A look at traditional printing in the 21st century


Why hasn’t paper-based print been replaced with electronic files? Books, magazines, posters, newspapers, brochures, leaflets, and other printed material are technologies that work – they are portable, recyclable, do not need a power supply to operate, and are not prone to software failures. Print can be read anywhere, and the reader can easily go back to check anything not clearly understood. Advertisers like the printed page, because it cannot be switched off in the way television, a computer, or a smart phone can – or blocked, as is the case with popup advertisements on Web sites. Beyond all these reasons, of course, the Internet has also made it easy for many of us to buy more books, posters, and magazines from all parts of the globe. Sometimes the very forces that are supposed to be killing print actually nourish it.

While books thrive in the wake of TV series and movies, printed posters decorate the streets, and our food, technology, health, and beauty products come in beautifully printed packages, there are areas where print is being rapidly replaced by other media. Multivolume print based encyclopaedias, for example, have been superseded by editable online resources, and even podcasts; classified advertisers (particularly recruitment companies) often use the Internet rather than newspapers; direct-mail volumes are in decline in the wake of email and data collection via online portals; newspapers’ online versions compete with the printed ones while magazine publishers are utilising tablet technology to move to digital delivery for a global audience. Today, print certainly has company and the Internet, together with the growing use of broadband has far-reaching effects on all the ‘old’ media and print has to fight to retain it’s share of the global communication market. Despite all this print continues to hold its own in area where other media is less effective.

Developments in information and printing technologies over the last twenty-five years have reinforced print’s position by making it more accessible, quicker, less expensive, and of a more consistent quality. The client or designer now carries out work that previously could only be performed by craftsmen, skilled in a particular aspect of print. This applies particularly in the prepress area that has seen the biggest changes in the past few years. One thing that hasn’t changed is the excitement of being involved in printing. Printed items have to be produced to a deadline, whether they are newspapers for tomorrow’s breakfast tables, or a book to coincide with the launch of a new celebrity chef TV series. Ultimately, the printed word has an authority that other media can only hope to emulate.

Historical Perspective:

Printing started in China with woodblock during the 6th century where words and pictures were carved onto the block. The world’s oldest known printed book The Diamond Sutra was produced in 868 AD and was printed using the woodblock process. From the 11th century printing with individual type characters made out of hardened clay was carried out in China and within 200 years printing from metal type came into use. Metal type was also used in Korea and Japan but its development stalled, as it was not suitable for the ideographic characters used.

The key development was the introduction of movable type by Johannes Gutenberg in 1444, who invented a mold that could cast individual letters. Movable type meant that a text could be proofread and corrected before printing. Each character was cut on a steel punch, from which a matrix (or mold) was made in a softer metal and molten lead, mixed with tin and antinomy, was poured into it to create the character. The characters were then assembled, line-by-line, to make the page and, after printing, the pages were taken apart and the type could be reused.

The wooden press he used was based on the wine press and was of simple construction – the type was locked up in a frame on the bed of the press, inked with ink balls, the sheet of paper placed on top, and then a large handle was pulled to turn a wooden screw which pressed a thick sheet of wood against the paper to create the impression from the type. It would be another 200 years before this basic press design was improved and the ink balls replaced with rollers.

Gutenberg’s system of printing reached England in 1476 and followed the pilgrims to America in 1638. Australia’s first wooden press was brought out with Governor Phillip in 1788 but seven years passed before George Hughes, a young man with some knowledge of printing, was made responsible for putting the plant to work. Government orders were first issued from the press in 1795 and shortly afterwards the first book was printed in Australia entitled Acts and Orders of Governor Hunter, 1795.

The printers in various countries developed many different typefaces, versions of which are still in use today. The next development was presses made of iron rather than wood and featuring a lever mechanism instead of a screw. This was followed by a period of rapid innovation in press design and in 1814, The Times was printed on a steam-driven cylinder press using sheets of paper. The first web-fed press, which printed from a reel of paper, was introduced in America in 1865. However, until the end of the 19th century, he growth of printing was held back by the slowness, and therefore cost, of setting type by hand. A hand compositor could set type about 1,000 characters an hour, meaning newspapers and book printers needed scores of compositors to keep pace with their publishing requirements. This problem was resolved with the invention of the Linotype machine.

The Linotype consisted of a keyboard which, when a character was depressed, caused a brass matrix of that character to drop into a channel and (with spaces inserted) form a line. When the line was complete, molten lead was pumped in to make a solid line of type. Fours years later, in 1890, the Monotype system was developed. This system consisted of two parts – a keyboard produced a punched paper tape, which was then fed into a caster, which cast individual pieces of type in the correct order. Corrections to Monotype setting could now be made by hand, whereas in Linotype setting the whole line had to be reset. With these two machines, type could now be set at typing speed thereby transforming the economics of printing and publishing at that time. Amazingly, both machines were still being used commercially until the 1980s when filmsetting, and subsequently digital typesetting, came into cost effective general use.

Until the late 18th century, illustrations were printed from woodblocks and etchings until the invention of the lithographic printing process. Drawings were made on stone and rather than being in relief or recessed, were on a flat surface. The image was made to print by the mutual aversion between oil and water. It took another one hundred years before the first lithographic press printed on paper using the offset. Offset did not become predominant until the mid-20th century because, prior to the development of filmsetting, type had to be photographed to make a lithographic plate and so printing direct from type on letterpress machines was cheaper.

