Paper dolls

July 1, 2007

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

Every month we find our intrepid “Johnson's World” correspondent staring blankly at his computer monitor.

“Daddy, are you writing a column?” asks my daughter Roxane.

“Yes, dear, I'm supposed to, but I'm having trouble thinking of ideas.”

“Why don't you write a story about dollies?”

“Dollies? As in dolls? Well, Roxane, this column is for AMERICAN PRINTER, so the subject should somehow relate to printing. Besides, honey, I don't know very much about dollies.”

“How about paper dolls?”

How about them, indeed?

We interrupt this father-daughter moment for a word about proprietary products and processes.

In the low-profit-margin world of commodity ink on paper, any idea that allows us to do something no one else can do has the potential to boost our profit margins, big time.

A proprietary process is tough to come by. It can involve much research and development, big budgets, engineers and patent attorneys. The big printers, who measure their sales in billions, routinely play in this world.

Absent that sort of budget, it takes some sort of specialized knowledge, or at least the ability to think outside the box.

A proprietary product might be easier to come by than a proprietary process. Gutenberg's Bible and Ben Franklin's “Poor Richards Almanac” both were examples of this. Neither of these men had any higher goal than to keep their presses busy. Yet, their final products are priceless today.

“Wait!” I hear you cry. Their final products are priceless today not because of the printing, but because of the product, itself.

That is my point, exactly. A proprietary product is something we print and sell as an end product. Think about the things you print for your clients that are end products.

My company prints graduate textbooks that sell for $100+, but I am paid $10 to print and bind each one. What if I could charge the $100+ to print these babies, instead? I could, if I owned the product.

The challenge is to dream up a proprietary product in the first place. Doing so requires a brain-storming “thinking out loud” session with some inspirational co-conspirator who isn't too close to the printing business.

In my case, that person happens to be my very clever, wise beyond her 10 years daughter, Roxane.

Don't let talk of “dollies” fool you; Roxane inherited both her brains and her looks from her mother. What sounds like a little girl talking of her dolls actually is a proprietary print product in the making.

So how about paper dolls? Paper dolls are a print product. From the examples I'm shown, it appears paper dolls are sold in saddlebound booklets, leaving the cutting to the kids. Say, my company produces saddlebound booklets. Maybe Roxane is on to something.

“Do girls still play with paper dolls?” I ask.

“Yes, if the dolls are something they like.” Most paper doll products seem to be related to a theme, such as “American Girl” or “Barbie.”

The ‘proprietary’ hook

What could I do with paper dolls that haven't been done before? What strong points does my printing company have that may be useful here?

How about melding variable printing with paper dolls? Custom-printed books with the names of children and their friends, pets and siblings integrated into the story have been printed with variable technology for years. How about putting a little girl's face on a paper doll? That would be something new. Paper dolls are illustrated, not photographed, so this presents a challenge. If we plan to sell a lot of paper doll books, we must automate the process of creating the variable-data images as line drawings from furnished photographs.

This is the trickiest part. The answer lies in a digital filter that reduces color photos to black outlines, creating the appearance of a sketch or a caricature. Automating this process takes a bit of time and effort, but if it were all easy, the end result wouldn't be very proprietary.

The furnished photo to line drawing software development means that we have the best of all worlds: a proprietary product (paper dolls customized with a young girl's face) and a proprietary process (rendering the art into a suitable form on the fly.)

Now, we have something we can market and sell. The asking price will be whatever parents and grandparents consider to be the value of a happy young daughter or granddaughter. Last time I checked, that is much higher than the price of 16 fourcolor, saddlestitched pages.

You can't use the paper doll idea; Roxane already thought of that. But now you know a methodology you can use to create your very own proprietary product.