Jim Morton

Print Production

In Print, Skills on April 17, 2012 at 12:20 pm

A portion of my early career was spent working in print production. In my youth I worked as a Cameraman/Stripper—a job now lost to the annals of time, stacked up in the back room next Buggywhip maker and keypunch operator. It was a good job that required a high level of creaftsmanship and thorough knowledge of the printing process. Once, I was called on to hand-cut silhouettes around two Louis Quinze chairs. Back then, silhouettes were cut out of a soft, red, plastic material called Rubylith. It was unforgiving. A mistake might mean having to start over. It was hard and exacting work.

A good stripper was vital any print shop. He needed to see every aspect of the printing process, from platemaking to binding, and to make sure that the job could get done correctly. Graphic artists back then remained woefully ignorant of the printing process and were a constant source of misery for strippers.

With the advent of the Macintosh computer and development of desktop publishing, the need for film negatives and someone to interpret what the artist had in mind disappeared. The artwork, instead, went straight from the mind of the artist to the press. No longer was there a need to create a silhouette; the artist, instead, created a clipping path: a much easier and more forgiving process than than cutting Rubylith. Things that used to be difficult, such as the perfect alignment of a keyline around a photo, or text on a ghosted background area, became simple matters. The job of the stripper went from a craft to grunt work, lining up the register marks and burning the plates.

For a while—almost fifteen years—there was a technology gap between the graphic artists, who were quick to take up the new tools to create their artwork, and the printers, who were loathe to invest in the new technology. Thus was born the “service bureau.” The service bureau got its start in Berkeley at Krishna Copy Center, where the installation of a Lino 300 led to a flood of customers printing filing through the door to get their PageMaker files printed as film negatives. More Krishna Copy Centers sprang up all over the Bay Area with many other companies joining the parade (my former company included). Within a few years, any graphic artist worth her salt was doing her work on the computer. Aldus PageMaker was replaced by Quark Xpress, and then by Adobe InDesign as the page layout program of choice. Macs remained the preferred computer for graphic artists, although these days the difference between PCs and Macs is mostly in the minds of the users.

One thing that has remained vital to print production, though, is the ability of that first person in the production line to envision the entire process and recognize potential problems before they occur. Sometimes that person is the graphic artist, but usually it is the Print Production Manager. The problem areas have changed, and, as creative graphic artists continue to push the envelope, new pitfalls crop up every day, but a good Print Production Manager can help avoid these pitfalls because he understands printing. He knows what is possible and what isn’t. There is a time and a place for surprises; getting your job back from the printer isn’t one of them. So here’s to the Print Production Managers, whose job is so important and yet so seldom recognized.

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