25 May 2008

Demotivational speaker

Harris DeWese stepped up to the lectern and took off his sport coat. He pointed to his gaudy suspenders and grinned, "You can see I'm in investment banking."
The scene was the Colonnade Hotel in Boston, the annual meeting of Bookbuilders of Boston (on whose Board of Directors I serve). We had finished the evening's business, and were settling back with our dessert and coffee to enjoy DeWese's presentation. He writes an irreverent column called "DeWese on Sales" that has appeared monthly in Printing Impressions magazine for over 20 years, and which he has anthologized in a popular book called Now Get Out There and Sell Something! Printers have often hired him as a sales coach and trainer.
I hadn't read his column or books, so I was prepared for anything, except what we got. DeWese's shtick is that he's the Mañana Man, the sales guy who beats his quota before lunch and spends the afternoon at the track. He shuns PowerPoint polish and bullet points, and instead digresses about baseball, cooking, and parallel parking before he gets down to business.
When he got down to business, it was a splash of cold water. He doesn't sell printing anymore, he sells printing companies, and as his suspenders attest, business is booming. As Chairman and CEO of Compass Capital Partners, he's put 135 of them on the block. "Printing companies rarely emerge from Chapter 11 or Chapter 7," he observed.
The folks in the room who work for small-to-medium companies made mental notes to check Monster.com first thing in the morning. But I wasn't worried, I work for an $11 billion company. We buy other printers, they don't buy us.
Then DeWese sharpened his focus from printing in general to his audience's specialty, book manufacturing. He displayed his knowledge of the turf by mentioning the "Michigan Mafia," the cluster of book printers in the Ann Arbor area. He talked about selling to specific segments of the book market (long-run, short-run, etc.), and then, almost as an afterthought, he delivered the showstopper: "If print buyers are directed by their managers to buy only on price, there's not much the salesperson can do."
Doesn't he know that most book manufacturing buyers haven't looked at anything but price for the last decade? In the US, technology has pretty much leveled the playing field as far as quality and turn times, so publishers see price as the only variable. And overseas competition has so skewed the price variable that publishers often concede quality and turn time just to drive down unit cost.
It's no better for commercial printers. Their work has become a commodity because supply dwarfs demand as many printed documents, such as catalogs and annual reports, migrate to the Internet.
According to DeWese, in a reverse auction the salesperson gets screwed. That's not a radical idea, but it's a mighty demotivating thing to say to people whose customers believe devoutly in reverse auctions. Unless you're trying to motivate them to sell their businesses.

17 May 2008

Students and silos: Thoughts on graphic-arts education

Over on the Print CEO Blog last week, Brian Regan and I traded comments on Adam Dewitz's post about educating the next generation of printing industry leaders. The elephant in the (virtual) room was the fear that there won't be any printing industry for the next generation to lead.
As President of the Society of Printers from 1995-1997 and of Bookbuilders of Boston from 2004-2007, I was an ex-officio member of the Printing and Publishing Council of New England. The PPCNE was once an influential group, promoting the interests of a dozen graphic-arts organizations in the Boston area. Mergers and acquisitions, overseas competition, and the growth of other media have diminished the printing and publishing industries, so now PPCNE's primary role is the stewardship of a substantial scholarship endowment (in the low seven figures). The Council, as its members call it, administers its own scholarship program: They review students' applications and decide which ones will receive scholarships.
When I attended Council meetings, the constant refrain was the shrinking pool of qualified applicants. "Qualified" in this case means students from New England enrolled in degree-granting programs leading to careers in printing or publishing (not just graphic design, and certainly not web design).
This line of conversation drove me nuts. What college kid would get on a vocational track dedicated to an industry where each year, a thousand US companies either are swallowed up by bigger companies or simply sell their presses for scrap and close down?
No amount of scholarship money will motivate kids to learn skills that fewer and fewer employers need. Yes, we still need printers, and we always will, but it's no longer useful to think of putting ink on paper as an isolated activity. 21st Century printing is one part of an industrial matrix that includes all the ways we distribute and display words, sounds, and images. This matrix includes book and magazine publishing, music, television, movies, games, telecom, Internet, direct mail marketing, packaging, and signage.
Industry and colleges must embrace this change together. Both must break down the silos that impede the formation of this media matrix. Industry must create career paths that cross obsolete boundaries, and colleges must create curricula to prepare graduates to thrive in a world where ideas matter more than the channels they flow through.
And organizations like the Print and Graphics Scholarship Foundation and the Printing and Publishing Council of New England must use their scholarship money to enable this evolution, not to resist it.

