Digital Original: Dear John, Is My Computer Too Old?

As a consultant and Quick Printing columnist, I daily receive emails and telephone calls from quick printers concerning the operations of their prepress department. This month I wanted to share some of the answers to common questions. Even though desktop publishing is more than 25 years old, many printers still face challenges.

Luckily, the updates and advancements in prepress are slowing down as printers attempt to get their arms around the computer power they have. In the coming year, the emphasis will be on automating PDF workflows and integrating Web-based services with the prepress department. Here are the answers to some of the common questions I receive.

Q: I have an Apple Mac G4 that is doing a good job, but getting long in the tooth. Is it time to upgrade my computer?
A: It is time. The new iMacs have the Intel processor that is required to run the latest versions of Adobe Creative Suite. The computers are economical and come with a large screen. The Mac Pro is overkill for most printers. Even if you are getting by with the older Mac, you’re losing productivity time in both computer speed and upgrade software advantages.

Q: I’m looking for a new computer for prepress and I’m trying to decide between a Mac and a PC. Does the Mac still have an advantage over PCs in prepress?
A: Both the Mac and the PC will work well in a prepress environment. The decision doesn’t depend as much on the actual platform as it does your fonts, software, and staff. Many printers have a big investment in fonts for a particular platform. To move from one platform to another may require purchasing new fonts. The software is also a consideration. While most printers run both Macs and PCs in prepress, one platform is usually the favorite and has all the supporting software. Before you change computer platforms, make sure you know what the costs will be to make the new platform your primary computer. You’ll also want to get input from your staff as to which platform they are more comfortable using. Some training may be required if you go from one platform to another.

Q: Should I upgrade my Adobe Creative Suite to the latest version?
A: This question is coming up a lot since Adobe ended its special Print Service Providers Program in February. The program offered Adobe software at a low yearly subscription price. Since Adobe ended the special discount for printers, any major upgrades will now cost printers money and Creative Suite 5 was released in April. Printers now have to go through retail channels to purchase Adobe software.

Many printers are finding CS4 still meets many of their needs since the jump to CS5 came only 18 months after the CS4 release. The pressure for printers will come when their customers begin to submit native CS5 files. Printers should be asking for PDF files rather than native files, so the version shouldn’t be an issue. For production, any printer doing a lot of Photoshop and Web design will want to upgrade to CS5. If you are working in CS4, you can get value out of the software for a few more months. If you are working in something older, bite the bullet and get the upgrade to CS5.

Q: Do I really need to have a font management program on my computer?
A: Font management remains one of the toughest things printers must deal with on the computer. You need to get something to organize the hundreds of fonts you have. Popular font management programs include Extensis Suitcase Fusion and Insider Software’s FontAgent. Both companies support both the Mac and PC. A popular Mac-only font management system is FontExplorer from Linotype. All of the companies have server systems and FontExplorer’s server system includes a Windows client. The companies all support plug-ins for the popular prepress software to automate font activation when a file is open.

By organizing the fonts you will improve the performance of your computer. Fonts will only be opened when needed and they will be easier for the operator to find. Without the inexpensive application, prepress operators can spend hours searching for the right font. Accidently inserting the wrong font can lead to layout changes and rejected jobs. The computer will run slower because it is keeping fonts organized in the background. Save time and money by have a font management program.

Q: What’s wrong with getting customer files attached to email messages?
A: Email attachments should be the last choice for receiving a file for print. The best way to receive a file from a customer is to use an automatic PDF creation program that creates the PDF file and sends the file to the printing company. Getting a correctly created PDF file eliminates most file problems and allows the printer to automate his workflow. If customers want to transmit a native file, they should be using an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) site. All of the website services for printers include an FTP site as part of their package, and most of the website services offer an automatic PDF creation program for an additional price.

Email attachments are the worst way to communicate with customers. An email may hit several servers on its way to its final destination and the attachment could be corrupted. Some email providers limit the size of the attachment, so a customer may send a file only to have it stripped away by his Internet service provider. The majority of email attachments may cause no problems, but having just a few with problems can cripple a prepress department and cause delays for the customer.

Q: I’m just a small printer. Do I really need a website?
A: In today’s world, if you are a business without a website, then you really aren’t considered a professional business. Many potential customers will search the Internet before they contact a business. The impression your website leaves with the customer will decide whether you get their job.

Customers are more sophisticated, so your website needs to be functional. The website services specializing in printing companies offer fully functional websites that include FTP sites, customer portals, automatic PDF creation programs, shopping carts, and much more. A printer whose website is basically a Yellow Pages ad isn’t going to attract today’s print buyer. Your website has to focus on the benefits to the customer.

