Data Processing Skills for VDP

By | September 2, 2009

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.

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.

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7 thoughts on “Data Processing Skills for VDP

  1. Jeff Lazerus

    A good prepress technician is already halfway between a graphic artist and IT expert. Graphic design, business rules, and database activities do not need to be mutually exclusive. I would also contend that rather than hire an outside IT person to do database management and VDP programming, you retrain your existing staff of prepress people rather than looking at them as a cost that will never be recovered.

  2. Dave

    I would have to disagree with Jeff. While you might know a few prepress people that are fluent in IT, that is not what defines a “good” prepress technician.

    Our company does a sizable volume of VDP and I can tell you that I would not ever let my design people get involved in the data import, cleansing, management, etc. They are brilliant at tooling up a VDP template and sometimes can manage to write some logic into the document but that is it. My opinion is that you need an expert programmer and an expert VDP designer if you want to get anywhere with VDP. You can get by with “Swiss army knife” employees but you will not excel.

  3. Danny

    I’ve been setting up VD jobs for about five years now. I know nothing about IT or programming, and we’ve been very successful. What’s all the fuss about?

  4. Kevin Trye

    I’m a bit of an IT geek and have a good analytical mind. VDP and even prepress is easy for me. But most design people I’ve known are wired differently (bless them), and using databases, troubleshooting workflows, files or formats doesn’t come easily. Like most things in life, different people for different tasks. Prepress technicians can sometimes master VDP, but only those who have a real interest in computers and technology – And usually it will be those who are comfortable using both Macs and Windows PCs.

  5. Nikaj Wiggers

    I think people are confusing IT and the need voor VDP. If VDP has an added value and the end user has needs for it, It will come from a demand. Forget all the tech talk and analytical stuff. If the content need is there IT people will come with the sollution. We have a sollution already selling it for over 6 years. People with only content knowledge work with it.
    In a conventional way we would print 1000 different copies for each end user. Now we select data on the same criteria, but automate the production process.
    The whole data analise part is already done only on a different base.
    Maybe designers have trouble to really think object oriented with content blocks. But do the need to? I don’t think so. Let’s make things easier and don’t try to let people do thinks the are not good at.

    So does VDP need technical skills or do we let people use VDP from there knowledge base and make the tools as easy so the don’t have to be technical at all.

  6. David Avery

    VDP – like all printing is not a one person job. It takes a team.
    VDP requires
    – a good marketing person to shape the message in its various forms.
    – a good data / IT person to make sure the required data is available and in a form that can be used by the VDP engine
    – a good designer that can create – aquire the proper graphic resources and base design to deliver the message
    – a good VDP technition that can create the coding for the VDP engine based on all of the above (proofreading 1000 variations anyone?)
    – a good accountant to ensure that the response is monitored and reported (You want to do another VDP project – why?)
    – a good production system that ensures all records are produced and delivered with confidence (What do you mean some were destroyed in finishing?)
    One person will not have the skills or time to do it all with any degree of quality. It take a team to create good VDP projects.

  7. Bryan Yeager

    Interesting discussion. One point I’d like to stress is that all VDP is not created equal. There are many different applications where VDP can be used that have nothing to do with creating one-to-one marketing pieces or other, more complex applications. Through some of InfoTrends’ research (specifically our e-Enablement study from 2008), we’ve found that one of the most popular solutions for creating variable data print pieces is EFI FreeForm, which can be found on Fiery DFEs. FreeForm uses the concept of merging a master (static) file with an overlay (variable) file to create pieces such as addressed documents, serialized documents, personalized letters, business cards, and many other types of jobs that require VDP for efficient production.

    For many small printers, this solution and ones like it provide enough power to meet their needs. There are many other solutions on the market that meet the varying needs of service providers, from static master/variable overlay types of solutions to full object-oriented design and composition solutions. I would be remiss not to mention that we’ve published an Ultimate Guide that covers many of these VDP solutions on the market.

    The more complex the projects get, the more capable a solution needs to be, and more advanced skills will be needed to execute these projects. I don’t necessarily disagree with what’s been said thus far, but it’s important to put it in perspective. Can VDP be a one-person job? Yes, depending on the application.

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