By Michael Josefowicz Tipping points don't happen everywhere, all at once. Widespread changes, like epidemics, start small, hardly obvious, and then for some not obvious reason, spread like wildfire. June 29, 2005 -- In 2000, Malcolm Gladwell wrote The Tipping Point, a book that became quite the rage among marketing types. In it he tries to explain fads and products that have explosive acceptance rates. He uses some understandings from his study of epidemics to explain massive changes that seem to happen to overnight. In my professional life in the industry, I clearly remember at least two such events. The first was the disappearance of the typesetting industry. With a history that stretched back to the beginning of printing itself, it essentially disappeared in a few years. Typesetting didn't go away, but most typesetters did. Not quite as drastic, but pretty close, was the disappearance of engravers and color separators. Again, color separation didn't go away, but lots of color separators did. In both cases, technology came first, then early adopters, then business pressures and then the world turned upside down Feel familiar? It's important to remember that while many dot.coms were dreams built without business models, this year Yahoo and Google took in more revenues than the three major TV networks. The really good news is that we've also seen other industries appear just as rapidly. Remember when fax machines "suddenly" appeared, or digital cameras, or cell phones, or Starbucks or, of course, Amazon and eBay? It's important to remember that while many dot.coms were dreams built without business models, this year Yahoo and Google took in more revenues than the three major TV networks. Tipping points don't happen everywhere, all at once. Society and business are much more complicated than that. Widespread changes, like epidemics, start small, hardly obvious, and then for some not obvious reason, spread like wildfire. The art is to watch for the wisps of evidence to try to gauge if, and how, they are developing. By the time a tipping point becomes common knowledge, it's usually over. The "magic new thing" becomes common place, the extraordinary becomes routine. The Internet boom is over, the internet economy is here. Individual businesses will inevitably adapt well, adapt poorly, or adapt not at all. By the time a tipping point becomes common knowledge, it's usually over. Working with the creatives in New York and especially at the Parsons School of Design, I've seen things that make me believe that the "excitement of a revolutionary new technology stage" of digital printing is finally starting to give way to the "routine" of a new way of doing business. After hundreds of millions of dollars invested in technology by very courageous vendors and millions of dollars and people-hours spent evangelizing and educating, I've seen the last pieces starting to fall into place that might change the way creatives will look at digital. What's the enabling matrix? To tip, a product or offering must become a general-use tool. In the real world of business there is only "good enough." Digital reproduction has to be "good enough" for professional creatives to confidently use it for ANY client in ANY situation. As long as it's for a special situation--short time-frame, a low budget, or even variable data--it's a niche tool. To tip, a product or offering must become a general-use tool. And, critically important, a creative has to be able buy this product/service, in the open market, easily and reliably. In my recent experience at Parsons School of Design, I've been able to purchase digital printing where the color is balanced, the type quality is fine, paper options are nearly unlimited, and professional finishing is affordable. It potentially means the end of the Great Fear Of Printing: will the printed piece look like the proof that the client approved? But, most important, it is repeatable and reliable. From the point of view of a professional creative, who has to satisfy either an internal or external client, this is the single biggest advantage. It potentially means the end of the Great Fear Of Printing: will the printed piece look like the proof that the client approved? Take this fear out of the printing production equation and everything changes. Now a creative and a client can see a finished product, before spending large sums to buy it. Nervous discussions about setting expectations, are replaced by looking at a sample of the final product. Do you like it? No. Then let's change it. Yes. Then buy it! The implications of this for taking stress out of the lives of a print-based creative cannot be overestimated. It, by itself fulfills the first requirement of viral adoption, the product/service has to be better, faster, cheaper. Once digital printing tips in the world of creatives, they will bring the brand managers and the enterprise budgets with them. Once digital printing tips in the world of creatives, they will bring the brand managers and the enterprise budgets with them. And the industry will have to spend much less time "educating them" about it's benefits. How much "educating" do Google, or Amazon, or Friendster, have to do, once they get to critical mass? Most printers still incorrectly identify document creation, either print or web, as the primary function of creatives. But, that is not a creatives’ unique value added. Professional creatives are paid and trained to know the best way to get a get a message communicated. And these professionals are constantly on the look out for practical tools that can be easily integrated into their professional practice. When digital printing works for them, in a routine way, on the ground, every day, they will gladly adopt it, and come up with uses we haven't even dreamed of. So. What's next? Good news and bad news. Professional creatives are constantly on the look out for practical tools that can be easily integrated into their professional practice. First, I know that achieving routine repeatability is a very serious challenge. But if you want to get tipping point adoption with professional creatives, you don't really have a choice. I've had direct experience with at least one NY-based printing company that has been able to do it, so I know it can be done. It's not easy, it's not cheap. The good news, is that most of the tools are already in the market place, the bad news is that time, as much as money, has to be invested. Second, digital printing has to be priced correctly. Low enough so it that achieves wide acceptance, but with sufficient margins to be sustainable for the printing company. The real cost per click is relatively low, and you can bet that with the fierce competition among vendors it's going to continue to go down. The market is presently willing to pay a pretty good margin. Although I'm betting that those margins will be under continuous pressure. The irony is that often the largest cost component of digital printing is writing up the job ticket, tracking the order, delivering it and getting paid. Printer's have got to get these costs to their absolute minimum. The good news is that the technical systems are getting cheaper and easier to install every day. But, at base, like most things, it's not primarily a technical issue, it's a matter of how you do business. That's the good news and the bad news. It needs your company's time and attention, not just your checkbook. Where might this go? Like most things, it's not primarily a technical issue, it's a matter of how you do business. That's the good news and the bad news. It needs your company's time and attention, not just your checkbook. The great news for creatives is that sooner or later a critical mass of companies is going to get it all together. And when enough printers combine the requisite reliability, and easy production communication with ALL of the following features, we'll all probably read about the overnight "Printing Revolution" on the business page of the Wall Street Journal. To get ready for this sea change, you might want to ask yourself some of the following questions: How fast and easy is it for a customer to get a final, accurate, definite, price-- not an estimate-- from your company? As easy as it is at Apple.com or Dell.com? How easy is it for a customer to open an account and give you money? As easy as Schwab.com? or Amazon? or iTunes? How easy is it to track the progress of production? As easy as FedEx or UPS? Do you offer a guarantee of satisfaction, backed up by a return or store credit policy? As good as Land's End or Costco? The companies mentioned are setting the standards for all businesses. The really successful printing businesses will not be an exception. In the next installment I'll describe in some detail, my recent experience at Parsons School of Design, producing work for our 2005 Senior Thesis Exhibition. Then you can decide for yourself if this is really possible today, or just one more pre-tipping point vision and dream. Watch for Michael's next column on July 6 Please offer your feedback to Michael. He can be reached at [email protected].