Production Page: Evolutionor Revolution?

Mechanicals. Waxers. Live type. Nonrepro pencils. If you’ve been in the industry for fewer than 10 years, those terms may mean nothing to you. But if you were involved in producing catalogs 20 years ago, they were once as much a part of your day-to-day existence as e-mail, Microsoft Word, FTPs, and digital photography are today.

Thanks to technological developments that the creative directors and paste-up artists of 20 years ago could scarcely have imagined, the time needed to produce a print catalog has been reduced by at least 50%.

And while the initial investments in technology can cost tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars, savings in certain areas can enable catalogers to see a return on their investment in a matter of months. For instance, eight years ago a cataloger might have spent $400 to have part of a photo manipulated with color or prop changes. Today a company can make such changes itself using PhotoShop software, a staple production tool.

Discussing every significant production change of the past 20 years could fill a book — and no doubt has. But let’s look at some of the high points of the production evolution…or should that be revolution?

Page design and layout

In the 1980s, creative teams developed mechanicals for page layouts. Typesetters ran out sheets of copy, which paste-up artists painstakingly cut and waxed onto boards. Tissue overlays indicated color breaks, recalls Stanley Rosen, team leader of print solutions for Vancouver-based prepress equipment provider Creo, and typos were fixed by waxing re-typeset copy onto the mechanicals.

These boards, along with spec sheets full of instructions for the printer, were sent by parcel carrier to the printer. The process was painstaking and the boards were huge, making them a precious commodity, recalls Janie Downey, owner of PublishExperts, a production consulting firm in Cumberland, ME. If a board was damaged or lost in the shipping process — well, it wasn’t pretty.

Then came desktop computers, and the following enhancements:

  • Desktop publishing software

    The introduction of software programs such as PageMaker in 1985 and Illustrator in 1987 automated page design on computers. By the mid-1990s QuarkXPress became the preferred platform.

    Downey remembers being at Beverly, MA-based women’s apparel mailer Appleseed’s when Macs first came out. “A local computer hardware dealer helped me purchase the necessary computers and printers, and taught me how to network them,” she says. By 1990, Appleseed’s had two designers producing page layouts on the Macs using Quark.

  • Digital workflow

    Up until the late 1980s, production workflow consisted primarily of the production chief running the mechanicals or photocopies around the office so that those involved in creating the catalog could mark up the boards with their changes. Then the changes had to be sent to the typesetter; the newly output type was then affixed to the mechanical, which was then sent around the office again.

But once desktop publishing software enabled the creative team to design catalogs on computers, other aspects of the production process were converted to the computer as well. By the mid-1990s, portable document formats (PDFs) had become a part of print production and pointed to the future possibility of a completely digital workflow. A universal format, PDF can be read and edited by users of virtually all types of computer hardware and software. And with the advent of e-commerce, PDF files displayed another advantage: They could be repurposed for use on the Web.

Today some catalogers with digital workflows are using desktop color separators (DCSs) rather than PDF. A vector-based workflow, PDF has an output device that interprets the data at the end of the cycle. A raster-based file format, such as DCS, interprets the data throughout the workflow, explains Mary Lee Schneider, vice president of premedia technology at R.R. Donnelley.


The advent of desktop computers had a tremendous impact on catalog prepress as well. The first PC from IBM came out in 1981; three years later, Apple unveiled the Macintosh — now the tool of choice in catalog production. Desktop computers, particularly the Mac and QuarkXPress software program, not only revolutionized catalog design and production workflow, but they also enabled catalogers to start prepress functions inhouse. Before computers, the prepress provider had to build the page from a mechanical, but now catalogers were able to build pages themselves.

  • Digital asset management (DAM)

    The precursor to DAM (also known as digital content management, or DCM) was the file cabinet. Catalogers stored hard copies of text and photos, or slides of images. When they wanted to rerun a copy block, the verbiage had to be typeset anew; photos had to be rescanned. That’s assuming, of course, that they could be found — not a safe assumption, given the variances in individual filing systems (or the lack thereof).

    Introduced in the mid ’90s, DAM systems store images, copy blocks, pricing information, and other data either on the cataloger’s server or with the cataloger’s service provider. The latter seems to be the option of choice: Only 12% of respondents to Catalog Age’s 2002 Benchmark Survey on Catalog Production said they have a system in place. The implementation of DAM coincided with the Internet boom of the late 1990s, when many catalogers were investing in their Websites and intent on repurposing content.

