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Desktop Publishing

Desktop publishing, sometimes abbreviated as DTP, is a technique for preparing and printing professional quality products using microcomputers, software, and printers.

Articles on the subject, presumably by authors who haven’t tried to use the technique, still occasionally suggest that DTP is easy, fast, and cheap. Unless the product is a one-page flyer announcing a gutter-cleaning special, DTP is none of those things. It represents the latest level of automation in an industry that marked the dawn of modernity: typesetting.

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The invention of movable type by Gutenberg dates back to 1450. This technology, therefore, had a developmental period of more than 525 years before the first microcomputers saw wide use in the mid-1970s. Many different kinds of fonts were designed and refined in this period in variants of which, today, bold and italic are well known to everyone. Terminology and rules related to type size (measured in points), kerning (the space between characters), and leading (the space between lines) developed. In 1884, almost exactly 100 years before the first DTP system introduced by Apple Computer, Ottman Mergenthaler introduced linotype, a technique that cast metal type on the fly, one line at a time, using brass patterns for characters; a person working a keyboard-type device selected the characters to be cast. A year later came Tolbert Lanston’s monotype, capable of producing one letter at a time, also from raw metal. Monotype made it much easier to space characters in novel ways. Intertype, which came later, was another line-by-line typesetting system. In all of these cases, the cast metal could be remelted for reuse. These systems are still in use but are driven today by computerized interfaces.

The Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) began to be developed in 1960 and is available as International Standards Organization 8879:1986.

SGML is a convention for embedding markers in text to be read and interpreted by typesetting programs.

SGML is the progenitor of XML (Extensible Markup Language) and also of HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) the language underneath web pages. SGML was developed in order to automate typesetting and standardize formatting; it is widely used by the Federal Government.

In none of these systems leading up to DTP was page composition itself automated so that the insertion of photographs and other graphics was done at other points in the production process. Printing in true color still requires four passes through a printing press to put down yellow, cyan, magenta, and black—unless the printing process used is color Xerography and the closely related color laser printers.

Emergence Of Dtp

Computerization of typesetting came before microcomputers themselves arrived. The first DTP systems were scaled-down versions of typesetting and composition software running on larger and much more expensive minicomputers. Operators sat facing multiple monitors and formatted pages using the same computer’s services.

These were effective and attractive systems—but they cost a lot of money. No small business could afford such systems unless it was itself in the business of providing typesetting services.

Apple Computer introduced the first full-fledged micro-based DTP system in 1984 but did not effectively get it on the market until 1985; in the mid-2000s, therefore, DTP is just 15 years old. The three major components of the first system were the Macintosh computer, the Aldus PageMaker software system, and a LaserWriter printer with the embedded PostScript software developed by Adobe Systems. The user of this system could sit at the screen and, using a keyboard and a mouse, create a document on screen. As people later said: “What You See Is What You Get,” WYSIWYG. At the click of the mouse, the image on the screen would come out on the LaserWriter printer. PageMaker was said to be incredibly easy to use, but not all those who actually used it in the 1980s would agree. The same is true of today’s much more sophisticated systems.

Apple was the first commercially sold graphical computer. (Xerox pioneered the concept but did not take it to market.) The graphical interfaced required the use of complex geometrical techniques to render characters and images by vector graphics, namely by a description of drawing directions. Raster graphics, which are static images made up of dots, do not scale satisfactorily, but a vector description of a letter or a drawing can be executed at any scale with very fine precision. The PostScript language developed by Adobe was very compact and efficient—it took up very little space on the printer; at the same time, it could render the picture of a screen perfectly. At this time technology to render color and advanced techniques for handling photograph were still in the future.

Modern Dtp

Some 15 years later and counting, DTP has reached a certain maturity. Many different software packages are on the market; Aldus PageMaker remains a factor, but the two leading producers in the mid-2000s were QuarkXpress and Adobe’s InDesign. Adobe is also a leader in photographic manipulation (PhotoShop) and has become the de facto standard for web-based publishing using PDF, the Portable Document Format. Adobe Acrobat can be used to make PDF files; Adobe distributes the Acrobat Reader free of charge, used for reading (but not for editing or creating) PDF files. A PDF file printed on an appropriate device can, in fact, be a professionally typeset document if its preparer had the requisite skills. A competitive see-saw in the software market has been the rule. At present, David Blatner, a leading expert on both QuarkXpress and InDesign (he has written extensive books on how to use both) believes, according to a recent article in eWeek, that InDesign has the competitive edge. Such judgments, of course, are always merely snapshots at a given point in time.

