.


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