By Nicholas Barzelay
Basic data processing for VDP is concerned with storage and retrieval, manipulating data structures and content, and program logic expressed in an input-process-output paradigm. This requires fundamental programming and data management skills.
Understanding database is helpful for initial data acquisition and front-end data preparation. Basic file manipulation skills – read a file in, test for specific content, modify identified content, and write the file out – are helpful in integrating data into a document design application. Integration activity requires small ad hoc programs run at the terminal without development of graphical interfaces.
Use of XML requires only a basic understanding of the technology. This involves the ability to recognize a document or data file structure, express the structure as a simple DTD (document type definition), and then properly tag the document or data file. While more in-depth understanding of XML useful, it is not a necessity since much of XML data manipulation can be accomplished through simple file processing, rather than XML tools like XSLT or structures like DOM (document object model).
Where basic data processing skills by themselves fall short is in the area of applying them to business problems. Business and system analytical skills are needed as a precursor to satisfactory application programming skills. In other words, programming and data manipulation have to be put into the context of a customer’s business requirements.
One alternative for acquiring usable data processing skills for VDP may be to hire a good systems analyst or business analyst who knows how to program and understands databases. However, for addressing graphic design in a business or systems context, this approach has its limitations. The alternative is to find a good graphic designer with a lot of business and computer programming exposure. This is easier said than done, because such a person may be hard to find.
One reason for this difficulty is that basic mental proclivities for graphic design and programming may be antithetical. It is the difference between artists and engineers – left brain and right brain activities. A related reason is that the curriculum for training graphic artists does not commonly include programming and database, and the usual computer science or information technology curriculum does not include graphic arts. To further complicate matters, such studies not necessarily attempt to provide an understanding of contextual business considerations or print production issues.
There is one certainty: the complexity of technology studied in computer science and information technology programs will likely guarantee that any computer guru worth his or her salt will quickly become bored with VDP – different skills, different interests, different personalities, and different sets of mental processes. The idea of simply finding someone with a computer science degree is not the panacea it might appear to be.
VDP is IT
Based on lab trials and classroom observations, in terms of actually producing a variable document, as much as 60% to 80% of the work has to do with some aspect of data handling and preparation, text processing, and programming. That leaves only 20% to 40% of variable document development work for traditional print activities.
IT activities include a variety of tasks: database management, data file extraction and processing, associated programming, XML conversion and preparation. When considering digital asset management (DAM), other than image and color management concerns, development of metadata, key words, search criteria, and other library-related functions, much of the activity related to image file storage, maintenance, security, and accessibility is also IT related.
In fact, in developing variable documents, the development methodology is closely akin to an IT approach: objectives definition, requirements analysis, high-level design, detail design, development, testing, and implementation. Based on research, the VDP workflow is more like an IT rapid iterative development workflow than a traditional sequential print production workflow.
When Web components such as email, personalized Web pages, and other personalized Internet communications approaches are added, the percentage of IT-related activity increases.
Finally, infrastructure maintenance and operation for DAM and VDP is very systems intensive in terms of both individual system platform operations and in terms of cross-platform and cross-application integration. Deployment and integration of VDP and DAM capabilities primarily represents an IT problem.
Given the heavy amount of IT in VDP and DAM, we can draw a couple of conclusions:
1) In terms of training costs and productivity thresholds, it may be more cost effective to hire people with IT skill sets and then train them in printing and graphic design than to hire print people and train them in IT. (And, by the way, graphic design people may not know any more about the technicalities of printing than IT people.)
2) In terms of academic preparation for digital printing careers, printing, publishing, and graphic design curricula that address digital printing need a heavy concentration in IT on subjects germane to VDP and DAM. Graphic design curricula need to comprehend the nuances of printing, and IT curricula should include VDP and DAM as study topics.