DTP systems are today available for every type of operating system, not merely Macintosh operating system (MacOS). Memory installed in computers and in printers, and disk drives in computers with many gigabytes of storage, make it possible to handle very large publications with many hundreds of photographs.

In the 1980s printers came with a resolution of 300 dots per inch (dpi) and handled 8.5 by 11 inch paper; and color printers were not available. In the mid-2000s printers in the price range of $4,500 and up come with minimally 600 and as high as 4,800 dpi—well above the most exacting commercial requirements. They also handle commercial-size sheets of up to 13 by 19 inches. And, of course, they print in full color. Printers in these categories are widely available, moreover, from producers like Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Ricoh, and others.

For an investment of around $25,000, a small business can install a genuinely state-of-the-art DTP system.

The investment may be justified if the company is selling typesetting services—or such services are a necessary element of a larger business, e.g., manual preparation or publishing. Costs are significantly lower than in pre-DTP days; back in the early 1980s a single high-end printer could run $20,000. Nevertheless, the investment is substantial. It is also worth-while noting that DTP, in today’s market, still excludes important elements of “finishing” printed products: this involves trimming, folding, sewing, stapling, binding, and packaging the brochure, book, magazine, manual, or whatever. High-end DTP is therefore no less a commercial decision today for the small business than before micros came with fancy layout software. To be sure, much less cost is involved in a workable DTP system capable of putting out attractive color brochures occasionally.

Internal Skill Sets

The broad expansion of small computers since the 1970s has been accompanied by a steady drumbeat emphasizing ease of use. In actual fact the industry has leapfrogged ahead in a competitive frenzy to gain or maintain market share and has not delivered on ease and rational perfection of its products.

This is the view taken by William R. Howard, writing in PC Magazine. Howard wrote: “Bah, humbug. My feelings of good will toward the technology provider portion of humankind took a dive during the holiday season. My computer just didn’t perform many of the tasks that it should have done easily. In the realm of technology, even people who think they’re smart can be brought to their knees.” In documenting his tale of woe, Howard also touched on DTP. He wrote: “For my wife, I produced a photo book of our summer vacation … The finished product was spectacular. The process was a horror show: Tiny on-screen work area, equally small page preview, limited page layouts that were too small to let you read the text, fixed photo aspect ratios, 38character caption limits for vertical photos, no spellchecker. I spent close to 10 hours creating 30 pages; half that time was wasted dealing with the clumsy interface.”

Almost no one actually engaged in DTP would disagree with Howard. Practiced at the professional level, DTP requires substantial skills acquired over a longer period of time. Skill sets rapidly age unless the art is continuously practiced. A business that only rarely uses DTP faces re-learning cycles each time—for a loss of efficiency. Sending the job out may be more costeffective.

Professional level DTP requires the same know-how that the typesetters and page-designers of old also possessed. The difference is that operations that once required cutting, measuring, and pasting are done today by mouse. The software packages dutifully import from the past measurement system and terminology—which must be learned. The great complexity involved in handling a document that may be on several overlaid “layers” (for colors, for pictures, for text of various kinds) mean mastery of sometimes baffling, uninformative, and unintuitive menu systems. Their meanings have to worked out gradually by trial and error. Manuals provided by the software producer rarely cover matters well, are rarely up-to-date, and, these days, may not come on paper. Operators are often required to buy and to use simultaneously several third-party references to solve a single problem.

These points are made in the cause of clarity—not to imply that DTP does not have quite superb values for the enterprise that makes an effort to master and use it. DTP is truly excellent tooling—especially for those who come to DTP already skilled in the underlying arts of photocomposition, layout, and typesetting. Thus it enhances existing skill sets—but imposes training burdens on the small business anticipating ease of use. Therefore a commitment to this type of production, for these reasons, must be a deliberate and commercial decision reached, ideally, after thoughtful testing of alternatives.