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What's in a name?

Jun 1, 2010 12:00 AM


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When Illinois State University hired me in 2003, our academic degree had a long and cumbersome name: Industrial Technology/Printing Management and Imaging Technologies. We couldn't get many students interested in our discipline, and I suspected the program name had a lot to do with it. Even though our graduates were finding good jobs in the industry, unless students had a great experience in a dynamic high school graphic arts program, they were just not interested in the program. Our very existence as an academic program on campus was in jeopardy due to low enrollment, even though >2,000 students on campus had not declared a major. The administration believed our program and the industry it served was dated and no longer viable, referring to us as that struggling “printing” program.

My colleagues in the Department of Technology at ISU have the enviable position of working within programs that have titles with broad common consensus in their academic disciplines. Our Construction Management and Engineering Technology programs share their titles with hundreds of other colleges and universities across the country. They can be located easily in government databases that allow students, parents and counselors to search for academic disciplines of interest, and people tend to think they know what they these programs are all about.

In our field, the only related discipline that has broad agreement in program title is Graphic Design, which tends to be located in art departments. My focus is on those programs geared toward production operations and management. A quick review of operations-oriented program titles found in the Print and Graphic Scholarship Foundation's “Directory of Schools” reveals a huge range: Graphic Arts Management, Graphic Arts Technology, Graphic Communication, Printing Technology, Printing Management, Graphic and Interactive Communication, Print Production, Graphics Production, Design Technology, Commercial Graphics, Communications Media, Media and Communication Arts, and more.

Competing definitions

The U.S. government's North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) has no category for graphic communications. In one of my classes, after a discussion of the “4 Ps” (promotional, publishing, packaging, and product), students search the NAICS and find our industry in three major categories:

  • Manufacturing | print, equipment, paper and package manufacturing.
  • Information | publishing.
  • Professional, Scientific and Technical Services | design services, advertising and photographic services.

The National Center for Education Statistics' Classification of Instructional Program (CIP) defines graphic communications as, “A program that generally prepares individuals to apply technical knowledge and skills in the manufacture and distribution or transmission of graphic communications products. Includes instruction in the prepress, press and postpress phases of production operations and processes such as offset lithography, flexography, gravure, letterpress, screen printing, foil stamping, digital imaging and other reproduction methods.”

Many educators believe this definition is outdated and too narrowly focused on print manufacturing. The Accreditation Council for Collegiate Graphic Communications (ACCGC) is helping to establish shared, consistent nomenclature for the academic discipline. Its definition: “An industry that includes electronic and traditional printing, publishing, packaging, digital imaging, computer graphics, Website development, digital photography, printable electronics and related areas. The academic discipline generally includes coursework involving the creation, production, management and distribution of advertising, Websites, publications, packages and other media in printed and digital form.”

But academic programs have been slow to adopt the “Graphic Communications” title.

Industry turmoil

We can't turn to the industry for a solution to the name problem. Businesses in our industry tend to describe themselves according to the markets they serve. We all know that our great industry has traditionally been called the printing industry, but many major commercial printers have changed their names, eliminating “printing” in favor of “communications” and “marketing” as they move toward higher go-to-market strategies. For example, RR Donnelley refers to itself as a provider of integrated communications; Quad/Graphics refers to itself as innovative people driving print; Valassis describes itself as one of the nation's leading media and marketing services companies; Cenveo as one of the largest graphics communication companies; and Vertis Communications as a premier provider of targeted advertising and marketing solutions.

What's more confusing, you often hear the industry referred to as “Printing and Graphic Communications,” as if these two things are mutually exclusive. The Printing Industries of America has “Advancing Graphic Communications” in its logo.

We need an academic discipline to call home. I've come to realize that the name of an academic discipline is the single most important factor in describing its academic credentials, and carries with it either negative or positive connotations to administration and faculty on campus — and, more importantly, to the potential students and future human resources of our industry. I'd love to see our programs around the country coalesce around a shared program title. It would go a long way toward strengthening and defining our field of study and building better public understanding of our important discipline.


Dr. Daniel Wilson is a professor and coordinator for Illinois State University's Department of Technology, Graphic Communications. Contact him at dgwilso@ilstu.edu.