Variable data printing for the rest of us?

Dynamic publishing may be the next big thing, but if it’s to really take off, the likes of Quark and Adobe must provide designers with better tools.

Traditional print design is normally all about nailing things down with millimeter precision, polishing layouts and adjusting things to watchmaker-levels of accuracy. In some respects web design is rather different; anyone who’s worked in that field knows that you have to put together layouts flexibly and defensively. Browser versions, platform differences and rendering quirks will all push layouts around without so much as a by-your-leave – it is enough to make a cowgum paste-up veteran long for the old days. Almost, anyway.

Web specialists learn to take this in their stride, and as a result many regard print as an inflexible medium. I mean, you can’t reflow text in a newspaper if someone turns the thing sideways, and – more importantly – you can’t customise the content on the fly. Ink on paper is a fixed thing, right? Well, not entirely, not any more.

Okay, yes, ink is fixed once it is on the page. But Variable Data Print means you can chop and change what’s put on the page much later on through the production process. You can change it as often as every individual print if you like. Put simply, this basically a form of mail-merging, writ large. Put more accurately, it is potentially far more complex and capable than churning through a stack of letters in Word, and it can involve customising images as well as text. With certain kit and setups, that can be even to the point of when the printing equipment is churning through a job. This kind of work relies completely on digital presses; it would be ruinously expensive and time-consuming to swap things around all the time in traditional setups. Three or so years ago this meant print runs of maybe 5000 or less before scale economics swung against it. Today that’s easily doubled to runs of 10,000 or more, and output can be the equal of traditional offset litho. High-end products such as HP’s various Indigo digital presses merge the technologies of inkjet, laser and elements of traditional offset litho printing, and they can have the content of each print pass change, as a matter of course.

Hybrid approaches can also be used, especially for larger jobs. This typically means printing all but the variable content with traditional equipment and then running the result through some kind of one-colour digital press to add the varying bits. This is often done at the lower end of the market for direct mail that has the recipient’s name slipped in gratuitously, but it is also used in less junky ways. There are many examples of this work around us, and the clever stuff is what you don’t spot as easily.

Learning to design for variable data print can be a lot like learning to design CMS-driven web sites – and for exactly the same reasons. Instead of taking specific, predefined text and graphics and arranging them artfully on the page for a highly-specific result, you have to work with data ranges and images that will change from print to print. Like database-driven web design, content is shuffled in and out on demand, as it is actually published. You can use samples of the data to check your designs, but the whole point is that there’s not just the one final end result. In fact, if there’s some kind of scripted logic mixing things in and out based on various different factors the possible permutations of the different contents can be enormous. If you’re used to print design and production and you’re new to this it might feel a bit like working blindfolded. The thing is, this is a big part of the future of print design – so you’d better get used to it! Increasingly, designers will need to understand designing for template solutions rather than only bespoke layouts. Possibly the biggest problem is that this involves crossing disciplines (between creative and coder), which is a fundamental challenge to all and sundry. In one sense it is just a glorified form of mail-merging. But the actual data-shuffling needs to be done at the printer, not in the design studio.

Exactly how is this done? Unfortunately, that’s not so easy to say. There are tools around that help designers create dynamic, variable-data-friendly layouts with placeholders ready for content. XMPie provides some – uDirect, uImage and uChart for starters – and Bitstream, no longer ‘just’ a font company,  produces something called PageFlex. There are others, but you probably haven’t heard of them either. And then there’s the content itself, held in databases and passed out in measured portions on coded request. This, as any marketeer knows, is today’s gold dust.

Behind the scenes we’re talking about XML, or at least we should be. With every design and content element tagged, the thinking goes, we will be able to swap things in and out of layouts with carefree abandon. XML is an open and extensible (sorry, eXtensible) way to tag and identify anything and everything. Then, the same thinking continues, we can publish whatever, wherever, whenever. Marketing nivana, multi-publishing xanadu, CRM heaven, and so on.

So what’s wrong with this picture? First, the names that are core to the mainstream creative industries are missing. It doesn’t matter that today’s solutions do actually work, or that some can tap into PostScript or PDF workflows or even appear inside our page layout apps, they aren’t there in the standard setups. Second, the methods and technologies are often almost painfully hard to understand, let alone implement. The fact is, until good, easy tools for dynamic publishing and variable data printing are part of our standard design software packages this variable data stuff just isn’t going to be ‘normal’ in the design production world.

Is this the fault of Quark and Adobe, the two biggest and best-known names in publishing software? It is a tough nut to crack, and both companies have been working on it in their own ways for some time. But perhaps not terribly creatively.

Adobe added a Variables panel to Illustrator some years ago, to almost universal confusion. It didn’t help that the early demos of this feature weren’t exactly inspiring, nor that the terms “Unbind Variable” and “Capture Data Set” weren’t going to set designers’ imaginations alight. I’m sure it is used somewhere, but not in any studio I’ve seen. InDesign has very powerful XML structuring tools that make it possible to do amazing things – if you can figure out how. Which almost nobody I’ve met can. Quark is taking this stuff seriously too, although it relies more on server software, plugins and the like than built-in tricks at this time. Powerful stuff, but not simple.

So we’re left in an unenviable sutiation: the importance of this digital print-driven variable-data, multi-channel publishing direction is huge, but it is just as hugely difficult to integrate into today’s design tools and workflows. Gavin Drake, Quark’s UK Marketing Manager at the time (now VP of Marketing), said at a recent event that “everyone wants dynamic publishing but few accept the pain.” How true this is, on every front. Most designers don’t like database technicalities and can’t even begin to figure it out, many printers are in the same boat, and the tool makers themselves still haven’t achieved their eureka moment of making something that Just Works. I wonder when that day will come.

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