Jim Morton

Archive for the ‘Skills’ Category

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.


Who’s Your Audience?

In Language, Skills, Technical Writing, Web Content on April 13, 2012 at 11:34 am

Whether you’re writing ad copy, email blasts, or white papers, the question you always should ask before you get started is: “Who is your audience?” It’s one of the first rules students are taught in Marketing 101, and yet, many writers get so wrapped up in their own visions that they forget this. They concoct catchy science fiction scenarios that would draw in everyone at Comic Con for a product that is better suited to a global summit of the Fortune 500. The cleverest advertising campaign in the world is a failure if it doesn’t engage its primary audience.

Sometimes it’s tricky figuring out who that audience is. I worked with a very sharp woman who understood marketing backwards and forwards. She knew how to pitch things, and she knew how to sell. When asked to come up with a campaign for an upcoming trade show, she came up with a solution that probably would have sold a lot of equipment, but it fell flat in the meeting room. The reason: her real audience was the boss and he hated it. She was pitching to a group of people who weren’t there. With a little more care, she might have been able to find a way to get the boss on board with her ideas, but she overlooked that one link in the chain. In the end, the man went with his own vision and the products continued to sell in the same modest way they always had. In fairness to her, she had only been on-board for a few weeks and didn’t appreciate this man’s idiosyncrasies. He would have done well to listen to her suggestions, but she also should have recognized who her real audience was and proceeded accordingly.

One of the most obvious examples of bad marketing is now a classic meme of the Internet: Snakes on a Plane. Quite unexpectedly, this film’s title, in advance of the Samuel  L. Jackson movie’s release, became a popular catch phrase among the technoscenti. The marketing crew at New Line Cinema were sure they hit paydirt, and they milked it for all it was worth. But when the movie came out, it had tepid box office during its all-important opening weekend. Techies liked the phrase, but they weren’t the audience for this film. The marketing team would have done better to concentrate the efforts in other areas and let the meme take care of itself instead of nurturing what turned out to be a dead end.

In conclusion: Good marketing requires understanding who your audience is, but it also requires some careful consideration to make sure that you are pitching to the right people.

Technical Writing

In Skills, Technical Writing on March 16, 2012 at 2:25 pm

You may be a good writer, but when it comes to writing technical manuals, much of what you’ve learned needs to be rethought. Technical manuals have their own sets of rules. These rules are well-known, and yet, too often I see manuals that ignore them. The most important thing to remember about manuals is that 99% of us don’t bother to open them until we have to. It is from this behavior that we get the acronym RTFM (Read the *bleep*ing manual). When people do turn to their manuals, they want all the information they need right there. For this reason there is no such thing as repetition in a technical manual. Treat every section as a complete entity. It doesn’t really matter if you’ve already explained something in Chapter 2, the reader isn’t looking for a narrative plot line. Like Sargent Joe Friday on Dragnet, they want “just the facts.”

Sometimes I am also called upon to illustrate manuals. The rules for this are the same as the rules for the text. There is no sin in repetition, If instructions in section 4 require several of the same images as section 2, there is no shame in reusing the images.

And by the way, here’s a tip for creating technical illustrations from photos. If you have to create several drawings of a piece of equipment, and you are working from photographs, put the camera on a tripod and lock it down. That way, the elements that don’t change from photo to photo only need to be drawn once.

Here is a link to a manual that I both wrote and illustrated: IW manual.

Trade Show Management

In Skills, Trade Shows on March 5, 2012 at 7:06 pm

In small-to-medium-sized companies, it is not uncommon for the marketing person to also handle trade show management. Even in a larger company, the Director of Marketing will work closely with the Trade Show Manager, making sure that the staff is on point when it comes to the company’s branding and any literature and promotional materials that are needed for the shows. In some ways, the smaller company approach is better because it makes the marketing person (or people) more aware of all the duties that are involved in this position (i.e., the logistics, hotel and plane reservations, staffing decisions, etc.). But in most cases, it is better to have a devoted Trade Show Manager. Although it may seem to anyone who has not had to do this job, that there are some months in which that person has little to do, in fact, handling trade shows for a company that attends more than two or three a year can be a full-time job. The biggest mistake that people make is in thinking that just because a trade show is six months away means that they don’t have to worry about it. In reality, six months away is darn close. If you don’t start worrying about the show before this, you may miss some substantial savings in “early bird” registration. For popular shows, such as the Comic Con in San Diego, the proper time to start registering for next year is the last day of the show. Although the early bird registration in this case lasts until the end of the year, if you put it off, you’ll find yourself without a booth space, not to mention a hotel room.

One of the best sources for information on all aspects of trade shows and trade show management, is Exhibitor Magazine. Here you’ll find ideas for sales tactics, interesting booth ideas, and—my personal favorite—a column devoted to how to fix things when disaster strikes.


Writing Web Content

In Jim Morton, Skills, Uncategorized, Web Content on February 28, 2012 at 12:29 am

Everyone these days writes web content. Every soccer mom, Sunday hobbyist, sports fan, film buff, and lonely teenager has a blog. Unfortunately, this mass production tends devalue the art. In fact, writing good web content is trickier than it looks. Anyone can type something up and throw it on a website, but that doesn’t mean that anyone else will want to look at it. Nor does it mean that anyone, outside of a small circle of friends, will ever know that it exists.

That’s where SEO comes in. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and is the the secret to getting your website noticed. If you are really good at it, you can push your site to the top of the list in Google searches. If you re interested in good SEO techniques there are some excellent seminars available. Keep in mind that SEO is an ever-changing playing field. This is due mostly to the fact that there are many people out here trying to “game the system” by forcing their website to appear at the top of the list in Google organic searches (an organic search is one that the didn’t get its standing in the results by paying Google). To prevent, this, Google is constantly improving their search algorithms.

The biggest mistake that most people make when it comes to their websites is trying to create dazzle instead of content. Remember: search engines like content, so skip the flash videos and describe your products.