Author Archives: Richard Romano

About Richard Romano

Richard Romano has been involved in the graphic arts since before birth. He is a writer and analyst for the graphic communications industry and a regular contributor to WhatTheyThink.com, for which he oversees the Wide-Format and Production Inkjet special topic areas. For eight years, he was the senior analyst for The Industry Measure (formerly TrendWatch Graphic Arts), until its demise in March 2008. He has also worked on consulting and market research projects for many other organizations and companies and has contributed to such magazines as Graphic Arts Monthly, GATFWorld, Printing News, and HOW; is the former executive editor of, CrossMedia magazine; and is the former managing editor of Micro Publishing News and Digital Imaging magazines. As if that weren’t enough, he is also the author or coauthor of more than a half dozen or so books, the last three with WhatTheyThink’s Dr. Joe Webb, including Disrupting the Future, which has been translated into Japanese and Portuguese. Their most recent title is "The Home Office That Works! Make Working At Home a Success—A Guide for Entrepreneurs and Telecommuters." He has vague recollections of having graduated from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications in 1989, and has a 1994 certificate in Multimedia Production from New York University. He is currently in the final throes of a Masters program at the University at Buffalo, which he really does need to wrap up at some point. He lives in Saratoga Springs, NY.

Space and Time

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What lessons can a 19th-century astronomer and aviator teach us about finding new business opportunities?

Back in the late 1990s, when I was working full time for Micro Publishing News magazine, one of our sales guys told me of a conversation he had with a cab driver. When the cabbie asked him what he did for a living, our sales guy said, “I sell space.” Ad space, he meant, but the cabbie said, “Space…you mean, like the air?”

Lots of people sell space. Magazine page space, web page space, real estate, and so forth. But there was one guy who once sold time. Sure, lots of people sell time; anyone who charges by the minute or hour is technically selling time. But in the 19th century, Samuel Pierpont Langley set up a lucrative business selling not time in general, but the time.

Langley (1834–1906) was an American astronomer, physicist, and aviation pioneer. He was the inventor, in 1878, of the bolometer, a device for measuring infrared radiation—a miniature version is used as a detector in thermal cameras, which you may be familiar with from all those ghost-hunting shows where they are more often than not used incorrectly. Anyway, born near Boston, he attended Boston Latin, and, after high school, Langley went west, young man, where he plied his trade as a civil engineer and an architectural draftsman. He returned to Boston after a few years and began to pursue his first love, astronomy, landing a job at the Harvard Observatory.

He bounced around a bit, and, in 1866, Langley was named director of the Allegheny Observatory at the Western University of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh. The observatory was only five years old at the time, run mostly by amateurs, and was in a bit of shambles, both physically and financially. Langley was its first professional administrator and one of his first tasks was to prepare a budget, a novel concept for the observatory at the time. However, as we can all sympathize, in order to prepare—or, actually, to execute—a budget, one needs money, of which the observatory had very little. So to raise funds, Langley hit upon an ingenious business idea, the kind of million-dollar idea we all wish we could think up.

To understand his idea, let’s back the truck—or, that is, the train—up a moment.

In the middle of the 19th century, if the band Chicago had released the song “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” the answer would have been a resounding “no!” Clocks and watches were hand-wound and tended to be wildly imprecise. Observatories only sporadically transmitted the correct time since, for the vast majority of people, precision timekeeping wasn’t really necessary. The correct time was strictly on a need-to-know basis, and few people really needed to know it.

However, that all changed with the coming of the railroad. Railroads ran on a schedule, but that so-called schedule was more of a vague suggestion than something you could, well, set your watch to. (Insert your own Amtrak joke here, by the way.) As rail traffic increased, the inaccuracy of time telling became not only a hassle for passengers who had no idea when to show up at the station (again, insert your own Amtrak joke here), but it was also a serious safety hazard. If, say, the watches of the train engineer and a switch operator differed by even a few minutes, two trains could end up on the same track, with disastrous results. What was to be done?

Langley had an idea. He ran an astronomical observatory, and one of the essential functions of an astronomical observatory was to determine the correct time. (See also Greenwich Observatory and, as we all know, Greenwich means time. Ahem.) So Langley created a subscription service whereby he sold the correct time to the railroads. He would astronomically work out the exact time and transmit it by telegraph to subscriber railroad stations twice a day.

The railroads were ecstatic and gladly paid for the service, while Langley was able to keep the observatory going as well as fund a major astronomical research program. By one estimate, over the next 20 years he raised $60,000 (in 19th century dollars and not, as Dr. Joe would say, adjusted for inflation), until 1883 when the U.S. Naval Observatory began providing the time signals for free. Other observatories also started funding their activities selling time-subscription services. Langley’s system also led to a time standard that became known as the Allegheny Time System and was the model for the Standard Time Zones we use today.

Langley would go on to become a pioneer in the field of aviation and, in fact, both the NASA Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base—among other places and things—are named after him.

I love the Langley story because it is a great illustration of how being able to think creatively can help us see opportunities where perhaps no one else can.

In our 2010 book Disrupting the Future, Dr. Joe Webb and I illustrated this basic point using a quote from Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” In many industry sales seminars and workshops—in our own industry as well as others—we are often told that there are opportunities out there that have yet to be found. The implication is that finding a lucrative new business is rather like a scavenger hunt, you’re looking under rocks or behind the couch for “opportunities” that someone (Who? A mischievous business sprite?) has hidden.

