Finesse it with a sledgehammer

August 22, 2008

It’s difficult to describe the exact series of sounds. It started as the usual “kerklunk” rhythm, uniform and predictable as the books are stitched, folded and trimmed. Moments later, the sound had altered. Now a “kerflam,” there was a slight metallic echo after each cycle. An undertone swelled up from deep in the bowels of the machine; a grey and forbidding rumbling foreshadowing some dire sequence of events. With a crescendo and a roar the machine was momentarily quiet, then emitted a last staccato series of clicks a loud metallic “klang!” and fell silent.

I knew we were pushing the limit. The book we were working on had started as 36 pages, well within the capabilities of our trusty bookletmaker. But in a short week it had grown to 68 pages of gloss text and a cover . . . just a little more than the machine is actually rated to do. The hardy machine actually made it through about 600 books before the audible complaints began. It spit out another 30 or so in its death throes, leaving us only 370 to put together by hand at 5:00 on Thursday, for an event that was to take place the next morning.

Upstairs, the wide format printer was spewing cyan ink in places that it was not intended to spew. The company that manufactured this machine has recently been purchased by a company whose initials are comprised of the eighth and sixteenth letters of the alphabet. I think they’re having some difficulties digesting their acquisition. I’m tempted to say that the machine is a lemon, but every moving part in the thing has been replaced so it seems more likely that the whole concept is flawed and the new manufacturer doesn’t have a clue how to fix it.

The technician who comes to make repair attempts is a very nice fellow who sincerely tries his best to keep us running. In Poor Richard’s experience, there are two kinds of technicians. The first is tidy, organized and efficient. Bob Jordan, who works on our presses, falls into this category. He has magnetic hands . . . the right tool always just seems to be there.

The tech for the wide format machine is of the second variety. Brian calls him Pigpen and begins humming the theme from Peanuts (Linus and Lucy) as he approaches the door. You can see the dustcloud from 100 yards away. He is neither efficient nor organized. Tools and screws vanish in his presence. Seemingly minor repairs can lead to catastrophe and major component failures.

In this case, it was disaster in absentia. Printheads had been replaced the previous week, leading to vacuum problems, leading to a new part which we installed, leading to more extreme vacuum problems, culminating in cyan ink spewing in places where it should never spew.

My dad was in the blue jean business for a time, operating a sewing plant only a block away from Alphagraphics. I remember his mechanic very well.  I guess Frederick was an aberration.  I don’t recall him being either neat or organized, but he had Bob’s innate sense of how things run. He worked very well with a hangover. Frederick was acquainted with wrenches and screwdrivers, but his favorite tool was a ball peen hammer.  He could actually occasionally get sewing machines to run by striking them a solid blow at some strategic point only revealed by God to Frederick.  Or maybe it was like zen . . . he was one with the machine. He called it “finessing with a sledgehammer.”

Some days what I really need is Frederick and the ball peen hammer, or  a minor miracle, or maybe a whole 55 gallon drum full of pixie dust. What I’ve got is customers who only want booklets and wide format. Isn’t life grand?


Digital Weight Loss

August 13, 2008

It’s been a long while since I’ve blogged. Life’s been hectic with altogether too much of little importance going on. We’ve been doing lots of small jobs at the printshop. With a weak economy, many of the projects we are seeing are of the do-it-yourself variety. So much so, in fact, that I’ve just about quit trying to explain that Microsoft Word is not a page layout program.

The DIY aspect has also compounded the problems with compressed deadlines. Typically, the customer has underestimated the time required to layout their program or brochure or postcard. They bring it to us at the last minute. We do what we can, but with intstantaneous deadlines there’s no time to disassemble the Microsoft mess, repair what we can, try to get higher resolution photos and then and reassemble it all in Indesign.

One of the recurring nightmares in the pieces we’ve been doing of late is disproportionate scaling of photography. This one really bothers Poor Richard, but I confess that it is sometimes flattering to the photographic victim. Here’s how it works:

Here’s our unsuspecting victim. His name is Brian and he manages production at the shop. Like me, Brian has inflated and deflated in cycles over the years he’s been at AlphaGraphics. Unlike me, Brian has occasionally decided that voluntary exercise is a good thing. He’s even had a gym membership once or twice. Poor Richard will never set foot in a gym. I see no purpose whatsoever in riding a bicycle that isn’t going anywhere.

Brian’s photo at left is scaled correctly. It is a very reasonable facsimile of what Brian actually looks like. The problem occurs when our DIY designer decides that Brian’s photo doesn’t fit the space that is allocated in the publication. Or perhaps the DIYer wants all of the photos in the publication to be the same size. So he resizes the photo.

Let’s suppose that the photo needs to be taller. Here’s what we often see. Brian becomes much thinner and taller. Now, depending on his current state of expansion or contraction, this may or may not be appealing to Brian. It is safe to say, though, that it is more appealing that the other distortion that we often see.

The “horizontal stretch” is rarely flattering:

For a normal sized American type person, the effect is disturbingly toadlike. For the Southern Fried Chicken, cholesterol, and carbohydrate dieter, the result can be downright disturbing.

In Brian’s case, the horizontal stretch makes him lookonly slightly like Peter Lorre.

So, how to resolve this problem? The answer is cropping and proportional scaling. Cropping is actually cutting out a section of the image to create horizontal and vertical ratio that is similar to the area that you wish to fill. Scaling increases or decreases the cropped image to actually fill the space.

Depending on the software you are using, you may have to do this operation in either one or two steps. Real page layout programs, like Adobe Indesign will let you both crop and scale at the same time. You simply import the photo into the layout, adjust the boxes using the black and white arrows (selection and direct selection tools). You can scale proportionally in Indesign and in many other programs by holding down the Shift key as you stretch the object.

You can also adjust the proportions in Photoshop or the photo editor that you are using prior to placing the image. This may be necessary if you are using a Microsoft aberration or another of the DIY programs that are sold in the marketplace for just about what they’re worth. Here’s an example . . . let’s crop and scale Brian the right way.

Let’s crop Brian’s head out of this photo and then size it for insertion. First in Photoshop or another image editing program, we’ll simply draw a line around the area we want with the crop tool and eliminate the rest of the photo. We’ll end up with something like this:

Assuming that the image is of sufficient resolution (a topic for another blog entry), we can then resize it proportionally to fit the space needed. The end result might look like this:

Then again, why should I be the one to worry about the finer elements of basic design. After all, I’m just ther printer. Go ahead, get creative . . . turn Brian into a green duotone, stretch him all out of proportion and be happy about it . . .

Sorry, Brian . . .

Isn’t life grand?