10 May 2008

A time capsule from the global village

In my May 4 post, I surveyed Marshall McLuhan's metamorphosis from a nerdy Canadian academic into the very model of an avant-garde intellectual.
In the 1960s, avant-garde intellectuals and wannabees liked to spend downtime in Aspen, CO. The resort town had earned its highbrow cred as home to the Aspen Music Festival since 1949, and the International Design Conference since 1951. In the mid-60s, a Manhattan magazine editor named Phyllis Johnson was inspired by her stay in Aspen to launch a magazine by that name, meant to embody the experimental spirit of the Aspen arts community. She invited a different artist to design each issue, and she made Aspen a box
rather than a bound volume, so each guest artist could fill it with whatever he chose.
Gone was the linear-text straightjacket. Articles were printed separately in different sizes, shapes, and colors, to discourage reading them in a fixed sequence. Besides the printed articles, eight of the ten issues published contained short pieces of music on phonograph records, and No. 3 even anticipated video by including a flipbook of frames from underground films by Andy Warhol and Jack Smith.
When Aspen debuted in 1965, Understanding Media had already made McLuhan famous for blaming our hangups on linear text, so the magazine and the media messiah were a perfect fit. In 1967 McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore had a new book, The Medium is the Massage, that was as non-linear as a $1.45 paperback could be, so they were tapped to create Aspen No. 4, published in the spring of that year.
It's a
vision of transforming society without conflict, a time capsule from an America whose optimism had not yet been tempered by the murder of Martin Luther King and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

The Aspen Vol. 1, No. 4 box, with contents.

Fiore puts quotes from McLuhan as teasers on the box and all the articles in it. The main course is a "press proof" from The Medium is the Massage, a 23 x 30-inch sheet of 32 pages that are not in printer's imposition, or any other sequence (the back of page 63 is page 18). The lack of order is the point, of course, as McLuhan explains: "Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. 'Time' has ceased, 'space' has vanished."
In a rambling essay from the preceding year's
International Design Conference, avant-garde composer John Cage writes: "Utopia? Self-knowledge. Some will make it, with or without LSD."
There's a 22 x 15-inch poster with bright, blurry photo of
Big Brother and the Holding Company playing at San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom. On the back, McLuhan writes that automation has given modern humans too much free time. He calls it "a liberation that taxes our inner resources of self-employment and imaginative participation in society." His answer? We are all called "to the role of artist in society. The mark of our time is its revulsion against imposed patterns. We are suddenly eager to have things and people declare their beings totally." Beneath this headline are stories about the Drop City and Solux communes and the "tribal sense" in the Haight-Ashbury (where the Summer of Love would begin in just a few weeks).
This stuff all points to a conclusion: If the problem is conformity, then the solution must be non-conformity. Or as McLuhan puts it, "The poet, the artist, the sleuth--whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial . . . [they] cannot go along with currents and trends . . . [they] see environments as they really are." This epigraph graces the cover of "Psycles," a 20-page booklet of excerpts from The Bikeriders, photographer Danny Lyons' book of photos and interviews he made while he was a member of the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle club.
What an irresistible proposition, especially for a buttoned-up literature professor: Drop acid, ride your chopper to the commune, and declare your being totally! You're not a shiftless bum, you're a social-change pioneer!
But the medium reveals much more than the words do, and Aspen was not a medium for dropouts. It was a $4 magazine at a time when Life was selling for 35 cents. Its readers may have daydreamed about slumming with the hippies and the bikers, but the advertisers knew what they really wanted. Quentin Fiore must have relished the irony of enclosing the advertising inserts in a folder imprinted with McLuhan's catchphrase, "Advertising is all good news."