That’s really not the best way to think about it. Nothing, no opportunities, are “hidden.” They’re actually out there in plain sight—if you know how to see them. No one set up a chaotic timekeeping system for Langley to come along and do something about. In some sense, he was in the right place at the right time—and with the right time. But other times and other circumstances provide no fewer opportunities to look around, look creatively, and see opportunities.

In Disrupting the Future, we advised print businesspeople to think like a sculptor:

Great artists like Michelangelo weren’t looking for hidden statues; rather, they and only they saw the art “trapped” inside the rock. Once they “saw” the statue in their mind, it simply became a mechanical task of carving away the rock to “let it out.” It seemed like creativity to others, but to them it was an expression of what they had already seen that others did not (Webb and Romano, 2010).

Any innovation, any successful enterprise, has been the result of someone looking into the “stone” of the marketplace, seeing the “statue” of an idea that no one else has had, and “carving away” the resources needed to develop it and bring it to market. Sure, like Langley, those ideas are often—to keep belaboring this pun—timely, but that is actually reassuring. Given how quickly things change, there will never be a shortage of good ideas waiting to occur to someone.

 

References:

Tom D. Crouch, A Dream of Wings: Americans and the Airplane, 1875–1905 (London, 1989), pp. 42–45.

“Samuel Langley: Aviation Pioneer,” originally published by Aviation History magazine, now at HistoryNet.com, June 12, 2006, http://www.historynet.com/samuel-langley-aviation-pioneer.htm.

Joseph W. Webb, Ph.D, and Richard M. Romano, Disrupting the Future: Uncommon Wisdom for Navigating Print’s Challenging Marketplace (Harrisville, R.I., 2010), pp. 162–163.

“Samuel Pierpont Langley,” Wikipedia, last modified on October 15, 2014, accessed on October 30, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Pierpont_Langley.

Eye Books

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Herein a long tale of history, technology, and media change.

Several years ago, one of the community arts organizations I am involved with—the Saratoga Film Forum, an art house movie theater in downtown Saratoga Springs, N.Y.—had on its programming committee a serious film buff. He was, essentially, a veritable walking (or sitting, as the case may be) encyclopedia of cinema. This is, of course, not surprising. What was surprising was that he was almost totally blind, suffering from severe macular degeneration and needing elaborate optics that resembled a wearable Viewmaster to watch movies or read books.

Today, optometrists and ophthalmologists understand macular degeneration thanks in large part to the work of Samuel Thomas von Sömmerring. Von Sömmerring (1755–1830) was a German physician and one of the most renowned anatomists in Germany at the time. Amongst his many contributions to our knowledge of physiology was his discovery of the macula in the retina of the human eye. The macula contains the fovea and foveola. They contain a high density of cones, which, with their partners the rods, are the photoreceptors that allow us to see. Macular degeneration, as you would expect, involves damage to these photoreceptors.

Von Sömmering was, like many men of his age, a bit of a polymath and an inventor. He designed a telescope, among other things, and in 1809 created one of the first electric telegraph systems. Based on a crude earlier design, his system used as many as 35 electrical wires, each of which represented a different letter or number. Thus:

messages could be conveyed electrically up to a few kilometers…with each of the telegraph receiver’s wires immersed in a separate glass tube of acid. An electric current was sequentially applied by the sender through the various wires representing each digit of a message; at the recipient’s end the currents electrolysed the acid in the tubes in sequence, releasing streams of hydrogen bubbles next to each associated letter or numeral (Wikipedia, 2014).

Not the most elegant of designs, but it did trigger off several decades of development to produce an effective working telegraph. The first commercially successful electric telegraph was co-developed by William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in the UK. In 1838, it was installed by the Great Western Railway between Paddington Station and West Drayton.

Across the pond, Samuel Morse had patented his own version of a telegraph, as well as the eponymous code (the “Morse code” was devised by Morse with his assistant, Alfred Vail). In 1844, the famous “What hath God wrought” telegram was transmitted, and the rest is history.

The legacy of the telegraph is easy to spot today; what is texting, really, but a high-tech version of the telegram? And all those texting abbreviations and emojie are not a million miles removed from the Morse code, although they’re often less comprehensible.

The telegraph did help solve a problem that had briefly plagued U.S. President Andrew Jackson. For the first 125 or so years of U.S. history, mail delivery was literally 24/7. Indeed, the postal service was the only form of communication back then, and few things were more important than the mail. Postmaster General was a Cabinet position, and until 1971, the Postmaster was in the line of Presidential succession. Post offices were also great gathering places, as people socialized, drank, and played cards or what have you while they waited for the mail to arrive (there was no home delivery until after the 1860s).

“The advance of the human race in intelligence, in virtue and religion itself depends in part, upon the speed with which…knowledge…is disseminated,” wrote Colonel Richard M. Johnson, a Kentucky Congressman who served during the Jackson presidency (he was later Martin Van Buren’s veep) (Meacham, 2008). Why did he write this?

The fact that there was mail delivery every day of the week meant, logically, that there was mail delivery on Sunday, aka the Sabbath. This didn’t sit well with some of the more religiously inclined personalities of the time—in particular, one Reverend Ezra Stiles Ely, who was a man on a mission. That mission was to end what he called “the national evil of great magnitude”: mail delivery on Sunday. (The things they worried about back then…) He took it up directly with President Jackson—one of the problems of being a populist like Jackson was that you were constantly being accosted by the public—and even though Jackson had other things to contend with (like, say, nullification), Congressman Johnson was appointed to head a committee to investigate closing the Post Office on Sunday. The committee ultimately decided, “The mail is the chief means by which intellectual light irradiates to the extremes of the republic. Stop it one day in seven, and you retard one-seventh of the advancement of our country” (Meacham, 2008). (Boy, did they have a way with words back then!) So Sunday mail delivery stayed. (Another of Johnson’s arguments was that since some religions celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, singling out Sunday would give unfair—and unconstitutional—preference to one particular faith.)

