Subbing In Design

October 27, 2006

We married off a graphic designer last weekend. Chris, who has survived a couple of pretty heavy romances unscathed since he began working with us, finally succumbed to matrimonial bliss. The wedding was beautiful. The music was absolutely wonderful. The bride was exceptionally lovely. The preacher couldn’t read his notes because it got dark sooner that they planned for. Flustered, he told Chris to “chris the bride.” God’s blessings to Chris and Jenna!

The newlyweds are on a boat to the Bahamas and I’m doing keyboard duty. I haven’t subbed in design for a while, and my eyes are a little crossed at the end of the day. In truth, it’s not my eyes that are the problem. It’s my brain. By the end of the day it’s mush, oatmeal. The synapses no longer connect. If this post is disjointed, you know the cause.

Today I am a victim of the annual report of the Ambidextrous Association of Prehistoric Baptist Churches (obviously not their real name). We’ve been doing the annual report for this group of small churches for as long as we’ve been in business. In fact, neither the customer nor I had any gray hairs when we started this project. We’ve both started marking time by his annual visits to the printshop.

The booklet is always the same . . . a bunch of text, followed with several pages of numbers that have to be manually entered into a spreadsheet and then converted into .pdfs for printing. When I got to the numbers my bifocals shorted out. I just couldn’t seem to get them into the right cells in the spreadsheet. I checked and double checked and I’m still not sure they’re right. Maybe the years of printshop fumes are finally taking they’re toll.

Which leads to another tangent. I’d like to take a formal poll to find out if the printshop fragrance is marketable. I’ve lived with it so long that I really can’t smell it at all any more, but I’m always entertained by the occasional customer comments when they walk in the shop. I think it’s split about evenly. 50% walk in the door and say, “Oh, I love how a printshop smells!”

The others say, “How can you stand it in here?”

I’ve had one rather delicate gentleman leave the shop because his eyes were burning and a couple of high school kids who wanted to stay because they thought printshop solvents smelled better than Testors airplane glue. Is there a market for this? Should we bottle “Eau de Printshop” or “Dilettante Repellant?”

Back to the Ambidextrous Baptists. Their association is a group of some 20 or so very small churches in Georgia and Florida. The statistics are always fascinating. Last year they added a couple of churches. This year they dropped a couple. The parishioners are obviously aging, and the churches are losing members by attrition. There are definitely more deaths this year than new baptisms. A couple of the small churches are down to 2 or 4 members. The most interesting column is the stats is the numbers for excommunication. I’m not sure exactly what you have to do to get excommunicated from the Ambidextrous Baptists, but a few folks do it every year.

If I mark the years with the Ambidextrous Association of Prehistoric Baptists, I’m marking the days until our graphics guy returns. I certainly don’t begrudge him his honeymoon, but I’ll be glad to get my nose out of the computers.

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The trouble with printshop design

October 20, 2006

AlphaGraphics LogoA few years ago, the tagline underneath the Alphagraphics logo read “Design • Copy • Print • Miracles.” This made me decidedly uncomfortable, but it did provide great encouragement for those who wanted the impossible done yesterday. Today, the tagline reads “Design • Copy • Print > Communicate.” I’m much more confident with this message, but I have to admit that the first element is a bit problematic.

The difficulty is in the definition. When Joe or Jill Consumer thinks about design, they may think of anything from the generation of ideas to the creation of art. Printshops (including AlphaGraphics) are pretty good at the latter, but fairly lousy at the former.

Here’s the problem:

Printing companies are production shops. Typically the design department is doing everything from page layout to prepress, including drawing the occasional logo or creating a newsletter or magazine template. Key to their operation is getting files to all of the machinery that has to run to keep the shop profitable and the employees (and owners) fed.

Jill Consumer calls up and asks if we can draw a logo for her new business. “Do you have an idea of what you want?” we ask.

This sounds silly to Jill. If she knew what she wanted, she wouldn’t have called to ask if we could do it. It’s not silly to us, because we know that most of the time will be required to come up with what she wants, not in drawing the final version. And if Jill is not good at making decisions, or if she is very particular (read finicky) about the final details, the time can be excessive. So, if I take on the project, I risk locking up hours of design time that could otherwise be used to produce work that will enable all of the other machines and people in the shop to be productive and make money.

Here are the Options:

If you can describe it, we can usually produce it. If you can draw your new logo (or something similar) on a napkin with crayons, we can produce it. Printers are exceptionally good at layout. If you need a brochure, presentation folder, booklet and you’ve got copy and photos, we can layout something beautiful for you. If you want three designs to choose from, that’s another story.

Conceptual development is what I call “creative” design. Some of us printers would like to do this type of design.  I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s basically impossible.  It’s simply unprofitable to devote the time required to do artistic design in a production environment. Even if we dedicate an employee to this kind of task, they will inevitably get pulled off when a higher priority production project comes around.

