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Commentary & Analysis

Do We Need to Move Beyond the Terms “Prepress” and “Workflow”?

As an industry, have we moved past the terms “prepress” and “workflow”? Are they too broad to provide any significant benefit to the industry discussion? There is an argument to be made that it’s time to break up the process and discuss it in terms of its discrete elements.

By Heidi Tolliver-Walker
Published: November 27, 2017

I just finished a conversation with a longtime public relations representative for vendors in the prepress and workflow space. I contacted her for an article I’m writing on prepress trends, and we were sorting out exactly what “prepress” meant in the context of her clients.

Over time, the discussion got philosophical, and she made a great point that I have wrestled with for years. Do we need new, more precise terms for describing these processes? The industry has grown in complexity, but our nomenclature really hasn’t.  Is that hampering effective industry discussion?

The issue arose because I had originally requested information on workflow trends, then realized I misspoke. I emailed a correction that it was really “prepress,” even as I wondered whether the distinction was really necessary. For many, workflow and prepress are largely interchangeable. Indeed, of all of the two dozen companies I had contacted, the distinction only seemed to matter to one of them.

When it comes to trend discussions, is there really a meaningful distinction between the two?  The source list I was given included everyone from ArifiQ, which offers software for analyzing the contents of a PDF file to create accurate job estimates and deliver imposition and imposed PDFs, to PagePath and Printers Plan for template-based job submission and management, to HP, Epson, and Mimaki.

Because the terms “prepress” and “workflow” are so broad, to really understand what is being discussed, we must follow up with another question: “Which type of prepress/workflow are we talking about?”

My friend agreed. “In one form or another, I have been working in this industry in since Linotype,” she said. “In the beginning, we knew what workflow meant. We were dealing with fewer major processes, so it was okay to use broad terms. Then, as the process got more complex, we started saying ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream.’ ‘Front end and back end.’ Now we are breaking it into even more categories.”

Historically, prepress and workflow have focused on production processes, and most people do not consider them to include estimating or sales. But what happens as workflows continue to become more integrated and complex? What do you do with companies like ArifiQ, which focuses on both business (estimating) and production (imposition) processes?

“When you give a quote on turnaround, are you taking into consideration the time it takes to get a quote, approve it, and then get a job into the system?” my friend asks. “You can’t overlook the time it takes to get the quote and the job approval and how that adds to the overall turnaround time. That is part of the workflow as far as I’m concerned.”

When it comes to estimating turnaround times, she says, “We have to be honest about that.”

This is why she was so excited when research companies like InfoTrends started considering onboarding its own category. It is part of prepress and workflow, she argues, but needs to be discussed separately—just like all of the other discrete elements of workflow. It is part of the much needed improvement in the “specification” of industry nomenclature.

This specificity is particularly important when printers are looking to buy workflow and prepress software. “When printers get the quote back or after the installation, you’ll see them come back and say, ‘That’s not what I was expecting. You didn’t consider onboarding [or color management or finishing or whatever].’ We need to break up these terms and better define exactly what elements of the process are being covered.”

I don’t have much to add to that. These comments speak for themselves. Your thoughts?

Heidi Tolliver-Walker Heidi is an industry analyst specializing in digital, one-to-one, personalized URL, and Web-to-print applications. Her Marketer’s Primer Series, availalbe through Digital Printing Reports, includes “Digital Printing: Transforming Business and Marketing Models,” 1:1 (Personalized) Printing: Boosting Profits Through Relevance,” “Personalized URLs: Beyond the Hype,” and “Web-to-Print: Transforming Document Management and Marketing.”



By Cary Sherburne on Nov 27, 2017

Thought provoking article, Heidi. Thanks! It seems that it should be all of a piece ... even including the sales process, whether it is in person or online. Companies that are not integrating and automating are doing themselves a disservice and will have difficulty competing in the future. So who will be the brilliant industry guru that comes up with a new naming strategy?