After 1844, however, the volume of mail in general—and Sunday mail in particular—started to drop thanks to the telegraph, which became a prominent tool of business communication.

Remember, too, that businesses tended to operate seven days a week back then. Reverend Ely and his successors were still eager to get the Sunday Sabbath free, so by the end of the century, religious leaders formed an alliance with organized labor, which was starting to become an influential force. Both parties, religious leaders and labor leaders, wanted the same basic thing—Sundays off—albeit for different reasons. By the early 20th century, technology had made the issue, as far as the mails were concerned, moot. The telegraph and the railroad made businesspeople less reliant on the mail, so in 1912, when Congress decided to eliminate Sunday mail delivery, a bill which President Taft signed without complaint, there really wasn’t much hue and cry.

As Dr. Joe Webb has pointed out many times, mail volumes have continued to drop thanks to all the communications revolutions of the 20th century—the telephone, radio, television, the Internet, and now all the various mobile and social media. And while debate centers around whether mail delivery should be pared back to five days a week, last year Amazon partnered with the USPS to restore Sunday delivery, if only in selected cities (at first).

One of the things you could have Amazon deliver to you on a Sunday is a new Kindle.

It was the Kindle, more than anything, that triggered off the ebook revolution. Electronic books were nothing really new; Project Gutenberg dates back to 1971, after all, and by the turn of the millennium there were at least a dozen companies and platforms jockeying for market share in the nascent ebook space, including such giants as Microsoft and Adobe. The early Palm devices—precursors to today’s smartphones—were highly touted as an ebook platform. (Have you ever read a long novel on a Palm Pilot? It was not fun.) The E Ink approach to “electronic paper”—the reflective electrophoretic technology that essentially made reading a screen as comfortable as reading ink on paper—started to gain traction, and the Sony Reader was the first commercially successful ereader. It debuted first in Japan and was introduced in the U.S. in 2006. It was a modest hit, but it wasn’t until the Amazon Kindle, based on the same E Ink technology, launched in 2007 that the ebook market took off. (The poor Sony Reader; discontinued in 2013, it is alas a mere footnote, albeit an important one, in the history of ebooks.) Although ebook growth has been flat in the past couple of years, in 2013 ebook sales still amounted to $3 billion, which ain’t nothin’. Even if ebooks aren’t exactly cannibalizing print book sales, they are still an important part of the cross media mix.

Ebooks like those available for the Kindle have found favor amongst older readers for a very basic reason: it’s easy to make the type bigger. And thus book lovers who may have failing eyesight—either from basic aging or specific problems like macular degeneration—are still able to read. And Apple’s perhaps aptly named “Retina” displays make even backlit screens easy to read.

Samuel von Sömmerring would approve.

 

References:

“BookStats: Ebooks Flat in 2013,” DigitalBookWorld, June 26, 2014, http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2014/bookstats-ebooks-flat-in-2013/.

Megan Garber, “The Unlikely Alliance That Ended Sunday Mail Delivery…in 1912,” The Atlantic, November 12, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/11/the-unlikely-alliance-that-ended-sunday-mail-delivery-in-1912/281370/?single_page=true.

Tiffany Hsu, “U.S. Postal Service to deliver Amazon packages on Sundays,” Los Angeles Times, November 10, 2013, http://articles.latimes.com/2013/nov/10/business/la-fi-amazon-usps-20131109.

Jon Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (New York, 2008), pp. 87–88.

“About Project Gutenberg,” https://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Gutenberg:About.

“Samuel Thomas van Sömmerring,” Wikipedia, modified September 26, 2014, accessed October 29, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Thomas_von_Sömmerring.

Photo Book

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Back in 1993, I took a series of multimedia courses at New York University, learning programs that no longer exist to develop interactive content for media that became obsolete even before the courses ended (remember the “interactive CD-ROM”?). So it goes.

One of the classes I took taught a program that does actually still exist: the venerable Photoshop. This had been a semester of working with Photoshop 2.5, and literally on the last day of class, the instructor came in waving a CD, saying, “Photoshop 3.0 is out—and everything’s different!” That was my crash course in how ephemeral any working knowledge of software could be.

(I suddenly have a line from a commercial going through my head: “Remember a time when Photoshop didn’t have Layers? Pepperidge Farm remembers…”)

Anyway, I mention this because for a least a decade after that, I used to religiously upgrade Photoshop, back when I was doing more design- and graphics-related work than I do now—that is, more actual print production than just writing about print production. I love the Adobe Creative Suite and still use it for various projects, including the layout of the five books I have written with Dr. Joe Webb, the most recent being—plug plug—This Point Forward, being launched at Dr. Joe’s Graph Expo breakfast on September 30. I haven’t upgraded the Creative Suite since version 5.5, primarily because I really dislike the subscription model of software pricing. At some point, though, I expect whatever computer or device I end up working on will no longer run the Creative Suite versions I currently use and I will then be forced to upgrade to the Creative Cloud (or whatever supplants the Creative Cloud by the time I am ready for it).

“Like it or not, we’re now in the age of rental software,” writes Lesa Snider in the brand-new second edition of Photoshop CC: The Missing Manual, the latest in O’Reilly’s “Missing Manual” series, a review copy of which just arrived on my doorstep.

