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History of Digital Prepress

The next time you find yourself flipping through a brochure, consider this: between design and printing, there is a step that must occur before a brochure will ever become ink on paper. It is a process that most of us dont know about, but without this communication technology, printed materials would not exist. Prepress is the term used to describe the preparation of visual information, specifically text, photos and graphics, for the printing press. Digital prepress is visual information taking on an electronic form in order to output film for printing. Over 75 percent of all prepress work is now being done digitally in the graphic arts world.1 Technology Historically, prepress houses used a system of mechanical boards, pasteups and conventional cameras to output film suitable for the printing press.2 With the introduction of the Apple IIgs in 1984, projects were not only being designed on computer, but software was developed that would convert digital files into press ready information. Today, prepress houses are able to work with large, complex files to produce film with special screenings, drop shadows, four-color images, traps and bleeds. This results in beautifully crafted pieces with lifelike photographs, sharp text and stunning graphics, all creating visual interest for the reader.3 The prepress process begins with the creation of digital artwork saved in a software layout program such as QuarkExpress, the industry standard. The file is given to a prepress house, where transparencies of photos are drum scanned, turned into high resolution digital information, downloaded onto a disk and output on thick specialty paper for proofing. At this stage, color correction (minor adjustments) or retouching (major additions or deletions to an image) are done in Adobe Photoshop, an image manipulation and special effects software program. The high resolution images are dropped into the layout and a sent to the preflight department, where disks are scrutinized, with specialized software, like Extensis ProFlight, for corruption, missing logos, fonts and correct color.4 Once a file has passed thorough inspection, it is sent through a complex computer network to an imagesetter, a computer controlled device that outputs images as a pattern of millions of tiny dots on photographic paper that will be developed into film. Business The worldwide printing consumables market, including film, plates and proofing materials, is a $5 billion industry.5 With companies needing to produce more and more promotional materials to market their goods and services, quality prepress work has become critical. Growth in this industry is inevitable, but it is an expensive proposition. With client needs expanding, prepress houses must stay current on changing technology and make shrewd, timely investments in software and equipment.6 Macintosh hardware continues to dominate this segment of the market, to the point that many prepress houses will reject PC files because of consistent problems with this format.7 The education of employees on new technology is a critical business strategy that prepress houses must employ to stay viable in the industry. While companies are busy investing in expensive equipment, they must also be investing in the training of employees that is required to run this hardware. Applications High end print jobs would not exist without the preparation of digital files and the creation of film by prepress houses, which are the two main applications for this industry. This is a behind the scenes function that is the link between design and printing. Both designer and printer rely heavily upon the prepress house to produce quality film that will manifest itself into an ad, brochure or coupon.

Driving Forces Customer needs are the driving force in this industry and their expectations always exceed reality. The customers standard objective is to create something that is unique that will break through the clutter and make their brochure or package stand out. In order to achieve this goal, which also requires that jobs be done faster, better and more cost effectively, digital prepress is constantly challenging high tech companies to develop more advanced hardware and software, stronger networking systems and better proofing materials that will produce high quality output for the customer. Policy Experts in this field are unable to define any clear policy relating to digital prepress, due to constant changes in technology. The main goal of the prepress house is giving the client what they want, which can be limitless. Even simple policies, such as set pricing, cannot be determined, as every file that is worked on is different, making it impossible for a prepress house to establish a rate card.8 Opportunities, Problems and Prospects One undeniable problem that looms in the near future for digital prepress houses is the evolution of computer to plate (CTP) printing, which eliminates the need for film in the printing process.9 This will dramatically reduce the revenue of the prepress house. In 1998, this process is best suited for rush jobs on small paper sizes, but in time, the technology will reach a point where film will only be needed for very specialized print jobs. In order to offset major losses due to CTP, prepress houses have focused on three main opportunities: database management, Internet services and digital photography. Database management, or archiving, is a benefit to clients who need to digitally capture, store and transfer logos, photos and graphics, but do not have the server space or time to maintain a digital library.10 The prepress house can insure that images are in the right place, at the right time, in the right format and are accessible over the Internet. By reusing images that have been scanned, retouched and optimized, businesses can share their marketing materials cost efficiently and feel confident that a consistent, up-to-date marketing message is being communicated to their customers. Digital prepress houses are also developing Internet design services and purchasing servers to become Internet service providers, as another means of combating the CTP revolution. The Internet will become a common communication link between clients and prepress houses by using telecommunications and increasing bandwidth technology to transmit proofs, archived data and even receive print jobs. Compatibility issues arise with equipment and software, as clients tend to have less robust capabilities than the prepress house and may not be able to receive massive amounts of data that would be required for some files. Digital photography studios are also being setup in many prepress houses to service clients who have needs that are suitable for this format. They are investing thousands of dollars in digital cameras that create dramatic time and cost savings for their customers by eliminating scanning and film output, while being able to make immediate color corrections on screen. In the next five years, the digital prepress industry will see more change than it has in the past ten.11 If companies in this industry want to stay afloat, they must stay adaptive, flexible and at the forefront of technology.

