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Feb 6, 2008 12:00 AM
Time marches on
American Printer is celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2008. Even in the past dozen years, the printing industry has changed dramatically:
We asked participants at www.b4print.com to comment on the most significant changes they had seen in the industry (good or bad). Apple computers, Adobe’s PostScript and desktop publishing in general were the most frequently cited developments. Several posters noted that while computers ushered in greater process efficiency, the Digital Age has democratized prepress, spawning new challenges in the quest for good customer files.
See the full thread. Selected highlights follow.
“The biggest change has to be CTP replacing
photomechanical. In terms of old technology I wish hadn’t
gone away, I sort of miss having control of color/images from start
to finish. This was before artists took over with then-new tools
like Kodak PhotoCD, desktop scanners and Photoshop. We used to make
a good living on scans, color corrections, retouching and masking.
Not so much any more.”
—Born 2 Print
“I sure do miss my days in the dark room making half
“The biggest and worst change I’ve seen in my time
was taking the work away from qualified professionals and giving it
to anybody with a PC and a couple of bucks for some software. I
guess it was bound to happen once the process went from mechanical
to digital, and now the customer gets what he likes (sometimes) for
as much as he is prepared to pay.”
“The winners are those that have left the trade with money
in their pocket. The remaining souls are the losers--we are working
harder, for less and more stress.”
“You gotta love PostScript and the computer revolution. On
the negative side, even with all the positive things and all the
new and great things we’ve learned, you lose a little of the
craftsmanship that came with doing some of these things by hand.
Cutting color on a light table, using a horizontal (or vertical)
camera, tray developing the film, adding the different lays in
stripping, trapping via chokes and spreads, cutting rubylith,
turning screens, setting individual process cuts by eye. All of
these things required a skill that is going the way of the
Linotype. For some of us this may bring back a few glowing
memories. Others will call them flashbacks.”
“PostScript allowed the whole process to have some digital
standard, forcing the closed shops to become open. It wiped out
some shops allowing the Mom and Pop to grow. Once the
Pandora’s box was opened, they forgot to close it. And now
every Tom, Dick and Harry is 'able.' You can become a printer by
buying your way in, which is both good and bad. Prices tanked and
quality rose. Good or bad depends on whether you are a winner or
“The only old technology that I really miss is the Apple Extended Keyboard II--a keyboard made for typing, not for looking flashy (even though it did look nice).
“Maybe the saddest evolution in our market: 10 to 15 years ago you used to have quite a lot of companies making a decent living or even earning lots of money. That percentage seems to have dropped significantly.
“But why bother looking back? I am more interested in looking forward, wondering if the print world will catch up with the trend in Web publishing to rely on free open source software. The web has Apache, mySQL, Linux servers, Joomla, WordPress, In print we moved from having to buy a single vendor solution to an open environment back to a single vendor setup (Adobe InDesign, Illustrator & PhotoShop stuff being imaged using an Adobe RIP). Will the GIMP, Alfresco, Scribus or GhostScript ever become more than niche products?”
“We were talking about the old skills at our shop, and
agreed that there is no way we could pump out the necessary volume
using the old technology these days.”
“Film [made it] easy to check traps and teach about traps.
A proof made from film, would match the plates made from film, no
question. It could be reused over and over. You could fix little
things quickly with some opaque. It was easy to check for quality,
screens, angles and screen values. All the things that made film
great, but film also had problems such as dot gain, scratches,
storage and dust, etc.
“I love my Kodak Approvals, Inkjets and CTP. But there are plenty of days I wish I had a nice set of film for quality assurance or to check over a digital file.
“I loved working on the camera, in the darkroom, making
pretty pictures. Liked being a stripper, hated being bent over a
light table for 12-14 hours a day. Liked it better being a CAD
operator, hated the plotter/cutter (always had something to wonk it
“Just glad I don’t have to dig through piles of old-ass film that’s all cracked and brittle to find that 10 year old job to reprint.”
“I started in the bindery and got an apprenticeship in
stripping. I really enjoyed learning and doing as much as I could
but everything was so segmented. I did stripping, another guy ran
the camera, another guy did the etching and another guy did
proofing. With the advent of computers, you could basically be a
one-man band, bad for the niche guy, but good for the well-rounded
and easily trained person on the digital end.”
“Sure printing used to be a lot bigger field, but we
aren’t the only industry that’s doing more with fewer
“Remember the step and repeat plate makers? They became
boat anchors pretty quick.”
“What about ‘whirlers?’ Before pre-sensitized
plates you had to coat your own deep etch plates in what was
basically a centrifuge.”
“Worst development? Two words: supplied artwork.”
“I remember working at an old DC printer near the GPO. It
had a custom roof for plate making. The roof was slanted towards
the morning sun with large windows built in to hang plates outside
[for solar exposure]. I never saw this done, but my understanding
was in the early days of offset, 1920s or 1930s maybe, they did
“El Sol, a pressboard, a pane of glass and two clamps was
our first plate exposure device. And it wasn’t the
“CTP [has been the best development]. I spent some
torturous times at the light table pasting up tiny slivers of paper
with wax onto a messy artboard for the camera. This was quite
recently, in 2005, when I worked at a chop-shop that had all sorts
of crappy artwork filed from the past twenty years. Sometimes it
was just faster to paste some dude’s halftone PMT mug shot
from 1992 onto a new laser print.”
“The only true major changes in the printing industry were hot type to cold set, then Apple Mac and Adobe PostScript. The Mac allowed everyone to become a publisher. Working at a coldset commercial printer in the 1980s, we had so much work from new start up publications we ran 24/7 on two large newspaper press lines. It was the best of times. It was also the worst of times, as the entire prepress skill set started to disappear. And those of us still in prepress suffer from it everyday when we deal with customer files.”
“In the late 1960s, I taught stripping with hand-cut roll
mylar, just about the time when Rubylith was introduced, and I
think the same year Kodak introduced high-speed duplicating film.
The first HELL DC-300-a scanner on the West Coast was installed at
our shop in 1973. A few years later, the Gerber mask and vinyl
“In 1982, I was introduced to the Scitex Pixet work station that ran a HP 600Mgb HD. To work on really big files we multi-packed two or three of them together.
Finally, I moved off the light table and went Desktop Publishing in 1989 with a Mac Quadra 950 running Quark 2.8.
“Now I run a Presstek 34DI digital 4-color offset press with [built-in] CTP.I think the only thing left is to develop a way to close my eyes and imagine my project directly to the paper.”
“Back in the day I used to scan lots of agency work on a
Crossfield Drum Scanner. The agencies were VERY picky about detail,
color, sharpness, etc. Yeah, most of you remember them. Well,
now the same ones go out and buy themselves a Umax flatbed scanner
from Walmart for $89 and supply the scans. You guessed it.
Some how they don’t care about the quality
“I framed my tools when I sat down to a Mac. No more
scissors for cuttin’ film. No more $50 brushes for
spottin’ film negs. No more goin’ blind using my 20
power dot glass for register. No more Arthur H. Gaebel
stainless steel ruler (made in good ol’ US of A).
“After seeing a lot in 35 years at this I would have to say that the PC or Mac has to be the most important development in our trade.”
“I still remember the story of a Canadian trainee coming
over to Belgium around 1985 for a two-week training course, which
included a week on our three drum scanners. The training was
overbooked, so it was arranged that he would get his training
directly from Hell. The guy arrives on Monday and is told,
‘We’re sorry but there’s no room for you here.
You can go to Hell.’”