(“Remember a time when manuals were included with software? Pepperidge Farm remembers…”)

Lesa Snider is perhaps the preeminent Photoshop guru today, and once remarked to me, shortly after a Photoshop Conference in Las Vegas, “What happens in Vegas gets photoshopped out,” a line I wish I had the opportunity to steal more often. I’ve had the opportunity to sit in on Lesa’s Photoshop tutorial sessions at various shows over the years, and I’ve always picked up some new productivity-enhancing—or just plain cool—tips or tricks. Even though my Photoshop needs are fairly modest these days—and I have yet to avail myself of features in the latest version—it’s nice to stay reasonably current and learn new things.

In this day and age, the “computer book” is kind of an endangered species, which is a shame. Now, I admit, when I am working in a program and can’t figure out how to do something, or some “feature” is driving me crazy (yeah, I’m looking at you, PowerPoint), I just Google my question and can usually find an answer pretty quickly. But what this approach lacks—and what a good book boasts—is the ability to inspire creative ideas. No one reads these kinds of books cover-to-cover (at almost 1,000 pages, it’s almost like James Michener’s Photoshop), but even just flipping through at random during idle moments, or searching out specific tasks, it’s easy to come across things that can juice up one’s creativity. And even after all these years, it’s still possible to say, “I didn’t know you could do that in Photoshop.” For example, the new version supports 3D printing.

Photoshop CC: The Missing Manual covers the 2014 release and is an invaluable resource for the old veteran who thinks s/he knows everything there is to know about Photoshop, as well as for newbies who may be working with the program for the first time. It also provides a good rundown of what’s new in the latest version of Photoshop. Lesa also has an informal, often funny, writing style that makes what can often be a dry read quite entertaining.

By the way, if you are in the Boulder area on September 21, Lesa is having a book release party, info here. And remember, if things get out of hand, they can be photoshopped out.

The Things from Inner Space

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Nebula- and Hugo-winning science-fiction author Robert J. Sawyer is perhaps best known by non-sci-fi fans as the author of FlashForward, a pretty good novel that was made into a pretty bad TV series back in 2009 (premise: everyone on Earth blacks out for two minutes and seventeen seconds and has a vision of the future). A few years after that, Sawyer wrote the excellent (in my opinion) “WWW” trilogy, in which the Internet evolves consciousness and becomes a living entity.

I was reminded of that in a weird way a few weeks ago when I was having a conversation with someone about “the Internet of Things (IoT),” a phrase I first started hearing a couple of years ago. (I did initially confuse it with the “Internet of The Thing,” which I assumed was a fan site dedicated to the 1951 sci-fi classic, if not the 1982 or 2011 remakes which were cases of diminishing returns.)

Be that as it may, “the Internet of things” has nothing to do with giant malevolent plant creatures from space or James Arness (who played the actual Thing), or any of that, but instead refers to the idea of having all the physical objects in our lives connected to the Internet. This can refer to any number of things—smart medicine cabinets that use WiFi to automatically keep our prescriptions up to date, a smart refrigerator that lets us know when our milk has gone sour, Internet-controlled appliances and environments, and so forth. Much of this exists already. You can buy a slow cooker whose temperature can be adjusted using a smartphone app. You can buy an electronic fork that calculates how fast you’re eating and warns you to slow down. (I’d give it less than two minutes before thwinging it in the ceiling.) Friends of mine in the UK have a pet door that is unlocked by an RFID chip implanted in their cat. DVRs and other household appliances can be controlled remotely. Then there is wearable tech, which is a whole other kettle of fish. And it’s probably only a matter of time before there is an Internet-enabled fish kettle. (I wouldn’t put the fish in the slow-cooker; fish is too delicate for slow cooking.)

And all that is just the beginning. Gartner estimates that there will be nearly 26 billion devices on the “Internet of Things” by 2020.

Now, depending on your point of view, this all sounds really convenient or utterly horrifying. And certainly no “digital nirvana”! Regardless, it’s probably inevitable. And who knows, maybe the Internet will develop a consciousness at the end of all this, becoming an all-seeing, all-knowing entity. Which would be even more terrifying.

What does this mean for all of us here in our own corner of the Internet? Well, the printing industry has never done an especially good job of keeping up with technology and how it has transforms our culture. Dr. Joe and I write about this at length in our forthcoming book This Point Forward: The New Start the Marketplace Demands, which will debut at Graph Expo in September. I remember when e-books first hit the public consciousness in the late 1990s. Everyone pooh-poohed the idea; “who wants to read on a screen?” Well, go to any public location today and all anyone is doing is reading from screens, often to the exclusion of everything else, like conversing with people or paying attention to traffic. The Internet of Things will continue to change our relationship with technology, with media, and with mobile phones, as smartphones will be our “nodes” for accessing all the interconnected  “things.”

On the plus side, we’re going to need sensors for all this stuff. Lots and lots of sensors. Sensors produced in high volume and at low cost. Printed electronics—the sequel to what RFID was touted as a decade ago—may be the way the printing industry gets a piece of the IoT action. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), it will require a whole different approach to the printing business than simply buying a new piece of equipment, but it could be—and has been—a viable option for those interested in pursuing it. But as we talk about in the book, you’re probably going to have to take a completely different approach to the printing business as we lurch toward 2020.

Kind of makes you feel like James Arness in The Thing, doesn’t it?

Blogito Ergo Sum

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This week, Margie Dana’s Print Tip explains “why a printer’s blog is the first thing I look for.” She says:

A blog lets you share interesting insights about your company as well as establish your true colors. It’s not about equipment or how old your firm is. It’s about business-related information and opinions. It’s (hopefully) fun and educational.