The advertisements in Aspen Vol. 1, No. 4.

In the advertising folder are ads for Gordon's Gin, Remy Martin Cognac, and St Raphael aperitif wine. A flyer shows an MG sportscar in front of an English castle. A color brochure for Eastern Airlines says, "We want everyone to fly" (at a time when air travel was considered such a luxury that the rich were called the "jet set").
Aspen's audience could afford a $4 magazine, a sportscar, a flight to the Bahamas. They were the fortunate few who really were liberated from drudgery, free to declare their beings totally. Their biggest problem was the dull conformity that prevailed in high society and higher education at the time. Aspen offered them a brand of social change that was as easy to swallow as a fine Cognac.

04 May 2008

Text and television in McLuhan's global village

I revisited the work of Marshall McLuhan recently. The patron saint of Wired Magazine prophesied the triumph of video over print some 40 years before YouTube, but he died in 1980, too soon to see himself proved (sort of) right.

The pop-culture prophet becomes a pop-culture cliché: Marshall McLuhan (right) in Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977).

McLuhan was an English Literature professor at the University of Toronto whose 1951 book The Mechanical Bride:Folklore of Industrial Man was among the first to view popular culture through a scholar's eye.
He achieved notoriety outside of academic circles with the publication of The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man in 1962. The Gutenberg Galaxy introduced his theory that written language, and by extension printing, imposed a linear template on the thought process of all Western society.
In 1964 he took this idea further in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Television was so ubiquitous and so immediate, it would reverse the dominance of print and linear thinking: "The mass media of today are turning the globe into a village and catapulting 20th century man back to the life of the tribe." This notion lent momentum to the emerging 60s counterculture, but unlike his commune-dwelling admirers, McLuhan didn't completely endorse the return to the primitive. "Terror is the normal state of any oral society," he wrote, and that puts the inhabitants of the global village at the mercy of "Big Brother."

A spread from McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967), a 160-page paperback created in collaboration with graphic designer Quentin Fiore. Long on images and avant-garde typography and light on content, the book made McLuhan a bona fide celebrity.

McLuhan lacked the scholar's cool detachment from his subject. He envisioned television as an engine of social change. "Television completes the cycle of the human sensorium. [It] demands participation and involvement in depth of the whole being. It will not work as a background. It engages you," he wrote in 1967's The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. He continued:
It is a matter of greatest urgency that our educational institutions realize that we we now have civil war among these environments created by media other than the printed word. The classroom is now in a vital struggle for survival in the immensely persuasive 'outside' world created by new information media. Education must shift from instruction . . . to discovery--to probing and exploration and to the recognition of the language of forms.
He had to admit, though, that television promotes consumption more than discovery: "Today, the mass audience (the successor to 'the public') can be used as creative, participating force. It is, instead, merely given packages of passive entertainment."
He was naively hopeful that television would create more engaged citizens: "The living room has become a voting booth. Participation via television . . . is changing everything." Everything changed all right, but not the way McLuhan imagined.
Written language drew the line between gossip and news, and television erased that line. Pre-literate people probably didn't care about distant wars or global politics, but they were always eager to know who cheated on his wife, who got falling-down drunk, and what provocative remarks the preacher made--the stuff that television does best.
In McLuhan's Utopia, media would engage us in the life of the community. He was right that print often fails to do that, because it's one-way, top-down communication. Television wasn't the answer, though, because it's top-down too. What he was trying to invent was fully interactive media--something akin to Web 2.0. What he couldn't imagine was how successfully the new participatory media would integrate the core of the old media--text. Freed from the printed page, writing is no longer rigidly linear. It can flow seamlessly into pictures, sounds, or other text strands.
In 1967, McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore tried to achieve this non-linearity within the confines of print in an issue of Aspen, "the magazine in a box," which will be the subject of the next PublishingMojo post.