Out with prepress, in with premedia

In the good old days — say, before 2004 — the prepress process was an unavoidable stop on the road to producing a printed catalog. Slow, cumbersome, and expensive, prepress required a high level of technical expertise and created extra steps and delays.

But in the past few years, prepress has given way to premedia. It’s still a necessary stop, but the premedia process does more, costs less, and is easier to use than the old prepress procedures were. What’s more, additional advances are coming down the pike that promise to make the experience even less traumatic than ever before.

“Prepress” — the catchall term covering everything that must be done before a job actually goes to press — includes design and concepts; drafting the titles, the headlines, and the text; putting the copy on pages; and choosing or creating the accompanying photos and graphics. The completed page layouts are then printed out for proofreading to correct errors in content and colors. We now use the term “premedia” rather than “prepress” because the same principles and processes have gone beyond traditional printed catalogs to cover Websites, e-mail campaigns, and other media.

There are three major areas in premedia to which multichannel marketers should pay particularly close attention: virtual proofing, asset management, and online layout and security.

Virtual proofing

The most notable advances have come in the realm of proofreading, also known as proofing. The new technology, called virtual proofing, comes in two flavors: content and color. The former is now in wide use, while the latter has so far been picked up by just a handful of organizations.

Virtual content proofing offers a high-powered alternative to the decades-old tradition of running off hard-copy proofs and shipping them to proofreaders, who sit at desks, red pencil in hand, to identify errors in the copy. Somebody then has to coordinate all the corrected proofs, pass judgment on the suggested changes and corrections, and give the final okay. And if someone wants to make a substantial change to a product offering, too bad: The proofing stage is generally for fixing errors only, as it usually costs extra to make content changes at this late stage. Time is always a problem too; in order to have printing begin on Monday morning, the corrected proofs have to be back to the printer Friday. But factor in courier time to the proofreaders, then to the person giving final approval, and finally to the printer, and an already tight time frame gets even narrower.

In virtual proofing of content, proofreaders access the content on their PCs using intuitive software with a Web browser-style interface. They can make changes, annotations, or just suggestions, using software that requires only a modest learning curve. There is no time lost to shipping so there are no more all-nighters. Content changes can also be made more quickly and easily than under the old system. Add a product, do away with an entire page, or change a graphic, and you can resubmit and review your pages without penalties. And since the proofs are always online, they can always be accessed at your convenience rather than when the courier delivers them.

The final-approval cycle also moves online, offering reduced time lines to production. One national grocery chain has used this system to shave a full day off the premedia cycle for its weekly fliers. This savings also means clients can generate localized materials for a variety of geographic or demographic markets in the same time it used to take to generate just one version.

The system also costs less — sometimes a great deal less — than traditional proofing. For starters, it does away with the need to produce expensive hard-copy proofs and to ship them to staff. Instead, clients can examine proofs on hardware they already own and on Internet connections for which they’ve already paid.

Virtual proofing of color is considerably more specialized and requires a more substantial up-front investment in high-end graphic computer equipment to meet specifications for accurate color rendering. For instance, your computer needs to have at least the power of a Macintosh G5. You’ll also need a high-quality LCD monitor so that color does not shift or fade, as well as software and monitor calibration equipment. If you’re starting from scratch, your total investment would be around $6,000-$8,000 per seat.

But while the up-front cost can seem significant, it must be weighed against the cost of hard-copy color proofs, which can range from $30 to $60 a pop. Multiply that by several copies, add shipping, and then factor in catalog frequency. If you’re turning out a catalog each month, you might want to take a serious look at virtual color proofing. Then, too, virtual proofing — of content or color — can save you manhours, which allows you to free up personnel to focus on other media offerings such as marketing Websites and e-mail campaigns.

One caveat regarding virtual color proofing: Though the system works well for most catalog applications, we don’t recommend it for fashion or fabric books. Colors for these materials often depend on the texture of the fabric, ambient lighting, and batch dyes at the production level. Errors in color accuracy of even just a few percentage points would jeopardize the value of the catalog.

Asset management

A key and increasingly popular aspect of premedia is archival storage of images, graphics, and photos into what we call a vault, an online repository that allows for speedy retrieval from anywhere. No more searching hither and yon for an image last used two years ago — go to the vault, and there it is.

Getting image files into and out of the vault is simpler too. Current processes allow for automated batch-handling of graphics files. In the old days you’d have cut-out images of products to mount physically on page paste-ups. Now you use a computer image in GIF or JPEG format. And if you want the same image from your weekly flier to appear on your Website, the batch process automatically converts and stores images in formats ranging from, say, 300 dots per inch (DPI), suitable for print, to a 72-DPI resolution more appropriate to the Web. And all batch conversions are stored in the vault for easy access.

Online layout and security

Modern premedia techniques also offer online storage of templates for different products. One template can, for example, cover the style requirements — typefaces, images, page layouts — for the annual catalog, while a second can contain the design for seasonal editions, and a third for weekly fliers. These templates ensure adherence to corporate style requirements as well as make it far simpler and speedier to generate a new printed product.

And with templates and online software, publishers can move to multiple layout teams under the online supervision of a design chief. A hardware store catalog, for example, could have one team working on the furniture pages, another on lighting, and a third on garden supplies. As all teams are working off templates, stylistic consistency is not a problem. And because more teams are working simultaneously, neither is lead time.

A three-stage security system addresses concerns about the safety of putting all this material online. The first is https, the secure Internet protocol used by banks and online merchants to provide secure encryption. The second is a system of user IDs and passwords, again like those used at other secure online sites. These two stages meet the needs of 99% of clients; you can also add another level of encryption to provide military-grade security.

Coming down the pike

Looking to the future, we anticipate that virtual color proofing will go mainstream. Another exciting prospect is Adobe’s Extensible Metadata Platform (XMP), a labeling technology that allows users to embed data about a file, known as metadata, into the file itself. This offers desktop applications and back-end publishing systems a common method for capturing, sharing, and leveraging these valuable metadata, which previously had to be stored in separate and complicated databases.

By embedding the data right in the image file, you will no longer need to maintain databases. Images will have extreme portability and will be used easily across a variety of applications, from print to online. XMP is available today in most Adobe software, but it’s still in development for premedia workflow applications.

Premedia will also increasingly be linked to data analytics, which will help marketers in determining the best pitch for each audience segment. Look for far more intensely focused marketing materials that generate higher returns, all emanating from the same small but powerful premedia facilities, using more automation to produce more content with fewer people and fewer dollars.

Nicky Milner is vice president of the Premedia Group of Montreal-based printer Transcontinental.

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