In my opinion, a blog is the cornerstone of a company’s inbound marketing efforts. It’s effective. It’s versatile. And it’s easier to do than you think.

She adds:

A good blog is to your ideal audience what the yellow brick road was to Dorothy and company: the path leading to your own little Oz, or website.

And, well, a blog post can also send flying monkeys aloft, but hopefully that doesn’t happen too often.

Blogging can be considered the original social medium. Admittedly, I have mixed feelings about blogging. It can be fun; I have used it as a way to experiment with different kinds of writing, not always successfully, and it’s great to research a topic that interests me and share odd facts and information. But often, when I have deadlines galore, blogging becomes a chore. (Those writing experiments did not include poetry. The rhyme here was accidental.) It’s not just the labor of sitting down and composing x number of words with y frequency, but also picking a topic that lends itself to extended verbiage, and carefully considering phrasing. After all, a hastily written line or ill-chosen word can act as flame-bait.

I think Margie is right that printers of all kinds—and in fact all kinds of businesses—can benefit from having a company blog,

Now, the first response is often, “Who has time for it? I have a business to run.” And that’s a fair point. If someone like me, who is a professional writer—or, at the very least, a delivery system for words—gets blogged down generating posts, how can someone who is not inclined to writing take advantage of blogging?

Here are some strategies for managing one’s blogging efforts:

1. Get help.

One solution could very well be to outsource it. There are many professional (or semi-professional) writers out there in the industry who could use a few extra bucks. They know the industry and with a little guidance, can craft compelling copy (that could even be alliterative) for your company. Alternatively, company employees—such as those in sales and/or marketing—can be tasked with blogging. You can even divvy up the blogging among several individuals—and a mix of in-house and freelance sources not only helps spread out the workload, but also adds different voices and perspectives.

2. Develop a schedule.

Professional publications, be they print or online, typically operate according to an editorial calendar, drawn up 12 (or sometimes six) months in advance, that identifies what topics will be covered in which issue or on what date. This is predominantly a tool for the ad sales department, but is also a vital organizing tool and roadmap for editorial, knowing that, in June, there will be a feature on, say, textile printing. It’s far more effective than just winging it from month-to-month or week-to-week, especially since features take longer than straight news to compile and write. (This obviously does not apply to news, which is hard to identify in advance, NDAs notwithstanding.) Adopting a loose editorial calendar for blogging can help manage the process. If you are going to post, say, three times a week, you can start with a rough calendar like:

  • Mondays: Customer success stories
  • Wednesdays: File preparation tips
  • Fridays: Industry trends

With that basic roadmap, you can fine-tune it further and plug in specifics:

  • First Monday of the month: Vehicle wrap project for Joe’s Garage
  • Second Monday: Interior signage project for Alice’s Restaurant
  • Third Monday: Outdoor signage project for the Hotel California
  • First Wednesday: Choosing the proper color space; RGB vs. CMYK
  • Second Wednesday: Working with fonts
  • Third Wednesday: Know your substrates
  • First Friday: New announcements at Graph Expo/SGIA/other tradeshow
  • Second Friday: New developments in textile printing
  • Third Friday: What are LED-UV printers?

You get the idea. Naturally, things can change, such as if you wake up at 2 a.m. with a great idea for a blog post (it can happen), or you read something (like Margie Dana’s Print Tips) that stimulates a post idea.

3. Dedicate time to blogging.

Building blogging time into a daily schedule—rather than “when I get around to it”—is also good way of remaining consistent and disciplined. Maybe devote one hour a day, or three half-hour blocks of time a week—or whatever works—and use that period to blog without interruption. (Tip: Write, edit, refine, and polish in Word or OpenOffice before pasting into your blogging software like WordPress.) It’s also possible, using WordPress or any of the major blogging platforms, to schedule posts to run days or even weeks in advance. So you can devote one hour on, say, Monday to blogging, do an entire week or fortnight’s worth of posts in one go, and then schedule them to appear over the course of the next week or two. It is always a good idea to have a stash of posts ready to go, otherwise you are, as they say, in danger of laying down the tracks as the train is coming.

4. Read and link to others.

Social media is just that: social. Just like in offline social settings, where we dislike it when conversations are too one-sided, so, too, in blogging and other social media efforts we should let other people get a word in. In the case of blogging, this involves linking to other stories, blog posts, Web sites, or anything else that you think your readers/customers would find helpful or interesting. So if you see a compelling Digital Nirvana post, or a story on WhatTheyThink, or maybe even elsewhere, that can be good blog fodder. It can be shared without much comment (“Saw this on WTT…”) or if something in the story/post specifically caught your attention, say something about it (“That Dan Marx interview on chasing bottlenecks was right on the money. Here is what our experience has been…”).

5. Be positive

A fair portion of the blogosphere—although not necessarily in our industry—is a lot of griping and complaining. Now, criticism is good, and one of the advantages of blogging is that it can foster dialogues, trialogues, and even googologues, but it reflects badly on your business if it’s perceived as overly negative (“that %$#$^* Romano post at Digital Nirvana was a waste of pixels. Who lets him blog anyway? They should fire him…out of a cannon”). It may very well be true, but constructive criticism adds value to the dialogue and is a better reflection of your business. I like to adopt, as we say in Toastmasters, the “sandwich” approach to evaluation and criticism: start and end with a positive comment (the bread), with the middle comprising the actual criticism (the meat). Some people prefer the Atkins approach to criticism and skip the bread.

Anyway, blogging doesn’t have to be an overwhelming, onerous task. As with anything, if you can have fun with it, the enjoyment you take from sharing knowledge and information will be contagious—and is maybe the best PR your company can get.

