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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

is printed.

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


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