By Michael Josefowicz March 25, 2006 -- The great thing about finally getting past the Tipping Point is that the production and communication infrastructure is in place to be used for creative problem solving. Less talking, more doing. Now the task at hand is to bring together exactly the right set of tools and production capabilities to solve a particular problem for a particular person within an acceptable budget and time frame. Of course, concrete examples speak louder than grand pronouncements. So, here we go: At the risk of seeming to be guilty of shameless self-promotion for the Parsons PubCenter and my students, I want to explain how we’ve integrated some tools at the Parsons PubCenter. I’m glad to say it worked. We were pretty successful in helping our students, with acceptable levels of risk and anxiety, both to the PubCenter and for them. Sweet Communications I feel very lucky to be working at Parsons, involved in the education of the next generation of creatives. Although I am not a designer by trade or formal training, I spent 30 years of my professional life as a printing broker, and now an educator, helping designers realize their most innovative visions. Our students come to us as pure creatives. They care about producing the sweetest new communication products to achieve fortune and glory and to make the world a better place. It’s a great atmosphere. My guiding principle has always been “Use what you've got to get what you need”. The immediate problem at hand was to help our students produce printed products to be displayed at their senior exhibition, with the least hassle for them (and me). And to do it at a physical quality level that does justice to their creative talent. I was not overly concerned about the particular elements of the solution. My only concern was that it worked for me and for my customer--our students. To see the results, you can check out http://pub.eviewsoftware.com/. We built and installed the basic framework last summer, working under a grant from CyranoProject.org. In some ways, that was the hardest part. Our team had to brainstorm solutions for the best approaches to solve a pressing problem for non-profit organizations--how to buy printing easily and cost effectively. Our team re-envisioned the print-buying process to be much closer to the "buying products from a catalog" experience. But this catalog could include custom items in real time. Based on the principles of transparency and accountability, it could eliminate non-value-added steps from the buying process, and allow the printing partners to share some of the savings realized with the customer. The hope is that it will grow into the centerpiece of a print-centered communication ecosystem that will support Cryano's mission of helping non-profits tell their stories eloquently and effectively. By reducing the cost and hassle of buying printing, we could free up energy so that non-profits can concentrate on the really hard part--imagining the best story to tell, and how to tell it. The Good Enough Customer Experience Our focus was 100 percent on building a "good enough" customer experience, not on trying to build the perfect system. Of course, "good enough" is harder than most people think! Our first step was to build a "wire frame " of what the interface would look like, which we installed at GoDaddy.com (a low hassle, low cost web-hosting service). Then we could begin to play, modify and get comfortable with the modification procedures. Once that was in place, installing The Senior Show system took one person about two weeks working about two or three hours a day on our end. And then some more days of work to move from the development site at GoDaddy to Certifyle’s servers for easier integration and a more controlled environment. Believing that the essence of successful strategy is knowingwhat not to do, we decided to put off "designing" the site. I’ve learned that doing top quality design can be expensive and time consuming. If you are trying to attract customers (rather than solving your own immediate problem) elegant ease of use and the designer’s value add can be the difference between success and failure. But, it doesn't necessarily have to happen all at once. In my case, because of the immediate needs and time pressures, I couldn’t afford the time to fine tune the design. That’s for the next rev. I just needed it to work--now! Flexibility Key In my opinion, the real key to our success was the inherent flexibility that allowed on-the-spot modifications and updates to be handled by Jillian Harris and Alison Chan, the key student managers of the PubCenter. I worked as their team leader and mentor. None of us are true experts at internet protocols. The designed-in flexibility included the ability to make changes wherever there was a computer and broadband, through an easy to use browser based interface. I had the ability to work from home or whenever I had 15 to 20 minutes to devote to it. Resources Parsons has high-speed wireless access, and lots of places to meet. So the physical infrastructure was in place. We also had the cooperation of three great print industry partners who were very generous in their commitment to help our students, and at the same time, explore the practicality of innovative solutions for their businesses and the industry, as a whole. Certifyle.com handled the preflighting and delivery of PDF files, so that only files that would RIP would be delivered, and so that creatives would be notified within minutes if their file was not up to spec. AstoriaGraphics.com is a local Manhattan based iGen3 facility, offering full finishing capabilites and unequaled customer service along with the care and concern our stressed, young designers sometimes need. Triangle Arts, located in Lawrenceville NJ, allowed us to integrate the site to their production facility, and consistently delivered product, from their iGen3, to a high set of predictable output standards. The software infrastructure, with the exception of Certifyle, are all Open Source and free or very inexpensive web services, Most crtical for me was that integrating them could be done from any high speed internet connection, with no meetings necessary, and without having to deal with the legitimate, but some very complic ated concerns our our IT department. The ecommerce store infrastructure is Open Source and therefore license free. You can get more information at OS Commerce.org The [email protected] account is free, as are other gmail accounts. YouSendIt.com moves large files for free for up to 100 MB, and $4.99 for a month’s subscription for up to a 1gb file What did we learn? First, it's possible to put together a system that can work, very quickly and at very little expense. The low-hanging fruit of an expensive printing business process is specification and billing. The communication system we put together solved both of those problems for me, in this situation. Here's how it worked for us: 1. The client emails the initial description to [email protected] 2. The PubCenter analyzes the specs, gets the costs, and adds the product to our on line catalogue. 3. The client is emailed a link to the catalog item. 4a. If the specs are correct, the client is ready to order. 4b. If the specs are wrong, unclear or incomplete, the customer goes back to step 1. Since our printing partners are producing products, not doing jobs, it is trivial to assign responsibility for errors. If products are not produced to the specifications as listed in the catalog, it’s the printer's problem. If the specs in the catalog are incorrect, it’s the customer’s problem. The job of the PubCenter is to facilitate and manage the communication. Billing and accounting are huge non-value-added expensive processes. So we eliminated them by using credit cards for all transactions. The credit card companies are in the “financing business”. I’m in the “solving problems for students business”, printers are in the “printing business”. The other critical element that led to success is that we gave our seniors many paths to get it done. You will notice at least three ways for our seniors to get their job produced. Each approach has different advantages and disadvantages. Since we were driven by the customer's needs, there was no incentive to "own the customer". Creatives, like everyone else, want the freedom to choose the way that will work best for them. Some needed face-to-face meetings and discussion. Others wanted to print at school on the PubCenter’s Xerox 7550. And others found the online site most convenient. Let the customer decide what is best for her given their particular situation at a particular time. It did wonders for keeping my stress levels at a minimum, and my time free for my other school related responsibilities. But this all goes further. My next column will describe how we have been applying some of these same approaches in the PubCenter’s work with K-12 education in New York City High Schools.