Corrections or additions?
Between the Lines
This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
March 10, 1999. All rights reserved.
We ran into a fun little article on John McPhee the
other day. McPhee is not only a book author and magazine writer, but
also — as we realized from the piece — a dedicated teacher
of writing at Princeton University. The article, which appeared in
a publication called "Princeton," emanating from the university’s
fundraising office, quoted McPhee describing his course and also
quoted former students describing what it was like to have the celebrated
writer poring over their efforts. When the former students include
David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, and Richard Preston,
the Princeton-based author of "The Hot Zone," the reading
gets pretty interesting.
So we dug into the McPhee article on the front page, and then jumped
to the back page for more about McPhee and his students. But then
we suddenly ran out of enthusiasm. And the must reading got thrown
into a pile bound for recycling glory.
What derailed us? We think it was another case of graphic overkill,
an instance of style so overwhelming substance that the reader just
couldn’t handle it. We dug the newsletter out of the recycling pile
and studied it. The article we read, about McPhee, consisted of one
headline, black type on white background, and one black and white
photograph, with a single caption line in orange type. All very ordinary,
with just a splash of color, and all very readable.
But ordinary and readable are apparently not enough. Also in this
issue were black type on orange background, orange type on white background,
white type on orange background, orange type on black background,
white type on black background, and one article that included white
type on orange, white type on black, orange type on black, and black
type on orange — all on the same page.
What has led to this proliferation of meaningless graphics is the
same force that has wreaked havoc throughout the world of print journalism,
the personal computer and its desktop publishing software. In the
old days the printer would have put a kibosh on the zealous designer
of the Princeton newsletter — too time consuming and too expensive.
But today, with software that can send digital images directly to
the plate room, such color overload is no more work than an ordinary
black and white publication with a dab of spot color here or there.
Here at U.S. 1 we are seeing the desktop publishing revolution at
all its extremes. Business owners with personal computers, cheap desktop
publishing programs, and cheap inkjet printers, now save money by
designing their own ads, rather than hiring an agency to do the work.
The only cost is the readability of the message.
Black type, a white background, a graphic image, and — of course
— the company logo used to be the essential elements of a print
ad. Now they are combined in one digital soup and whisked briskly
by the creative designer, who may in fact be the office computer whiz
who has been unfairly saddled with a new role for which they are not
trained or equipped. Graphic images are superimposed on gray backgrounds;
fonts are mixed and matched above, below, and sometimes right through
the company logo. You would think more customers would be asking "whose
ad is this, anyhow?"
Of course, there are benefits that cannot be ignored. Digital files
can be transmitted cheaply and quickly by E-mail. But it’s not always
easy. The mortgage table on page 50 of this issue was successfully
E-mailed to us by its provider. But that happened only after four
weeks of trial and error in which the table did not appear at all.
To reduce expenses, even some of the agencies are now printing on
plain paper instead of creating linotronic output. And they are E-mailing
ads instead of Fed Exing them. Kathleen Sisack of our staff has become
our resident expert in electronic file transmission and she cheerfully
accepts Adobe Acrobat files (PDF) and images saved as TIFFs. But watch
that resolution on the graphic files. Too high a resolution increases
the size of your file without gaining much in quality. Too low and
the printed image lacks sharpness. The low resolution GIF or JPEG
that looks great on your web site just won’t look the same once it
U.S. 1 has Pagemaker 6.5, Photoshop 4.0.1, Quark 3.32, Microsoft Office,
and even the cheap Microsoft Publisher. But, Sisack notes, we run
PCs here, not Macs, so when we do get a Mac disk to convert, we need
to know what program was used to build each file and what each file
was saved as.
And when the agency turns out to be a freelancer working at home with
Microsoft Publisher and an inkjet printer, the original image is often
less than sharp. And when anyone transmits an ad to us, they should
realize that the ad cannot be tweaked or manipulated by us unless
we happen to have the exact same font and exact same software. Fixing
a typo can become a major project, and all the new technology has
not reduced the incidence of typographical errors (and maybe it has
made it worse).
Have we made ourselves clear? If not we will try it again, in orange
type, maybe, on a black background, or perhaps black, on an orange
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.