Sadly, many printers aren’t even taking advantage of the functions in the off the shelf products. They turn the site on and then forget it. Even small printers can make a big impression if they teach their customers how to use their website to make print buying easier. Make sure you upgrade your site on a regular basis.

Q: Where can you get training on prepress?
A: Many printers have to train their own prepress personnel. Too often the training is: “Here is the software application. Here is a job. I need a proof by tomorrow.” Even the most experienced prepress people have trouble keeping up with all the changes in the software, so training is critical if you want to take advantage of the time saving features of a program.

Prepresstraining.com, Lydna.com, and VTC.com offer comprehensive training in the popular software applications for prepress. Available through a monthly subscription fee or by the course, the online training features self-paced classes that should prepare an employee for almost any prepress situation.

In addition to paid training, the software application vendors usually include a number of free tutorials at their websites. YouTube is a popular spot for online training. If you need to know how to perform a specific task in Adobe Creative Suite, Quark, or Microsoft, just do a search at YouTube.com and you’ll find a solution. If you are an Enfocus Pitstop user, you’ll want to check out the training videos at its site.

The biggest reason most people aren’t trained is that management won’t provide the time on the job to take the online tutorials. If you want to increase the efficiency of your prepress department, just let the staff spend three hours a week doing training. It will more than pay for itself.

Q: I have a full time graphic designer, but she only stays busy a few hours a day. Do I need a full time designer?
A: Because the Internet breaks down geographic barriers, a printer no longer needs have a full time graphic designer. There are a number of services online that will provide quality typesetting, logos, and design at a reasonable cost. Most of these services also offer 24-hour turnaround on many of their services. Just Google “online typesetting services” and you will find pages of listings for companies that do quick typesetting at low prices. Guru.com provides access to hundreds of graphic designers who will bid on your work. It even publishes the designer’s hourly rates and minimums along with samples of their work. Many printers would find it profitable to use outside design services and just mark up the bill.

Q: I keep reading about how printers can increase productivity by automating their workflow. What is the first step in automating my prepress department?
A: The first thing you have to do before adding an automated workflow system is to become comfortable with PDF files and the editing tools available. Most customers understand what a PDF file is, but few have been told the proper way to create a printable PDF file. Printers will have to establish procedures for the customers and teach them the right way to create a file. You will want to invest in PDF editing programs such as Enfocus Pitstop or Quite Imposing.

One way to get good PDF files is to use an automatic PDF file creator. A PDF creator program will construct a file based on standards set by the printer. If the customers want to create their own PDF files using Adobe Acrobat, then the printer can provide them with a customized Job Option to use. Automation systems are getting easier to use and less expensive. The time savings can have a big impact on a printer’s bottom line.

Q: I want to provide my customers with Quick Response codes, but sometimes the QR codes I create don’t work. Why do some customers have trouble with QR codes?
A: It probably isn’t you causing the problem; it’s the reader’s phones. The ability to easily read a QR code depends on the quality of the camera in the smartphone. Smartphones with automatic focus seem to read QR codes easier. Smartphones with a fixed lens camera will be harder to focus, particularly on smaller QR codes. Some reader software is reported to do a better job reading QR codes than other software applications. You can expect smartphones and QR readers to continue to get better as QR code use grows. Most smartphones now preinstall QR code readers so more people will have the ability to read QR codes right out of the box.

Q: I have a good graphics person, but he continues to make simple errors. What do you do about a designer who can’t spell?
A: The first response to misspellings is to be sure that the designer is using the spell check feature in the software program. This won’t solve all the problems, but it will pick up many of the typos. Just don’t expect spell check to solve the problem. Spell check isn’t perfect and it isn’t going to catch all mistakes. The biggest problem with errors is that everyone is trying to rush the job through the shop is the shortest possible time.

Printers need to have production procedures that allow a second set of eyes to proof all work done by the prepress personnel. Most people will find it very difficult to proof their own work immediately after creating it. If a person is reviewing their own work, it should be set aside for some time before it is proofed. Most printers don’t have this luxury, so a standard procedure should be for the CSR or someone else proof the work done by prepress person. That second person will find mistakes. This doesn’t mean that the prepress person is a bad speller or a poor worker. It is hard to produce perfect work in a rush environment. You want at least two people checking all work created in house before sending it to the customer for proofing.

John Giles is the author of “12 Secrets for Digital Success” and “The DTP PriceList.” He is technology director and a consultant for CPrint International. Contact him at 954/224-1942 or john@johngiles.com. You can also find John on Twitter.com (Search for JohnG247) and Linkedin.com. You can also find out more by visiting www.johngiles.com. Read John’s blog at www.quickprinting.com/interactive.

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