Creative design is best done by those without the overhead and production concerns of a printshop. Basically, Joe and Jill Consumer have three options:

  1. They can try to do it themselves. Many people consider themselves to have an artistic flair. This is fine only as long as the end product must please only the artist. If you want the art to please others, it’s best to involve others in the development. Technically, this option also has problems. I’ve written before about the perils of DIY design. On the upside, you may be able to create something that a professional graphic artist can convert into usable art without too much trouble.
  2. Hire an agency. Depending on the project, this might be a good solution. An ad agency’s reputation is based upon it’s creative talent and the quality of the products and campaigns produced. Agencies are most effective when the scope is large. In other words, if you’re planning a campaign that will include print and broadcast media, PR, internet, and some collateral print pieces; an agency is the appropriate choice. Agencies have overheads, too. The development cost might be considerable if Joe and Jill want a logo or a single printed piece, but they’ll probably get the product they want.
  3. Freelance designers are a great option if the scope of the project is well defined. At AlphaGraphics, we regularly refer customers to freelancers for creative design. We naturally ask them to bring us the project for printing when design is complete. In most cases, freelancers do not have the overhead concerns that printshops or agencies do. It may be possible to find a freelance designer that will work on a project basis, but most prefer to charge hourly rates. Project timetables may also be lengthened if the freelancer has a day job.

Paying for Design

For some reason, the concept of actually paying for design work seems difficult for some. We logged over four hours on a brochure project for a local church recently. The individuals involved could never agree on exactly what they wanted and the project was scrapped after bouncing in and out of the PROOF bin for a month. Short story–I billed for the design and they haven’t paid it.

If Joe and Jill hire an architect to draw up plans for their new house and they never get to build it, they’re still obligated to pay the architect for his work. It’s the same with design and printing.

Expect to pay for design, especially in a printshop. There are real costs involved, including the opportunity cost of the time spent on your project. There are many ways that Joe and Jill can help to control design costs. Most important are their ability to stay focused, organized and specific to minimize the time spent on edits and changes. More about this later.

Final Words:

The tagline is not a misrepresentation. We definitely do design at AlphaGraphics. We’re careful about it, though. I suspect that other printers may view this area of business in much the same way. Final advice: Follow Poor Richard’s Rule #1 — always ask the printer. If your project is too open-ended for your printer, he’ll let you know. And you might be surprised . . . a lot of things that look complicated really aren’t.


Surviving Black Tuesday

October 18, 2006

Skull and RavenWhen it gets so bad that you have to laugh, it’s pretty bad. I can write about it now. It’s a day later and it all looks different.

There are 8 of us at Alphagraphics. That’s a pretty small staff considering all of the stuff that goes through the shop. When one person is out, we can usually handle it; but when more than one are out it gets downright painful.

Rickie, our lead pressman, had told me about a funeral he needed to attend. An old friend in North Carolina had passed away, and he had been asked to speak at the services. He needed to leave at noon. Joe, who runs bindery, had to leave at 10:30 for another funeral. Our other pressman is Jamaal. At around 10:30, his neighbor called to inform him that a tree had landed on his house. (It’s true, I promise).

Sharon’s out making sales calls. That leaves me, Brian, Robert, and Chris. Robert’s got to do deliveries. Chris is getting married. His brain is already on honeymoon in the Caribbean. The phone starts ringing and doesn’t stop. Neither Brian nor I can do anything for talking with people about doing something. Deadlines are looming.

I almost forgot about Rose. Rose is retired, but likes to help out part time when we have extra stuff. She’s working on one of those big copy projects that we hate to do. The customer has brought in a pile of loose sheets, books, manuals, instructions, etc. and needs five copies of each of them. It’s about 10 hours work stapling, unstapling, putting stuff on the copier glass, pushing the green button and putting it all back together again. Rose is confused about it all and has lots of questions. I’m equally confused and am making up the answers as we go.

A customer calls with a problem . . . and it’s one of those that I’m really having a difficult time understanding. But the timing was perfect. There was no way to really make the day any worse.

The phone rings again. It’s a potential customer who has been recommended by a designer friend of ours. She wants us to design some letterhead and envelopes and she’s got lots of ideas. She’s going to send some of them over by email and could we put together a few designs for her? She’s being referred by a designer who doesn’t want to do the designs for her . . . smells like trouble to me.

In the middle of all of it, I’ve scheduled an interview. We’ve been looking for another outside salesperson for about 3 months and I’ve finally got what looks like a good candidate. Of course, I didn’t know that disaster would strike when I scheduled the meeting.

Don’t know how we got through it, but we did. And we actually got a few things accomplished and out the door. And I hired the interviewee (is that a word?). She was great in the interview. I was incoherent and she still wanted to work at Alphagraphics.

I love this job.


Ben’s Reconstituted Printshop

October 16, 2006

I’ve been off for a week . . . not psychologically, but physically.

My daughter and I went to Pennsylvania to visit colleges. She’s going next year, I just wanted to revisit my young adulthood.

Anyway . . . we visited University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and had a day to kill, so we did the tourist thing. We saw Independance Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the entire 8 block area where almost all of the history of the entire United States of America took place.

