Dear Matt – Another Perspective Editor's Note: Last month, one of Frank Romano's columns was a response to a letter from a high school student considering a career in printing. This week, in the interest of balance, we present a far different take than Frank's but one that may be equally valid in our rapidly changing world. This could get volatile, so let us know what you think! --Noel Ward By Gene Gable April 13, 2005 Hi, my name is Matt. I am a freshman attending Foothill High School. I have an assignment that was given by my teacher. My question to you is: "what is the most important piece of advice you would give someone who is interested in the field of graphic communication?" Dear Matt: Run as fast as you can! Unless you consider career advancement as getting the day shift at Kinkos, you're headed for a lifetime of misery and disappointment. Graphic communication was once an important career choice, but now it is considered a necessary evil. You'd be much better off going into podcasting, dog walking, or opening a rib joint--anything that can't be outsourced to China. Even Franklin realized content was more important than form. It's ironic that you would be asking this important question in the year we celebrate Benjamin Franklin's 300th birthday. Even Franklin, often considered "America's Printer," realized that content was more important than form. Had it not been for his fictional characters, risqué innuendos and timely witticisms, the various newspapers and booklets Franklin produced would have failed. Had he been just a printer, Franklin's name would be unknown and uncelebrated today. If you go to Philadelphia this year, you'll see some of Franklin's printing equipment exactly where it belongs--in a museum. Of course we'll always have print. No medium, regardless of how inefficient and expensive it becomes, ever completely dies. Yes, the feel of a wonderful book is irreplaceable, and if you consider packaging to be printing (seems more like a chemical process to me), then we'll always need something to wrap the latest gadgets in. But if the primary definition of print is as a vehicle for distributing information (and you take away the romance part) then printers are exactly where the vinyl-pressing record plants were in the late Seventies. Some were smart enough to switch to producing CDs, and others held out, believing that there would always be a place for vinyl. And even then, CDs turned out to be a temporary container for music. When everything turned digital, the writing was on the wall: digital information should be distributed digitally, not through analog methods like ink on paper. Printers are exactly where the vinyl-pressing record plants were in the late Seventies. Just take a look at what happened to the many strong and once-powerful graphic arts unions, or at the consolidation of industry trade groups and other institutions. Then gauge if printing is a growth industry. What was once the backbone of America's industrial economy is quickly going the way of steel mills and textile plants. The leftovers will make their way to regions and people who are still willing to sacrifice their environment for a meal on the table. It makes sense when you think about it. The manufacture of paper, ink, plates, and other printing supplies is unsound and inefficient. Simply trace the typical path of a newspaper, magazine or book from wood pulp to recycle bin and you'll scratch your head in amazement. Content distribution does not have to be so unnecessarily complex, labor intensive and time consuming. With the cost of oil taking a larger and larger chunk out of profits, does it make any sense to handle and ship a typical printed piece so many times? Just to let someone know they can buy a DVD player at Wall Mart for $39? There's a small chance that on-demand printing, one-to-one direct marketing and other technology breakthroughs will temporarily slow print's hemorrhaging. If you can cut out the waste and time delay (which on-demand does pretty well), then print makes a lot more sense. The problem is, everyone is comparing print to the Web, which is currently a low-format, screen-based technology. But the Web is just the distribution method--there are going to be breakthroughs in technology (electronic paper, ultra-thin screens, etc.) that will achieve the same look and feel as a current print piece, and be re-usable. Print is now just a bridge technology until scientists refine more-efficient and cost-effective display methods. Plus, this is all generational. Let's say you go into an auto showroom to buy your first car. There you have the choice of taking a printed brochure or a small USB jump drive. The drive has every conceivable bit of data on it about the vehicle, an interactive feature to design your own model, interviews with people who have already bought the car, real-time pricing, free MP3 files of the songs used in the television commercials, and high resolution PDF files (which you can print at home on your $99, 6 or 8-color, better-than-offset printer). Which would you choose? Print is now just a bridge technology until scientists refine more-efficient and cost-effective display methods The best advice I can give you, Matt, is to talk to a handful of retired printers, compositors and other former graphic arts craftsmen. You'll hear stories of jobs being brutally eliminated, pensions that disappeared, and livelihoods that became obsolete overnight. Men who spent their whole lives being useful were replaced by machines, cheap labor, or worse, were forced to continue producing pages under contract, only to have them thrown in the scrap bin, unused. I don't know which is worse--having no work, or doing work that has no value. Either way, generations of printers have retired bitter and poor. If you absolutely must go into the graphic arts, then learn everything you can about creating templates and about rules-based page-layout systems. Even graphic design jobs will be in short supply in the coming decades, as those talents are absorbed by technology. Publishers will continue to cut costs and eliminate steps to stay competitive. Printing itself is already just another manufacturing business, and America is no longer a nation of manufacturing. If you want to make a difference, become a content creator, not a content distributor. Good luck, Matt, and stay away from any job where paper feeds through a machine--you'll always end up in a jam. Gene Gable