Big Game Hunting

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Next week, Enfocus Software will be hosting a “Virtual Safari” which, for me, has much greater appeal than an actual safari in that it avoids bugs, malaria, snakes, and crocodile and hippopotamus attacks. (Yes, it is actually true that more people are killed by hippopotami than lions, tigers, crocodiles, or even sharks. A traumatic childhood experience involving Henrietta Hippo from The New Zoo Revue adds only psychological scars.)

What was I saying?

Oh, right: the Virtual Safari. Five days, 25 speakers, and 28 sessions covering the virtual waterfront of the graphic arts market. I will be conducting a session on Wednesday called “Troubleshooting Big Game: 9 big mistakes that would-be wide-format printers can make.” (Why 9? Well, it’s a nice number, it’s the lowest odd number that is not a prime number, and reminds me of Dante’s “9 circles of hell” in the Inferno, which was kind of a safari. Or, in other words, I picked it at random.)

From buying equipment, to dealing with customers, to preflighting files, to sustainability, to finishing, I’ll be pointing out some traps and pitfalls to avoid, some obvious, some not so much. I also think it gives a pretty good overview (if I do say so myself) of the current state of the wide-format market, and what shops should know if they want to get involved in it. Last year, Dr. Joe Webb had commented, in a project we were working on for a wide-format output service provider, that “The wide-format market is like Florida: everyone is from somewhere else.” That is, today’s wide-format printing market is comprised of companies that moved from other places—photolabs, for example, transitioned over to wide-format printing. Some commercial printers have also moved—or at least gotten a time-share—there as well.

And one could hardly blame them. The troubles of the printing industry are not unknown to anyone reading this, and when one looks at how specialty graphics and wide-format printing applications have been growing—and are continuing to experience solid double-digit growth—well, it’s no surprise that others are eager to get a piece of the action. And why not? The state of the technology now is such that the barriers to entry have been drastically lowered from even what they were a decade ago. So it doesn’t take a mammoth investment to start-up a specialty printing business.

Not that this has made everyone happy. Some wide-format veterans have expressed a kind of “there goes the neighborhood” attitude, and some even worry—not wrongly—about certain wide-format printing applications becoming commoditized and spawning the kind of cutthroat pricing that has plagued small-format commercial printing. And certainly things like banners or even some types of garment printing don’t command the margins they once did.

The advantage to specialty printing, though, is that it rapidly changes. This may be a little scary, but there will always be new types of printing technologies that allow for the creation of new, exotic, high-value, high-margin printed items. It won’t be the same items from year to year, but that hasn’t been true for a long time, even in small-format printing. The market for print—or any type of communication—is just that, a market. It’s dynamic and fast-changing. Certain products become popular, they peak, plateau, then become less popular. Kind of like most celebrities. Therefore, it pays to know what new products/services are enabled by new technology, and what is in demand.

It can be a challenge and require no small amount of effort to keep up with everything—“stop the world, I want to get off!”—but actually it makes it all that much more exciting—as exciting as, say, a safari, but minus the malaria. And the hippos.

All the Signs Are There

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Last week, I was in Orlando for the International Sign Association’s Sign Expo 2014, which was only the second Sign Expo I had covered (last year in Las Vegas was the first). It’s an exciting show, with the printing and electronic technologies I normally cover being presented from a bit of a different angle. An interesting comment I got from a few people I spoke with was that the show was “losing its identity” as a show dedicated specifically to signage. Granted, I don’t have the years of experience in that space to necessarily agree or disagree, but I mulled this over as I made my last reconnaissance mission to the show floor Saturday morning. As I wandered around, I kept coming back to the thought that the show’s identity seemed to me perfectly intact, at least as far as what it aims to focus on; it just seems that the nature of signage itself has been changing.

Last year, one of the show’s organizers told me that a major growth area of the show was print. Now, that’s one of those statements that, had I been drinking something, would have done a spit-take, as I haven’t been accustomed to thinking of print as being a big growth area anywhere these days. And yet today’s crop of wide-format printers—the big flatbed UVs and the textile printers, to name but two of the biggest categories of print equipment in the signage market today—were easily edging out channel letters, traditional wooden signs, exotic 3D lettering, and all the things we usually think of as “signs.” In fact, there were even some comments from the “old school” sign folks along the lines of print (at least in the context of signage) being some “new fad that will end as soon as people come to their senses”—kind of like what many commercial printers thought (and a few still think) about the Internet. I love it: print as a disruptive, upstart technology! We haven’t seen that since the 15th century.

And then there’s Maude: the substantial growth of dynamic digital signage, which everyone is trying to figure out what to do with, if anything.

“Signs” are many things these days. They are, yes, old-fashioned channel letters. They are beautifully engraved wooden signs such as you’d see outside an antique store. They are chalk boards. They are adhesive vinyl graphics. The are lighted exit signs and other types of wayfinding. But they’re also printed banners and so-called “soft signage.” They are, in some ways, vehicle wraps. And, increasingly, they are digital displays. (When one is trapped in an airport, trying to get home from shows like the Sign Expo, one has little else to do but wander about looking at all the myriad signage on display, if only to try to determine the latest trends in what gate you are departing out of.)