After the fact, I’m convinced that the most important change in the last 230 years is the advent of security equipment. We had to go through a lot of it. Button Gwinnett would have never made it . . . the brass on his waistcoat would have set off the alarm system. The wisdom of screening Amish visitors for shoe bombs is a story for another day, though. What I really want to write about today is Ben Franklin’s printshop.

We visited Franklin Courtyard, which is where Ben built his house. Actually, Ben’s wife built the house, because Ben was kicking up his heels in France. There wasn’t much left of the original except the hole for Ben’s outhouse. It seems that Ben’s grandkids were more interested in real estate than statesmanship, publishing or inventing. Land values had increased near the waterfront, so they ripped down Ben’s famous house and built condominiums, or the 19th century equivalent thereof. So, there’s really very little of the original Franklin there.

The house must have been pretty fantastic for the time. It had indoor plumbing of sorts and a unique ventilation system that Ben designed to draw air and steam out of the kitchen. None of this can be seen, it’s all been torn down. All that’s left is the holes for the privy, and those have been completely scoured by archaeological types.

There is a great reconstituted printshop, though, put together with equipment that was kind of current for the period. They’ve even built a facsimile of Ben’s letterpress. The press is new, but according to the pressman, the wood used to build it is 200 years old. I’m still digesting the importance of this singular fact.

The pressman, who is a certified United States Park Ranger (and thus exempt from getting his shoes screened), was producing unauthorized copies of Poor Richard’s Almanack on the press at an astounding speed of about one sheet every 10 minutes. He claimed that he could achieve a speed of 3 sheets/minute, but we did not observe this degree of productivity. In fact, he seemed much more interested in talking with the tourists than getting the daily production out.

I was fascinated. Even assuming a snail’s pace for production (180 sheets/hour compared to 10M on a good press), it was obvious what a massive technological breakthrough the printing press must have been. Setting type took hours, creating a graphic required the painstaking process of creating a woodcut; but once the type was set it could be reproduced inexpensively and exactly.

Now, as I type this entry on my trusty PowerBook, I wonder where Gutenberg’s technology will wind up. Will the next generation even need paper? How soon will it be before my “state of the art” printshop is exhibited at a national park?

“This is how they did it back then.” echoes in my ears, and the grey hairs in my beard are becoming more numerous by the day.


It takes grace to laugh

October 4, 2006

I was nervous. Actually, some pretty significant frustration had turned into just general nervousness. It began early. We were on the verge of completing a nice looking, color catalog sheet for one of my favorite customers (and causes). I had grabbed a couple of samples on my way to our morning staff meeting with the intent of paying a compliment to our designer and pressman. I sat down at the conference table and opened the piece. Something was wrong.

“It’s upside down,” stated Brian, our production manager, in a matter of fact voice.

“It can’t be,” I said, as I folded the sheet back up.

I guess I was thinking that somehow everything would be right when I unfolded it again. Nope, the fold was a little complicated, but the reverse side was definitely upside down. My next brilliant move was to go get 5 more sheets and open them up to check. I was hoping that somehow only a few sheets had been printed upside down, although I knew this was very unlikely. No such luck . . . they were all wrong.

Standard operating procedure calls for a folding dummy to be placed in each job jacket for the pressman’s reference. There wasn’t one in the jacket for the project in question. I’m thinking that the dummies didn’t do the dummy. The worst part is that I had looked at the piece several times during production and I didn’t catch the mistake either . . . dummy me.

“Everybody just guessed on this one, and you all guessed wrong?” I questioned. There were long faces all around the table.

Back to the nervousness. It was an important job, due now, for a great customer. I had been working on the project with Steve (actual name, don’t think he’ll mind) for over a month. I really wanted it to look great. And now I had to talk with him and tell him what had happened. I called his office.

“Not in yet, but we’re expecting him any minute,” the receptionist said.

“This is Richard at AlphaGraphics. I’ve got a little problem I need to talk with him about. I’m heading your way.”

He still wasn’t there when I arrived, so I sat down in the lobby. I think I knew that it would be all right, but the jitters got a little bit worse.

Steve’s a tall, friendly fellow with a great personality and usually a big smile. He is the prototypical nice guy. I didn’t expect him to lose his temper, but I hated to disappoint him. I heard the door open downstairs and footsteps coming up.

“Hey!” he beamed, as he saw me and the brochures . . . “Our catalogs!”

“Not a good start,” I thought. “There’s a little problem,” I said.

“What, they look great!” he responded, opening the first fold. Then he flipped the piece over . . . and over again . . . and over again and broke out laughing!

The jitters vanished as I heard the laughter and I knew it was going to be OK. I thanked Steve for his reaction and apologized for the mistake and the delay. He was more than understanding and we set a new timetable for printing and mailing the catalog sheet . . . with both sides oriented the same way.

It takes grace to laugh, and I knew where Steve’s came from. His organization is a Christian ministry for women and he demonstrated that he truly lives the life that he espouses. He may not have realized the effect it had, but Jesus came right through in his laughter and in his reaction. Thank you, Steve  . . . and thank God for the little daily blessings!