It occurs to me that our industry is destined to be dissatisfied with something. Looking back, we have evolved from a "Wow, we got a piece of digital film out of the prepress department!" to "How many imposed plates can you crank out of the prepress department in an hour to keep the presses running?" This has been a gradual shift over the span of the past 15-20 years, and one where we learned that a workflow that was built around fixing problems (ie PostScript production from native application files) was inherently flawed.
Most users had to resort to complex and arcane (but proven) methods in order to ensure that errors did not make it to the plate-room. It brought us back to the fundamentals, that sound procedural guidelines and practices are the key to making a complex production system work. This, taken into account with the fact that most people were learning as they went, often subjecting their client of the day to a new and challenging transparency effect that the latest "cool" version of Corel Draw offered them. This experimental time was a recipe for a prepress company to haemorrhage man hours fixing jobs. Preflight, which brings problems to light after the document has been submitted, was merely a patch rather than a fix to this (After new hardware was developed, rather than the one bad file an hour, an efficient operator could botch dozens of pages an hour!).
From this morass that was "digital prepress" evolved a skilled operator, one who could take apart any job, no matter how complex, or ill-prepared, and make it fly. Every successful graphic production shop I have had the pleasure of visiting has one or more of these essential employees. These employees are true artists, able to determine what arcane methods were used to create a document. Bottom line had been however, do what it takes to get the job out, regardless of how complex or ill-prepared it was. Every job was its own unique adventure, and no two jobs ever came in the exact same way. Enter Adobe Acrobat as the preferred format for sending a print "mechanica" in, and the role of the prepress operator changed again. Acrobat held the promise of that elusive goal, predictable PostScript.
Now that evolution has continued to a new level, where the documents are expected to arrive correctly as a perfect PDF file, and everything is meant to be a hands-off operation. No human intervention. Push-button, get film/plates. What has happened to the role of that highly skilled prepress operator? Has his job become that of a monkey, feeding the plate/film setter, and confirming the output is identical to the laser prints? (which of course it is, being PDF and all.)
So, what has the advent of PDF brought to us throughout its emergence as the new favourite as a file-exchange format? It has brought to light the fact that every job should not be a custom, one-off endeavour, and that the role of document integrity confirmation is back where it used to live before the computer came into play, at the content creator. The simple reality that the step of creation of a PDF file is in and of itself a preflight. Once a client has been taught how to prepare one properly, we can move that grey area of responsibility from the prepress facility back to the customer. This negates that most often used finger-pointing saying in digital prepress – "It looks fine on my screen!" Now users (content creators as well as prepress operators) can see the results of a PDF "Distillation" or creation directly and immediately on their machine (No excuse for an obvious error anymore). This new ability provided to the content creators has prompted more than one of my clients to be approached by their customers asking, "Now that I am doing all of the work for you, do I get a discount by supplying PDF files?" This comment from the same people who had in the past sent mechanical-boards in for "planning" and traditional composition. People who should know better, especially when it comes to making modifications to the "master" or supplied mechanical, whether it be digital or analogue.
Perhaps this is a part of the business that is never going to go away, the inevitable haggling to see if the new fangled tools that we are "empowered" with will somehow count for a discount over the old way. While this is true to an extent, (who currently pays the nearly $400 per hour they used to be charged for digital Scitex manipulation before the advent of Photoshop?) it may point out where the money is spent in your organisation in getting jobs to print. Most of my client base (mainly commercial printers, magazines, publishers, and prepress facilities) have found that it is better to train their customers (the people building documents) than it is to fix the problems when they recur. The American adage of this is that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" and teaching your current client-base to not poison the water-supply that you are fed down-river, is the key that most of my clients find to success with PDF. Sure, it means you have to make an effort to train your customers, which is an unheard-of practice in most businesses.
So, perhaps the role of the prepress professional has evolved to one who shares their extensive knowledge of digital production techniques rather than a fix-it professional and engineer. Perhaps prepress has evolved from an art form, to an engineer, to a teacher, and back again. As I often say, in prepress some things never change.
Chris Heric is a US-based prepress consultant. He specialises in the area of PDF and is the track chairman for the PDF for print Conference at Seybold. He is based in the US.
Contact Chris Heric via email: firstname.lastname@example.org