. . .if it feels like no one is in charge of a complex project, then probably no one is
In 1993/1994 I participated in the kind of disaster you only dream about in your worst nightmares. It was so bad that an entire press run of textbooks had to be recalled and reprinted. How it ever got out the door without someone noticing that something was wrong with it is a cautionary tale for everyone involved in this poorly named field of desktop publishing. The traditional publishing procedures have been worked out for a couple of centuries. Everybody knows what has to be done, and who's responsible for which parts of quality control. This isn't as true anymore. The social mechanisms haven't caught up with the technology. Just as the computer allows us to be more productive, it also allows us to make more mistakes in the same amount of time. I've been considering what it is about desktop publishing that allowed a series of mistakes this gargantuan to occur.
I'm an illustrator by trade. For the last six years or so, almost exclusively on the Macintosh. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to find a technical pen in my studio, let alone get it to work without a major overhaul. In other words, I'm a convert-almost an evangelist when it comes to computer art and page composition. At the same time, one of my favorite posters says: Desktop Publishing is Neither!
I remember some of the earliest Macintosh advertising less than fondly. The thrust was something to the effect that if you bought one of these machines, then you could do without the services of writers, artists, planners, and so on. The notion bothered me a bit then, and it still does. This is not to say that I'm a technophobe. I am, after all, writing this on one of the four machines I use on a day-to day basis.
I was contracted by the author to do approximately 300 line illustrations that would be required. We settled on terms, and I got started. It was almost six months before the publisher got involved, at which point things took an ominous turn. Halfway through the figures, a book designer finally got around to providing me some real specs-which of course matched nothing I'd already done. Fortunately, this is the digital age, and the changes went quickly. In the course of hashing out some of the details, I came up with a technical question about one of the systems being used to produce the book. This is when things got really ominous.
After hours on the phone I had a more or less complete list of the players involved. (and no answer to the question that started it all) There was myself and the author, both in the midwest; the publisher, in New York City; the book production freelancers in Pennsylvania.; the page composition house was on the west side of the Mississippi River, and the service bureau and the printer were both near Boston. I was working on the Mac with Aldus Freehand. The author was editing the text on a 386. The page composition house was assembling the pieces on a Silicon Graphics workstation with output to a tabloid-size laser printer. The service bureau was getting EPS page files and outputting them through another Unix box to an imagesetter. All of this should have set alarm bells ringing in my head, but I assumed that since I was on the bottom of the food chain, others knew how to keep everything organized.
I knew we had a problem when the first page proofs came back with black rectangles where the art should have been. Why this didn't seem odd to someone somewhere at the page house is a mystery to this day. The second round worked better, though some of the files had to be modified to print on their particular laserprinter. Now, mind you, at this time, nobody had actually tried to print anything on the imagesetter. (picture me in the background jumping up and down trying to get somebody's attention about these problems)
Under deadline pressure the project rolled on. All the laser page proofs were approved-after some last minute touch ups. It was about this time that I asked someone at the page house about a blueline. The silence was well nigh deafening. That was being taken care of at the next stage, so everyone thought. The project rolled on some more. In fact, it rolled all the way to the printing presses, through the bindery, and out the loading dock to textbook reviewers, before anyone noticed there were a few problems. Like-the B&W photographs had all been scanned, but the imagesetter never substituted the high resolution versions for the FPO version. Some of the line art reverted to a previous version. Effects which worked fine on the laser printer didn't work at all on the imagesetter, or changed dramatically. To top it all off, there was some kind of press malfunction which caused all kinds of defects to appear. This thing got bound and shipped without anyone taking a look at it- or if they did, figuring it had been approved by someone else. The author hit the roof, the publisher recalled the lot, and this time I insisted on a blueline from the corrected negatives. The reprinted version is far superior to the first, and only went out 4 months late.
The moral to the story is fairly simple: if it feels like no one is in charge of a complex project, then probably no one is. A corollary to this is that if you volunteer, you can end up in charge. Always hash out where and when quality control will take place-and who gets the job.
. . .there are times I wish the senseless slaughter of trees would stop.
I see a problematic shift in responsibilities and, if you will, job description. The power of the computer puts page design capabilities in the hands of millions of people eminently unqualified and unprepared for the task. There are no more people doing really fine work today than there were a decade ago. There are a fair number of people in the middle, and their ranks have grown by a bit, but the major increase has been in the bottom ranks. The problem with desktop systems is that they are very good at producing paper, no matter what the content. Access to the wider world through computer power is, I think, something very like a right. But there are times I wish the senseless slaughter of trees would stop.
Corporations have in a sense gone away from the generalist model to one of increasing specialization. But their version is to employ contractors. More and more the responsibility for getting it right rests with the author. The feeling sometimes is like wrestling cotton candy to find an authority. More often than I'd care to, I've had to claim responsibilities which should not have been mine, and which I did not want. Such a vacuum exists, that anyone willing to accept responsibility is given it, even when unqualified-as I frequently am.
Dale Austin 1995
All images and text Copyright Dale Austin, 1962-2008