    Most systems assign specific format labels to each piece of information. For instance, you may have one photo stored as two items — the high-res image and the low-res for page placement. The tag or label will carry metadata that enable users to retrieve the correct asset.

  • Digital photography

    Rudimentary digital cameras have been around since the early ’80s, but it wasn’t until the mid-’90s that many catalogers started to experiment with them.

    A crucial breakthrough in production technology, digital photography eliminated an entire step in the production process — color separations.

    In addition to saving time and money by eliminating scanning and color separations, as the Internet took hold, many catalogers found themselves using the same digital images across both the print and Web media. Even apparel companies that once considered the quality and color reproduction of digital photos too imprecise became digital converts, at least for certain types of shots. “By 2000 we began shooting stills with a digital camera,” says Jason Kendeigh, manager of catalog quality assurance for Freeport, ME-based apparel and outdoor gear cataloger L.L. Bean.

  • Digital proofing

    Catalogers today typically use content proofs and color proofs, says Mark Jones, senior vice president of customer solutions for Montreal-based printer Quebecor World. Content proofs are non-color-critical paper-based proofs used to verify the page and approve it for the plate, which simplifies and speeds up the workflow.

    Color proofing is a bit trickier and requires additional equipment such as a Kodak Iris or an Epson printer to deliver color proofs. Though catalogers can eliminate press checks altogether with color proofs, many still opt to go, adds Jones.

  • Color management

    In the days of mechanicals, press operators, strippers, and color separators were primarily responsible for color management. Now color management begins inhouse rather than at an outside prepress house — especially if you’re working with high-res images.

    The introduction of the PhotoShop software program in 1990 enabled catalogers to perform the same color manipulations that they had relied on prepress houses for, says Ira Gold, president of graphic arts consultancy Gold Associates in Rockaway, NJ. In the past, “you needed someone with a comprehensive understanding of color” to fix trapping (thin white lines between running colors, often seen between an image and its border) and other problems, Gold notes.

    Now computerized color profile programs have automated much of the process. “Due to computerized color profiling and [color communication language] Pantone, color management is less subjective,” Kendeigh says.

  • Automatic picture replacement (APR)

    Introduced in 1992, APR allows catalogers to use low-res images when creating pages inhouse and then have the prepress provider replace them with the final high-resolution images. This is more accurate than manually measuring the photo and relying on the prepress to match those dimensions precisely.


Printing changes have abounded — perhaps most significant is the symbiotic relationship of digital photography and computer-to-plate technology. The two innovations together eliminated the need for film since the plate is imaged directly from the computer.

  • Computer-to-plate (CTP)

    By 1986 most gravure printers were offering CTP; by 1994 about 20 vendors offered the technology for gravure and offset, says Quebecor’s Jones. CTP helps alleviate common printing snafus such as problems with registration and dot-gain. According to Catalog Age’s benchmark survey, last year 76% of catalogers were using CTP — up from 30% in 1997.

  • File transfer protocol (FTP)

    Forget racing to make the last Federal Express pick-up or waiting for couriers to transport mechanicals. Catalogers can now use FTP to transmit page files via the Internet. Aside from eliminating courier fees and the chance of a package getting lost, FTP enables mailers to make changes further down the production stream.

What’s next?

While no one can deny that the past 20 years have brought about spectacular developments in catalog production technology, many anticipate that the best is yet to come.

David Weiss, president/CEO of New York-based catalog production and printing firm The Coastal Group notes that even though digital photography has improved dramatically over the years, “there are still gaps in its ability for fashion photography and jewelry, where highlights and metallics are difficult to translate, and in room settings that show depth.”

Others are counting on more than quality improvements. “I think the future will bring more personalization,” says L.L. Bean’s Kendeigh. Digital printing will allow catalogers to move beyond simple demographic binding “and really dig into their databases and create offerings tailored to the customer,” he says. “I think this is where catalogs are going to be able to streamline and cut costs.”

New Pig: 18 Years of Production Changes

Tipton, PA-based industrial cleanup products cataloger New Pig Corp. hasn’t quite reached its 20th anniversary, but we figure 18 years in the catalog business is long enough to know something about production. The chart below details how New Pig’s catalog production process has evolved since its launch in 1985.