In 1944, the Monotype Corporation started work on filmsetting (photocomposition) and the Intertype Photosetter was introduced a year later but it wasn’t until the mid 1960s that filmsetting started to be used commercially. Filmsetting machines were much faster than their hot-metal counterparts and avoided the storage of tons of metal type which had to be kept for reprints – plus the money tied up in the cost of the metal. Filmsetting also had the first page layout program, which would eventually lead to desktop publishing in the late 1980s. Filmsetting depended on the first simple computers to deal with the spacing and layout requirements. Most units were standalone systems driven by paper tape of floppy disks produced on separate keyboards. Up to this point everything had been typed twice – once by the original author and again by the typesetter’s keyboard operator. As well as doubling the work, this also meant that the text had to be checked carefully for operator-introduced errors. It was at this stage that the idea of the ‘single keystroke’ was introduced, when authors started using simple wordprocessors and supplied floppy disks rather than typed manuscripts.

Filmsetting helped establish offset lithography as the main printing process, at the expense of letterpress. Offset presses became faster and more sophisticated and web-offset presses (printing from reels of paper rather than sheets) were used for long run products, such as magazines and newspapers. Alongside these developments, new techniques were introduced for colour separation and page makeup of film. The electronic colour scanner developed in the 1960s enabled the high speed scanning of transparencies and flat artwork, producing four-colour separated film in minutes rather than the hours it had taken using process cameras.

The next major development in printing had their origins in the office. The introduction of the personal computer, in particular, the Apple Mac gave birth to desktop publishing that was then taken up by the print industry. The photocopying machine fathered today’s digital printing presses, while email, text files, hypertext, and transfer protocols enabled fast communication of information and the transmission of files over long distances. In recent years, the most significant event in printing was when desktop publishing started to be used for commercial design and printing, rather just in the office for internal documents. Initially, the two main applications were QuarkXPress and PageMaker (the forerunner of InDesign) which were primarily used for text with illustrations while tints were dealt with by conventional means (using overlays and colour markers). Coupled with cheaper colour scanners, desktop publishing applications were soon able to produce a file of the completed job ready for print. Originally these files were output to film on an imagesetter and a lithographic plate was prepared. By the year 2000, most work was produced by CTP (computer to plate) technology which bypassed the film making process and imaged direct to the printing plate.

The greatest modern advance in file processing is the cross-platform PDF. Where designers used to send application or PostScript files to prepress suppliers, completed work is being supplied in Portable Document Format. This has greatly simplified the workflow, for example, a designer can design a job, saved it to a PDF and email it to the client for approval. Clients can access the PDF via Adobe’s free Reader program and upon approval the job can be supplied to the printer’s prepress department via PDF. An advantage of PDF is that it is difficult to alter, making it rare for mistakes to be introduced at prepress or printing. Programs like Acrobat pro can alter content if required although it’s usually quicker and more economical to request a new file from the creator. The common use of broadband Internet access means that all but the very largest files can be sent by email or FTP (file transfer protocol). Web sites like WeTransfer.com allow free file transfers at up to 2GB per session – which avoids the delay and cost in sending files to printers by courier, particularly when that printer resides at an international address.

Print on Demand:

The ease at which files can be transferred around the globe also opens up new possibilities when it comes to print. Digital printing is a widely available and cost effective solution for short run and personalised (variable data) printing. Print on Demand (P.O.D.) has enabled publishers to economically print as few as a single copy rather than having to print hundreds and store them in a warehouse. The term P.O.D. is mainly used in relation to book publishing and printing. Traditional book publishing suffers from the problem that it is uneconomical to print short runs. This is because the preparatory costs (prepress, platemaking and make-ready on the printing press) are spread across the quantity printed, meaning that runs of a few hundred result in high production cost and therefore a prohibitive retail price. This was usually more of a problem on reprints rather than new titles. The issue has largely been solved by the development of digital printing and specialist offset litho equipment designed for short runs, backed up by suitable finishing and binding equipment.

True print on demand is where the publisher holds no stock at all and the book is printed in response to a customer order, even if only one copy is required. To achieve this, the publisher supplies the printer with digital files (usually PDFs) of the cover or dust jacket and text and these are held on the printer’s database to be retrieved immediately when required. Orders are placed electronically, so that a request from a consumer, bookseller or wholesaler can trigger the printing automatically and produce invoices minimising administration costs. Most specialist short-run printers offer fulfilment services, meaning once the publisher has put the book on the printer’s database, orders can go direct to the printer and the publisher simply receives a statement each month from the printer detailing the receipts and production costs, along with any necessary payments.

This model doesn’t work for every type of publication – a mass-market paperback book would have too low a retail price to justify printing on short-run equipment. However, for academic, legal, technical and reference book, the concept has revolutionised the economics of the business and bought back into print hundreds of thousands of titles, which would have been previously unavailable. Printing on demand has also enabled much more accessible ‘self-publishing’. Before short runs were economical, someone who wanted to publish a book that wouldn’t be accepted by a conventional publisher had to go to a ‘vanity publisher’ who would print several hundred copies in order to reduce the per unit costs, even though these might not all sell, and charge a fee for the editorial and design work – all of which made self-publishing an expensive exercise.

A telling statistic is that 50% of all published books with an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) sell fewer than 250 copies, so the potential market for short-run printing is vast.