The challenges faced by today’s signmakers involve not only keeping up with rapidly changing technology—especially, but not only, where digital signage is concerned—but also how to integrate new types of signs with older ones to best serve the practical and aesthetic needs of the customer. A fast food franchise, an antiquarian bookseller, a law office, and a high-end retail establishment will all have completely different signage needs and require different technologies. More importantly, signage graphics very often need to be integrated, or at the very least be consistent, with other graphic elements and components of a larger campaign, like marketing collateral materials, advertising, and online elements. If you are producing wayfinding signage (a massive, byzantine topic all on its own), there are reams of regulations (the Americans with Disabilities Act, building codes, etc.) that need to be digested before a single sign can be output. Then there is the perennial challenge of how to sell new technologies, like digital signage, without cannibalizing old business.

New technologies are taking signs in completely new directions, and new pitfalls abound. If shows like the Sign Expo seem like an eclectic, often chaotic mix of crafted, printed, and electronic media (and, in many ways, reminiscent of other shows like SGIA) it’s only because signage itself has evolved into an eclectic, often chaotic mix of crafted, printed, and electronic media. The question now is, how do we make it all work together?

Printing Is Easy, Marketing Is Hard

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“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read. —Groucho Marx

It has been said, by whom, I’m not entirely sure, that everyone has a book inside them (insert your own “Marxist” joke here), or at least everyone thinks they do. I am regularly asked by friends and colleagues, both inside and especially outside the printing industry, about how to self-publish a book. Almost universally, the questions are about the physical production and printing process (“how many pages/words do I need I need to write?” “How expensive is it?”, etc.) or how ebooks work. However, from my experience, the questions one asks about self-publishing should focus less on production and more on marketing—and even whether there is an audience at all for the book you want to write.

There are success stories, of course. The 50 Shades of Gray franchise (to my horror, I discovered too late that it had nothing to do with color management) is perhaps the emblematic example of the self-publishing experiment that was enough of a hit to lead to mainstream publishing success. (Imagine, erotica being a saleable commodity. Who’d’a thunk it?)

Regular WhatTheyThink readers may know (or be in denial about the fact that) that Dr. Joe Webb and I have co-written and self-published almost half a dozen books (see in particular here, as well as here, here, here, and here), and the half-dozenth is on the drawing board—and, no, will not be called 128 Levels of Gray and will not chronicle the erotic adventures of a prepress department manager. The one thing that we have learned in our self-publishing adventures is that production, printing, and even writing all comprise the easy part of the self-publishing process. Today’s digital and on-demand printing technologies make it easy and inexpensive to publish your own books, and services like Amazon and Lulu, to name two that we have used, handle both the physical production and offer an online storefront for a book. But that is, again, only the smallest of first steps.

Some serious questions and considerations to ponder before even setting finger to keyboard include:

  • What is the real market for the book? Be honest. What is the competition like? Do your due diligence. Search Amazon, Barnes & Noble—even venture to the nearest physical bookstore to see what books may exist on your topic. You may very well be entering a very crowded or even saturated market—even if you have a unique take on a well-trodden topic—and being self-published is one major strike against you if your closest competition is from an established publishing company.
  • Is there a lot of free competition? Our recent book is The Home Office That Works!, about setting up a productive home office, and while there are few published titles (that we found) that cover the topic the way we did (most are about launching a specific home business), but we discovered after the fact that there are a lot of blogs and online articles about various aspects of running a home office. It’s strewn piecemeal all over the Internet, but a challenge is getting people to buy something they can probably search out and get for free. If I were to write a book offering tips for prospective self-publishers, I would be in trouble because of blogposts like this one.
  • Do you have a promotional/marketing apparatus already in place? That is, are you a fairly well-known speaker in your industry and can use speaking gigs as marketing tools for the book (and/or vice versa)? When we published Disrupting the Future in 2010, it hit enough of a nerve in the industry that it led to Joe and I getting speaking gigs that, in turn, promoted the book. It helped that we were known quantities (for better or worse) in the industry.
  • How popular are you on social media? I’ll get in trouble for saying this, but I think social media has become vastly overrated as a marketing and publicity tool, but that’s not to say it is not without value. Are you active enough in these areas or do you—like me, I hasten to add—have to be dragged kicking and screaming into social media? If you are like me (and my thoughts and prayers go out to you), do you know someone who can do your social media stuff for you?

Self-publishing is not as looked down upon as the old vanity publishers of yore, but there is still a stigma attached to it, as in “you couldn’t get a real publisher, could you”—even though all the questions you should ask yourself before self-publishing are the same as you should ask before seeking out any publisher.

Digital printing technology has truly enabled the small, independent, or self-publisher—but that really is only the beginning of the process.

Your News Now

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In the great 1990s sci-fi series Babylon 5, set in the late 2250s, print newspapers still exist 200+ years in the future, but with a (to us) familiar twist. In one particular episode, the captain of the titular space station walks up to a kiosk and requests specific newspaper sections and topics. When he’s done, the kiosk spits out an instantly—presumably digitally—printed, customized newspaper.

A bit of science-fiction futuriana, to be sure, but that’s not far removed from the idea of digitally printed on-demand newspapers that the industry has been talking about since at least the 1990s. Or, in other words, using technology to deliver us the news we want, not what some editor thinks we want. (Yes, this is also the idea of the Google News Alert.)

I bring this up because I happened across an interesting experiment conducted by a social media aggregation site called NewsWhip which thought it would be interesting to see what major newspapers’ front pages would look like if they included the top stories from those publications that were trending on social media. That is, what stories were readers sharing vs. what was on the front page of the print edition?

What if front pages were selected by newspapers’ readers instead of their editors?  At NewsWhip, we’re always interested in the news stories people are choosing to share – and how those stories differ from the normal news stories editors put on the front pages of big newspapers. So we ran a little experiment.

A little work at our end, and we used those most shared stories to make new “people powered” front pages for each newspaper – giving the most shared story the most prominence, the second most shared the second most prominence, etc.

