Welcome to my (monthly) world

January 1, 2006

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

In previous issues of AMERICAN PRINTER, you might have noticed me on the back page, every other month. Beginning this issue, “Johnson’s World” will be here every month. Why? Does the printing industry need another commentator? What can you expect from me that you can’t get anywhere else?

Glad you asked.

I’m in your business...

I own a shop. I work there full time. I’m not a writer who observes printing; I’m a printer who writes about my work. Many pundits writing about printing have never worked in the business. Others worked for equipment manufacturers, which is a very different animal, and some who were once employed in the industry haven’t been for decades.

That does not disqualify these experts, but the complete absence of balance indicates that we desperately need observation and commentary from within the business itself, by those who face today’s problems, right now. I feel your pain.

...But I’m not in your business

I’m a digital printer. There aren’t many of us out here, but our numbers are increasing daily. If digital printing really is the “next big thing,” you need to hear both sides of this story from someone who knows. Someone who has learned his lessons the hard way. Someone who isn’t trying to sell you iron, and has, at times, bought too much equipment.

I made the leap from offset worker bee to digital chief executive based mostly on optimism and faith, and because I wanted to do something different while remaining in the industry I first joined as a teenager.

I received lots of advice, some invaluable, some worthless. As you struggle and debate the integration of or transition to digital print, I offer you my perspective on the promises and pitfalls of this brave new world.

I love this business...

If I convey only one thing, I hope it is my love and enthusiasm for all things print. When I began as a platemaker at the age of 16, the fellow who was training me repeated a speech he had heard earlier in his career.

“Look around you. Everything you see has printing on it. Print is crucial to civilization and always will be needed. If you are a printer, you will never want for work.” It’s still true! My early jobs as platemaker, stripper and cameraman are gone forever, but print itself is alive and well.

“Is printing a science or a craft?” another early mentor asked rhetorically. “Printing is an art, and a medium through which all other art is preserved.” Strong stuff. Print declining in importance? Don’t you believe it!

...And I can’t stand this business

Miniscule profit margins are accepted as normal. Price cutting and price gouging are commonplace. The “way things have always been” and “everybody knows” are rampant. We have a poor image (or no image) among young people considering career paths. Sometimes, I just shake my head. Other times, I put my head on my desk. I used to bang my head against the wall, but now I have this column to write for therapy.

I like to write about “best practices,” but I feel it is my duty to also cover the worst. I do promise that after I point out a problem, I’ll offer a prescription and close on an optimistic note.

Things are changing so fast..


Technology is reshaping our business with blinding speed. Letterpress ruled for more than 500 years; offset might not make 50. Handset wooden type from 1450 was still used in 1950, whereas publishing software circa 1990 like Ventura and WordStar won’t even run on today’s computers.

We now routinely print color at quality levels unimagined just a few years ago. It has never been easier for someone, anyone, to get their work into print. The array of technology facilitating the flow of information into print is so vast that we must spend a lifetime learning and never stop. We are all journeymen and apprentices at the same time.

...Yet things are the same as always

“This changes everything,” the mantra of the Internet boom, was proven false by the bust. Sound business practices don’t change. Today’s technology only works by building upon the lessons of the past. In fact, if anyone is keeping score, I’ll bet I more frequently explain how digital is similar to, rather than different from, previous industry systems and workflows.

I’ve learned the hard way that buying machines with lasers instead of ink keys won’t make me a better salesman or a better businessman. I’m here to share these and other lessons with you.

See you next month!