by Wes Ishmael
Members of the Livestock Publication Council were among the first to embrace production and printing technologies that cut turnaround time, sliced costs and secured creative control.
Bust a vein over incompatible desktop publishing files or other vagaries of the cyber-age if you want. Just remember production and printing was tougher before computers became commonplace.
"I can do things that I could only dream about five years ago. There's absolutely no comparison today with how far software has come in such a short period of time," emphasizes Michael Carter.
These days Carter owns and manages Rocket Color in Oklahoma City, a computer-to-plate design and print shop. But when he cut his professional teeth in graphic design in 1987, the magazine he went to work for didn't have a single computer in the office. Less than 18 months later, he was leading that publication into the digital age. For him and others in magazine production and printing, making the digital transition was a trial by fire.
"When we got the first desktop equipment, there were very few people out there who had any knowledge about the software. Most of us were self-taught. We'd experiment, go in and figure out how to do something. It was sink or swim," says Carter, who was graphic designer and production manager for Limousin World at the time.
That was especially true in livestock publishing where staffs, then and now, were typically small. In fact, the Livestock Publications Council (LPC) began 30 years ago, in part, for such organizations to share expertise with one another in the name of competing with larger outfits.
Ironically, even with the small staff size and budget of most livestock publications, they were among the earliest adopters of desktop publishing. In retrospect, these pioneers saw the opportunity for technology to level the playing field of efficiency. At the time, though, folks like Carter explain, "We just wanted more control over the product. We wanted to be able to see what the finished product would look like, rather than wait for a blue-line to see how it had turned out."
THE GOOD OL' DAYS
These galleys - strips of glossy white photo paper emblazoned with shiny ebony type - were then cut apart, coated with hot wax and affixed to paste-up boards, or cardstock - creating recognizable columns and pages.
Each board, representing a page in the magazine, then had to be photographed and transformed into a film negative. Each page negative was then chemically burned onto a thin metal plate for offset printing. These plates - containing eight or 16 pages - are what were ultimately attached to ink drums on the printing press.
That's just text. If you wanted a black and white picture, you had to cut a window in the paste-up board then create a half-tone negative of the photo, which had to match the window in the paste-up board. Heaven forbid that some pesky advertiser wanted to run a four-color picture. Then the picture had to be transformed into a color separation, really four negatives - cyan, yellow, magenta and black - that again had to fit the window in the paste-up board. That meant if you ever wanted to use the color separation again you had to use it at that same size. Depending on size, a single color separation could cost $100 or more.
It also meant that folks called strippers had to perfectly align the four parts of the color separation or else the printed picture would appear off-color and fuzzy.
"You were doing 90 percent of the front-end work, but there was that much or more that still had to be done at the printer in order to turn it into something that could be printed," explains Carter.
The crux of this labor-intensive, time-costly process is that editors and designers had to get blue-lines - proofs that showed, in shades of blue and white, how the pages would look when printed - to get some feel of how the paste-up boards would look as printed pages. Color keys for full-color pages were produced separately and offered a ballpark view of what the colors would look like. So, getting each new printed issue of the magazine off press was akin to Christmas: you were never exactly sure what you were going to get until you opened the package.
This board-dependent method of production also meant that short of going back to square one and recreating a page from scratch, prior to printing, those completed paste-up boards were irreplaceable. Case in point from personal experience: our printer at the time and unbeknownst to us was about to topple into court-imposed bankruptcy. When the officials showed up to shut them down, our long-time account representative literally grabbed all of the paste-up boards for our next issue, ran out the back door and pitched them over the fence. Without her quick thinking, there's no way we would have been able to get them to another printer and get the magazine out on time.
TECHNOLOGY VS. CREATIVITY
With desktop publishing, magazines, no matter their size, gained more creative control of the finished product. As the digital evolution continued, magazines were able to cut production costs not only through savings in time, but also in material.
For instance, Cheryl Oxley, production manager of Angus Journal says, "Computer-to-plate was huge for us. We'd run out film for an issue and it would take hours and hours." She began at the publication 25 years ago as a typesetter. The computer-to-plate process she describes - still permeating the industry - means plates can be burned directly from digital files, bypassing the need for the intermediary step of creating page negatives. Besides saving time and money, folks using the process no longer have to contend with the chemicals that outputting negatives (and also phototypesetting) required.
Like Carter, Oxley says the desktop revolution made her professional life infinitely easier, although there have been trade-offs.
As an example, Oxley points out, "For years, one of the unique things about livestock publications was that we designed all of the ads and editorial pages in our magazines." With the advent of inexpensive desktop software, more advertisers (cattle producers) began creating their own, even though they have no design expertise. Plus, home-built electronic files are often a nightmare for professionals to decipher into something they can use.
Arguably, creativity has also been sacrificed in the name of speed. Since the technology exists to turn a page of copy so quick, graphic artists are expected to match the pace. Too often that means plenty of editorial and advertising pages look like they've been stamped from the same mold, rather than a unique design that can leave a lasting impression on the reader. It can also mean creativity is replaced by packing too many single-keystroke software gimmicks into a design at the cost of readability.
"There are desktop artists who can lift their creativity above desktop, cookie-cutter kinds of ads," says Oxley. But she laments the fact that while that kind of talent still exists on staff, there is no longer time to create the fine-art illustrations that used to be prominent in her magazine.
Perhaps these desktop failings are just growing pains defining use of a technology that is almost grown-up. "It has reached a plateau," believes Carter. "There's only so many ways you can roll a tire down the street. There is nothing else after computer-to-plate."
From here on out, Carter believes the technological changes will revolve around workflow management, including platform-independent file formatting. Oxley echoes that, mentioning trends toward new platform software that doesn't revolutionize anything but increases design efficiency and throughput.
"I remember back to those days before desktop. They were great days, but it was hard work," says Carter. "These are great days, too, and it's still hard work, but it's different work." AM
Wes Ishmael is owner of Clear Point Communications, Benbrook, Texas, and former LPC president.