NOTES
1. Digital prepress is the process of moving digital files around on a network as a part of the workflow. Almost all color houses are now conducting this workflow on a system of networked computers. (Romano) 2. The history of prepress has been an evolution from the phototype era to the current digital era. There are many changes in the near future for this process. (Beals) 3. Industry experts agree that it is becoming more difficult for their clients to get the attention of the consumer due to an explosion of printed material in the market. The digital prepress process and all of its capabilities is one part of the process that can help to differentiate a customers marketing piece. (DeMarco) 4. Preflight software such as Extensis Preflight Pro is used throughout the industry for preparing files to go to film. Software packages such as this help to automate repetitive production processes, manage fonts and create preflight reports. 5. Even with the onset of CTP, revenue from film use has increased in the past year. More extensive design work is requiring additional pieces of film and printing on large presses often promote the use of more film. (Romero) 6. Businesses are charged with the responsibility of thorough research and development of computer systems. Many prepress houses hire experts whose full time job is the research of technological advancements as they apply to new products entering the market. Timing the market is critical, because a piece of equipment that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars today could be put on mothballs tomorrow. (DeMarco) The industry is under the influence of technology. (Romano) 7. During recent technology seminars, users were polled on the use of Mac versus PC platforms. An overwhelming majority expressed loyalty to the Mac. Very few prepress houses are moving to PC, which puts pressure on graphic designers to work only in Mac. (Beals) 8. Industry experts are hard pressed to determine any policies in this field. There are so many discrepancies that standards rates for prepress work cannot be set. (DeMarco) 9. CTP is touted as being able to print faster, at lower costs, with fewer materials, thus reducing stress on the environment, with better quality than standard printing. The one catch is that in order to realize all of these benefits, a company must be completely immersed in this technology. (Bury) 10. The prepress house of the future will likely be a database management solution for companies that need to archive large files that can be updated and shared. (Beals) 11. Within the next five years, prepress houses will undergo many changes and can stay competitive if there is enough emphasis on education, research and flexibility. (Beals) REFERENCES Beals, S. (October 1997) Service bureaus of today, Desktop Publishers: 64-5. Beals, S. (November/December 1997) Service bureaus of tomorrow, Desktop Publishers: 60-1. Bury, S. (January/February 1998) Where CTP is working now, Desktop Publishers: 20-7. DeMarco, J. (20 March 1998) Interview on digital color prepress Di Toro, L. (February 1998) Top processes keep firm growing, Electronic Publishing: 44. Dropkin, R. (January 1998) Color management tool slashes time, Electronic Publishing: 50. Harrigan, B. (January/February 1998) Focus on the net, Desktop Publishers: 8. Joss, M. (January 1998) The outlook for 1998, Electronic Publishing: 26-32. Menten, N. (January/February 1998) Unlock the potential of your archives, Desktop Publishers: 52-6. Romano, F. (February 1998) The times they are a -changin, Electronic Publishing: 12. Ross, Robert C. (October 1997) Satisfactory solutions, Desktop Publishers: 82. Sakhuja, S.and Hunt, E. (1996) An Introduction to Digital Color Prepress, Agfa Educational Publishing. Webb, J. and Whittington, J., (January 1998) Creatives and digital presses, Electronic Publishing: 18.