1985 – 1989 1990 – 1999 TODAY
Catalog expectations * Routinely produced 32- and 36-page catalogs, each of which featured 30-50 products * Annually produced three core catalogs (100-300 pages) with 1,000-2,000 products each
* Began producing multiple versions of catalogs, with different pricing and in different languages, for its international business units
* Produces a 390-page core catalog with more than 3,200 products
* Produces market-specific catalogs for domestic (4) and international (7) business units
* All marketing projects (catalogs, packaging, brochures, etc.) handled by inhouse creative
Page design and layout * Work done on art boards; mechanicals were shot to produce film
* Staff provided sketches and photo transparencies to printer, who completed layouts
* Outsourcing of catalog production before full commitment to inhouse production
* Catalogs produced on Mac computers with limited use of mechanicals over time
* Onsite studio used to take silo photography shots
* Began testing digital photography
* Catalogs produced on most recent and proven software platforms
* Digital photos shot in onsite studio and on location, managed by production specialist
Prepress * All files output to film; proofs made from film, with any changes requiring new output
* Printer responsible for all photo scanning, color correcting, alterations
* Began using Iris proofs internally for high-resolution color outputs
* Gradually moved to all photo scanning, color correcting, and alterations being done internally
* Completely digital workflow managed inhouse except for output
* Low-res images supplied to designers; high-res images replaced inhouse
* Files preflighted for image and font integrity
* Increased use of FTP transfers
Workflow * Predominantly person-to-person hand off with no formal scheduling
* Product managers gave product info to creative
* Creative paginated catalog for product manager review and changes
* Creative designed pages
* Product managers proofed pages, frequently with multiple rounds of changes
* Mechanicals sent to printer
* Designed and implemented catalog scheduling system, which was built in Excel with printout assignments hand-delivered to staff
* Product managers turned over catalog to marketers
* Creative designed sets of pages
* Pages routed to product managers and others through two proofing cycles, making changes as necessary
* Imaging/production staff prepared files for printer
* Project input and scheduling database to manage all projects
* Product managers turn over product info and pagination to marketers
* Creative team reviews and proofs before routing to product managers
* Pages routed to product managers and others through two proofing cycles
* Production staff produces files for printer
Investments * Increased the production and creative staff to six people
* Purchased initial Mac computers
* Onsite photo studio
* Staff increased to include market managers
* Initial image server and Mac computers for increased staff
* Leading-edge Mac software for all creative staff
* Several high-end printers to deliver print quality internal proofs
* Upgraded server with comprehensive back-up system
Time frame * About five months to produce 32-page catalog with fewer than 50 products * Most 36-page catalogs produced in four to five months from turnover to hit date * Most catalogs with less than 100 pages produced in four months from turnover to hit date

Back to the Future

There seems to be a renaissance of sorts in page design. A number of art directors are going back to drawing thumbnails and sketching page layouts before hitting the computer keyboards. Medford, OR-based mulititle mailer Bear Creek Corp., for instance, in January put forth an initiative called “design exploration,” says vice president of advertising and production services Neal Schuler. The cataloger, which mails food gifts book Harry and David and horticultural title Jackson & Perkins, has its creative and production staff designing new product layouts off-screen and translating their ideas to the computer. The reason? To get the most creative presentations and layouts, Schuler says “We are freeing our creative people of the framework of the computer design and trying to put originality and art back into the production process.”


  • IBM unveils the personal computer (PC)


  • Canon introduces Laser Printer


  • Apple releases the Macintosh
  • HP Laser Jet introduced


  • Aldus Corp. develops PageMaker (company later acquired by Adobe)
  • Adobe introduces Postscript Page description language


  • Intel processor introduced
  • Compact disc (CD) introduced


  • First color Macs come out


  • QuarkXPress introduced


  • PhotoShop introduced by Adobe


  • World Wide Web launches


  • Automatic picture replacement becomes available


  • International Color Consortium (ICC) established to standardize color management

Early to mid-1990s

  • Publishers and printers begin to embrace CTP
  • Prefllight software developed


  • Use of digital photography and proofing heats up
  • DAM systems introduced

Mid- to late 1990s

  • Web pure-plays force print marketers to tighten up their production cycles to remain competitive
  • Decline in use of color separations due to the increasing popularity of digital photography