Every stage of the process was calibrated and linearised several times each shift and process control was the mantra. We ran a tight ship, partly because we had to prove at the early stages of digital prepress were capable of performing an equal level of quality to the analog precursors, and partly because the customer demanded it.
As the 80s progressed and we grew to accept the fact that digital prepress was here to stay, the Macintosh/desktop tools began to gain in popularity. This, of course, brought the cost of doing digital prepress to new lows. Where at one time we had spent well over $1m on the Hell 341, Crosfield 646 scanners, and 880 and 900 series assembly and retouching systems in the mid-80s, the Macintosh/desktop changed everything. For roughly $250,000 we were able to set up a Macintosh lab, with four Mac II workstations and a couple of imagesetters that could deliver nearly 10 times the amount of film, without the need for human intervention in ?planning? (stripping as we call it here in the US).
This slow, but inevitable seachange in the methods and tools of our trade began to change more than just the workflow. It also changed the level of acceptable quality and the perceived value of separation services. We no longer spent the extra money per proof to put the metamerism patches on them, and we found out that our customers were even viewing proofs in office window light and other more loose conditions.
Customers also began to apply pressure to the older pricing models because they perceived using the computer as a reason that the costs should be cheaper. Competitive markets from small copy shops and other drive-through graphic arts services further diluted the professionalism of graphic arts services, and brought a new class of users and employees who lacked the tenured apprenticeship and experience.
People who worked in many of these emergent facilities often lacked basic preliminary graphic arts skill sets, and subsequently, the role they played was that of just an output facilitator. The skilled tradesman was not required in these shops, because the profit margin was so low, and the client base did not see quality as a problem. If it looked okay to them, it was okay. The term ’Pleasing Colour’ was invented and became the norm among many people buying such services.
The change came about by two factors from my observation. First, the more recently hired, and younger art directors and print purchasing agents who were placed in charge of evaluating proofs and quality control, had no basis for the past, and did not know of many of the issues to look for. Many in management roles did not see the importance of traditional graphic arts experience over computer output skills, as the computer ’did all of the work’. This differed from the experiences myself and others in the professional markets encountered, which suggested that a skilled planner might well be able to learn the computer easier than a computer user could learn the prepress industry.
So, newly christened art directors saw pleasing colour as the expected norm of prepress services, and nobody knew the difference. At least, that was the plan. Over time however, as the industry began to be further commoditised, this shift away from professional graphic arts began to change, and it had nothing to do with the people and employees involved. It had a lot more to do with the ever increasing capability and performance of the systems involved.
The second major factor in the ’re-legitimising’ of digital prepress stems from the fact that the early versions of PageMaker, Quark Xpress and others did a substandard job of type-kerning, trapping and other critical aspects of traditional professional graphics. As the digital prepress industry matured, users began to demand more from the applications and systems in place, the software developers got serious about providing tools that could meet or exceed the capabilities of traditional production methods. Colour management systems allowed for consistent colour from input/scan to output, without the eagle-eyed seasoned colour specialist watching over every stage of the process. The digital tools at our disposal finally caught up with the tools that we had learned to use for decades.
Where does that leave us looking towards the future? We are experiencing an incredible increase in computing power and capability, and the cost of high-end displays and proofing systems have plummeted. Many of these bring concessions with them, but as we have learned in the past, our industry is not opposed to making some concessions in the name of making a profit, particularly when the industry?s customer base demands it. A good example is that of the LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) panel.
Great, but not quite perfect
There is a great deal less control over colour temperatures and calibration in an LCD, because by its nature, an LCD has no ability to alter how absolute Red, Green or Blue its pixels are. An LCD has to use a simulated method to accomplish a semblance of true colour calibration. A CRT (cathode ray tube monitor) which has an emissive ’gun’ with which to display those colours has much greater control capability. To that end, the highest end colour retouching and colour correcting still requires a CRT solution. Despite that fact, most of my clients are forgoing the high end costs, for the convenience and pricing of high end LCDs. They are willing to give up a great deal of control, in order to reach a "great but not quite perfect" status quo. The same analogy can be used when comparing the emergence of inkjet proofing solutions versus digital halftone proofs.
So, what is the moral of this story? Our industry wants quality, and is willing to invest in it to a point which the customer demands or understands. As computer manufacturers and systems engineers develop better and more powerful tools, prepress as a service industry will find that level of acceptability to their client base. The moving target of "good enough" or even "professionalism" notwithstanding, it still comes back to process control, and quality engineering. Sound practices and procedures are the one standard worth keeping in our industry, lest we relegate our industry to asking "do you want fries with that"?