We replaced headlines and pictures, though did not get into replacing story text and bylines. The results are pretty neat – maybe even thought provoking.

Actually, the “people power” papers are not as frivolous as one would be inclined to think, and actually aren’t a million miles removed from what the papers chose for their actual front-page stories. The only real differences were less foreign policy (i.e., few Ukraine stories) and more diet and health, especially in the British papers.

Now, mind you, focusing on the stories that are most shared via social media doesn’t necessarily give the best sense of what is being read, or even what readers find personally important. For example, there is a lot of food being shared on social media, but seldom is it one’s everyday humdrum breakfasts and dinners, but is instead some remarkable feast out at a restaurant or slaved over at home for a special occasion. So focusing on the meals one shares on social media doesn’t necessarily give the best sense of what people typically eat on a daily basis. Otherwise, get thee to a gym!

Back to the news, though. Speaking for myself, what I read for my own edification of what is going on the world is very different from what I would tend to share on Twitter or Facebook—I tend to pass along more whimsical, humorous, absurd technology kinds of things, rather than the more prosaic news stories one needs to function in a democratic society. I dare say most people are pretty much the same.

Back in 1993, I took several courses at NYU on the emerging “multimedia technology” (remember the “interactive CD-ROM” and how it was gong to be a billion-dollar industry? Ha!) just as the Internet was ramping up in earnest, and friends of mine and I would sit around—as college students are wont to do—anticipating and solving all the problems of the world. One of us had remarked that there was a real danger in a media landscape in which we could all pick and choose our own news, having it served up to us exactly as we like it, as if it were a restaurant serving us the food we now post on Facebook. The last 20 years, and the fact that a disturbing number of people seem to get their news solely from e-mails forwarded from their crazy uncle, suggests that perhaps the danger was not entirely overstated.

There is also a danger in relying too much on having the “crowd” decide the editorial content of newspapers, magazines, or other news sources. What people want to know and what they need to know can often be two different things.

Perhaps it’s the journalistic equivalent of being made to eat our vegetables, but I’m perfectly happy to have the “media elite”—editors and publishers—decide what’s important, or what they think is important. Could they do a better job sometimes? Of course. But there is still a great value in having an objective “curator” of the news—and I say this having been a printing industry writer for 20 years and worked very closely with—and even been—those curators.

Personalization technology—be it newspapers or anything else—has given us the unprecedented ability to only seek out and receive the content we want whenever we want it. However, we need to be certain that it’s what we really want.

AR: Showered With Praise, or The Doors of Perception…

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Anomaly-smLast week, Margie Dana’s Print Tip discussed Augmented Reality (AR), and how Coastal Industries used AR in its Buyer’s Guide—essentially a shower door catalog. Augmented Reality, for those not in the know, is a technology that aims to, among other things, make print interactive, or bridge the gap between print and electronic media. An AR app like Layar, you scan a printed page with your smartphone and interactive content pops up on the screen. A few months ago, I was sent a graphic novel called Anomaly which also included AR content to “bring the pages alive.” However, accessing the AR content was not exactly seamless; you had to go online to get a list of which pages had AR content, download a special app, and then fiddle with getting the lighting and the angle right to make the AR work. It was really a fair amount of effort for minimal payoff. And if something is written, illustrated, and/or printed well enough, the pages can come alive without any extra help.

The online version of Coast Industries’ catalog also features AR, and you can ostensibly scan the computer screen with your smartphone—let’s think about that for a minute…—but perhaps because of the lighting or glare from the screen, I’ve been unable to get it to work.

Now, complaining about how flakily a fairly new technology like AR works is probably a bit premature. When you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that this stuff works at all. Perhaps we’ve become so accustomed to—or spoiled by—new technology that we often fail to appreciate how far we’ve come in what is really only a short period of time. I mean, if you took the latest iPhone model back in time to even as recently as, say, 1990, and showed it to the people living then, they’d probably look at you as if you had just beamed down from the U.S.S. Enterprise. (À la the famous and I believe accurate quote from Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) So I’m not going to heap too much shame on flaky AR apps!

That all said, when I think about the notion of “making print interactive,” there is one question I keep coming back to, which is: to what extent does print need to be interactive? And is this not somehow an apology for the fact that print is not electronic media? I find that a large part of the beauty of print that it’s not interactive, that it’s simple, at least from the user’s standpoint. You don’t need tech support to use print, you don’t have to fight with devices, you don’t need to search out a WiFi connection, batteries don’t run down, and you don’t get error messages. In other words, you never see this:

Error Message

Now, I like the idea of AR, and things like the shower door catalog and some other applications are very cool, but for my money, I think print is already as interactive as I want it to be.

One AR-ish application I find myself using a lot, especially when traveling, is incorporated into the location app Yelp!. It’s called Monocle, and when you point your mobile phone in a given direction, on the screen will pop up a list of the businesses nearby in that direction. It works very well, and it’s functional. Sure, you could add AR tags to a printed travel brochure or map, but it seems like that would be redundant.

Monocle

Each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, and while there is some level of “multifunctionality,” we should be careful to not try to make one too much like the other. Magazine and newspaper apps for tablets that mimic the “look and feel” of print are rarely successful, and printed materials that try to ape the “look and feel” of interactive media are also rarely effective.

One way I like to think about it is that, today, there are not a lot of reasons to print out a Web page, but every once in a while it can be useful. Likewise, I rarely need anything I have in print to be electronic or interactive, but once in a while it can be useful.

So we should use each medium for its own inherent strengths. Unless you need to be shown the door.