That question has been front of mind for most of the last week after I first encountered it on the In The Balance Blog.1 It seem an especially pertinent as I prepared for my interviews at the School of Print Media. There is little question in my mind that print is sexy — though limiting it to just being sexy seems to do it a bit of a disservice. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to recognize the printing press, and the dissemination of the printed word, as the most important technological advance of the last millennium. Likewise, the translation and reproduction of thought and knowledge in the printed page is at once an intellectual and a sensual process. And, as I’ve previously posted, there is something inherently sexy about machines that can print, in perfect registration, at speeds approaching 60 miles an hour. Finally, I think there can be little doubt that the products of the process can be sexy as well — the US Supreme Court, among others, has spent quite a bit of time trying to decide exactly how sexy printed materials can be.2

The question at hand is whether or not the printing industry is sexy. I seem to think that it once was, though that may be misplaced nostalgia for bygone days of stripping and before that of hot metal and letterpress. As I delve further into its present state, I see sexy aspects to the current industry — I’m just not sure how we we are taking advantage of them. In my view, tied up in the question of sexiness is a return to the tension between craft and automation. I find the day-to-day sexy — if there is such a beast — is contained in the craft and is embodied in the connection between the printer, her equipment, and the product they are producing. The problem we face is that automation has often disrupted those relationships and, as an industry, we haven’t compensated for those changes.3

Over the past hundred and fifty years, more and more aspects of the craft of printing have transitioned out of the print shop. Take for example prepress. At one time, the printer would receive handwritten (or perhaps typed) text and loose illustrations. the barest of building blocks for a job, and through the alchemy of their craft, the printer would transform these elements into a finished book. Slowly, with the introduction of photo typesetting and new printing processes, the art began to come to the printer in more and more complete forms. Still, as late as the mid 1990’s, it was up to the printer to take these break down these elements and reassemble them into the job.

Today, thanks to desktop publishing, much of that process has been automated.4 And in that transition, and countless others like it, we have lost more and more of the traditional craft of printing. Granted, new technology has developed new craft areas, but not at the same rate as what is lost. Nor necessarily are these new crafts quite as diverse. This, in my mind, has led the industry to feeling less sexy.

The challenge we face is to bring more craft back into the printing industry. This doesn’t mean that we return to Linotypes. While automation might provide technical and production parity (or something close to it), the sexy is found in new areas of differentiation. We need to reclaim areas of the production cycle that moved out of the print shop. One area where this contains immediate opportunities is in the area of Variable Data Print (and Publishing). This is an example of an area where printers can develop new crafts, advising their clients in the structuring of data, the development of offers, and the optimization of design. Granted this may involve moving out of comfort zones and taking a few risks here and there. Isn’t danger an inherent part of sexy?

1 – Ever since Adam listed me on his printing blog Printmode, Waking Dream has been appearing in the side bars of a number of industry sites. The net of this is that I really have to get my tail in gear and get to researching and writing on the industry.

2 – I’m not trying to conflate sexiness with pornography. There is little doubt in my mind that they are two different things. That said, they are often bound up together and their edges sometimes blur.

3 – I am not arguing against automation. Its a powerful tool. But being a tool it also is a subtle form of trap, and needs to be acknowledged as such.

4 – This is not to say that prepress and preflighting have gone away entirely. Nor am I suggesting that most clients get the prepress aspects right. Still from all the evidence I’ve seen there are far less prepress workers today than there were at the height of mechanical stripping.