Most people, I believe, think of the digital revolution in print as being specific to digital presses, which have allowed for short run printing, variable data printing and mailing. But as someone who’s been in the industry for 3 decades, I can tell you that the digital revolution in print started over 30 years ago. Printers, at first, grasped the digital capabilities that sped up typesetting and artboard preparation. They gobbled up the technology that allowed for laser-imaged film and eventually printing plates. They invested ample amounts of money into RIP workflows, JDF workflows, and digitally imaged proofs, all to accommodate the decreased turnaround times that clients demanded. And this was all before the Millenium.
THE FIRST THING THAT HAPPENED: DIGITAL TYPESETTING
When I was taking printing courses in college during the first Reagan administration, digital typesetting, or as we called it, computer typesetting (compuset for short) was an industry toddler. We still had to learn the basics of hand-setting type, but only because we needed to understand how “n” spaces and “m” spaces affected kerning, and how line leading was important.
We had to learn these things so when we sat at the compuset device we could enter in spacing and adjust kerning, and determine line leading. At this stage in printing, graphic artists still created artboards, and it was vital that copy was typeset so that it matched the specifications as ordered by the artist. Particularly if there were graphic elements and the copy needed to wrap around. Compuset devices would then image the copy onto photo-sensitive paper that would be processed in the device and then output from the cartridge, ready to trim and past into position.
THE NEXT THING THAT HAPPENED: DESKTOP PUBLISHING
The next logical step in printing was to take computerized typesetting and meld it with a page layout application. Adobe PageMaker was one of the earliest layout software solutions, designed primarily for the new MacIntosh systems, since even PCs at that time were still DOS operating systems, with no mouse and no graphics user interface. You could create a basic document, set the type, selecting fonts and sizes, and create keylines for boxes where photos would be placed. There was still the manual step of shooting halftones or CMYK images, but eventually that technology caught up and you could scan the images, do color correcting in PhotoShop, and then place them into the page layout application. Quark Express came along and replaced PageMaker as the page layout application of choice. It was limited in that it wasn’t an Adobe product, so there were more steps required to link images or graphics, and make sure fonts came out correct. Often you had to have plugins that would enhance Quark’s ability to export files for print. Finally, Adobe developed InDesign, which has the largest market share of page layout applications, and is part of Creative Suites, which enables it to work with Photoshop images or Illustrator files with ease. Eventually, printers could take a client’s file and image it to film, one sheet of film for each of the CMYK colors. Gone were the days of $26 per hour “strippers” who could lay film in precise locations, or platemakers who would take the multiple stripped “flats” and burn a plate. I recall having to do as many as 24 burns to make a single magenta plate. Not anymore.
THE REALLY BIG THING THAT HELPED: COMPUTER-TO-PLATE
Computer-to-plate, or CTP, was the final step in really fully digitizing the print environment. It took the previous concept of imaging film that would be used to burn plates, and instead, with lasers, imaged the plates precisely. One of the drawbacks to using film-to-plate was that the light intensity used to image the plates could fluctuate, which could cause the halftone dot to expand, or contract as it was burned into the plate. The laser technology eliminated that. In addition, burning plates using film could introduce dust or other contaminants that could affect the image, particularly screens. The laser eliminated these issues as well. Graphic supply giants such as Kodak and Fuji worked tirelessly to create entire plate imaging and processing systems, with Kodak taking the lion’s share. This is now the standard for print shops of all sizes, although I’ve heard of the smaller places still using output film and plates
With all these advancements, printing has become much more precise and even creative. The kinds of designs you see these days could not have been done even 30 years ago, without the advent of software such as InDesign and Illustrator, and sophisticated RIP systems like Prinergy. And yet, despite the advances, we’ve lost some of the craft that went along with a highly skilled typesetter or graphic artist. We’ve gained speed and accuracy, but lost that element of specialization that was so much of printing for many years.