By Pat McGrew on Nov 27, 2017

It is as though you were reading my mind. I struggle with the terms as well. At the highest level we all know what has to happen to go from idea to printed piece, but how we call the process points varies widely. Even onboarding has different start and end points depending on the shop. Good food for thought!


By Allen Filson on Nov 27, 2017

Great article Heidi.

You’re absolutely spot on with the need to better define roles. Workflow and prepress used to be simple. We Had Scitex Systems, Creo/Kodak Prinergy, Agfa Apogee, Heidelberg Prinect, and a few others. Now we have MIS system integration, Web-2-Print, online submission and B2B. The term workflow means many things to many people. So too does the term Prepress; is that preflight, normalization of PDF’s, and imposition, or is it scheduling, client notification, JDF processing/post print integration, and mail merge? Prepress means different things to different companies.

We serve them all, and have to be able to discuss terms like “workflow” and “Prepress” at varying levels and at different definitions depending on which customer we are speaking to.

I love the attempt to better define, or better stated, breakdown these terms in the modern age.

Very good article, and great insight into our industry!!


By Laurens Leurs on Nov 27, 2017

@Cary - I'm afraid it is too late for that. The word 'workflow' got hijacked early on to describe prepress software solutions even though the term is far too generic for that. It applies to a dozen other processes just as well but you cannot 'undo the past'. This reminds me of 'dpi' versus 'ppi' - that also never got sorted out properly.


By Chris Lynn on Nov 27, 2017

I'm struggling to see the difficulty here. 'Workflow' is a general term (not print industry-specific) that, per Wikipedia, is "an orchestrated and repeatable pattern of business activity enabled by the systematic organization of resources into processes that transform materials, provide services, or process information". As such, it can be applied to prepress activities. So you can make a process map of "a prepress workflow", and the various hardware & software vendors can say where their products fit.


By Richard Akam on Nov 28, 2017

Interesting topic, Heidi...I am with Chris, workflow applies to every production process, including the sales and csr activity. As MIS systems become more and more in the mix of connecting the various processes, even more so, does the term workflow apply more specifically to how the actual "item" being manufactured, flows thru a process and on to the next. At present we employ 2 databases which is not as efficient as one MIS system would be obviously, but that is how things happen when you begin moving from the old days with its old ways, into the computer/digital age.
I made a workflow chart for several of the processes from the moment we get the file thru prepress and archiving. it can be viewed here and basically includes several "workflows":



By David L. Zwang on Nov 28, 2017

Great article Heidi..

I remember having this discussion when I produced a workshop on workflow for Scitex. As Chris said, workflow is not print industry specific. What we ultimately settled on was that specific operations are joined together in processes, and the aggregation of those processes could be a workflow.

Ultimately it is a semantic discussion, about a term that unfortunately has been co opted by marketing professionals and has lost much of its intent.


By David Dilling on Nov 29, 2017

What is amazing, is that the same preflight problems of yesterday, still exist today in prepress. Even with parts of the traditional prepress process having moved to the designers. Yet that is not always the case. I guess my point is, that some of the confusion exists from the fact that there is a grey, moving line in the sand between prepress that a customer is expected to handle and true prepress that traditional the printers will handle.


By Bryan Manwaring on Dec 15, 2017

Great article Heidi, thanks for sharing. It’s interesting to see how narrow terms in the past have become more broad as the print industry as a whole has become more complex and integrated. The same is true for wide-format and grand-format print, and as a mature software solutions provider in this niche, having brought the first wide format RIP to market, we too have found that terms like “print workflow” have become buzz terms that require further refining. Let’s look at another example, the term “textile” has become a broad term which to many simply means t-shirt printing. To us, it’s much more precise. Soft-signage, for example, is something our software is prominent for, but this is just one application within wide-format out of the many our customers use it for. For us, buzz words are great for the masses, but getting into the details is what separates solution providers on meeting the business needs of print service providers.


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