Let me just summarise some of the changes I’ve seen in the graphic arts industry with prticular reference to the printing side of it.
When I first started as a graphic artist back in 1984 a lot of the artwork I created involved the use of a few pieces of very specialised equipment, including typesetting machines and industrial cameras as well as a steady hand and a great deal of craftsmanship. Type specking and sizing of images was a carefully planned activity that often required an approach involving as much mathematical know-how as it did of design.
All of the design elements needed were output onto photographic paper and were 'developed' using expensive photographic chemicals that needed changing weekly. Then you had to 'cut and paste' them using a pair of scissors, wax or glue and a drawing board to create the final artwork. By today’s standard, designing and creating artwork like this was an extremely time consuming and expensive process but it kept a number of people in work.
This in itself was a much quicker process than what preceded it. I served my printing apprenticeship at a time of great change in the printing industry (1980-84) when many printers in my area were 'modernising' from letterpress to offset printing. Prior to this 'paste-up' method of artwork creation, they used lead type and engraved zinc blocks and everything was created in reverse. That method of 'artwork creation' had been used for decades prior to this, and probably hadn't changed much since the days of Gutenburg who invented the art of movable type.
Personal computers back then were no more than a distant fantasy – even when I first started in the industry. It was 1990 before computer technology had progressed far enough to be considered usable in a commercial setting as far as graphic arts were concerned. Up until that time I was spending thousands of dollars a year on typesetting and camera work, the cost of which I would have to pass on to my clients. However, when I bought my first computer (a Mac Plus in 1990) I immediately became more self sufficient and ceased buying in those services. My business became more profitable. Not only was I saving on the cost, the whole process was much quicker too, so it gave me a much needed competitive edge.
It wasn’t long before typesetting businesses started disappearing, followed quickly by film strippers, scanners and industrial camera operators, whose services were notoriously expensive. Now that it could be done on computer with a few key pieces of software like Photoshop and Quark or Pagemaker there was no longer any need for such specialist services, and graphic designers who started computerising their workflow early were the real winners. However that only lasted for a few short years.
The key driving influence of course was profitability. Sadly it always boils down to MONEY. So you can be sure the insatiable quest for it doesn’t end there.
Inevitably, personal computers developed to the point where ANYONE with a computer and a few key pieces of software could do it themselves without a graphic designer. Many graphic designers started going out of business as a result. At around this time the polytech’s and Universities started churning out design graduates, as many hopeful design students were lining up to shell out big bucks to become "Graphic Designers", each of them oblivious to what was happening in the industry.
Interestingly, the Graphic Designer section of the 2008 Auckland Yellow Pages featured some 26 graphic design businesses who could afford a display advertisement costing between $1500–$3000+ a year. By 2012 this number had dropped to zero. The internet has only sped up that process. In the mean time whole sections of the printing industry have become extinct. The frightening thing about all this is how quickly it’s all happened.
Since the whole industry started revolving around computerisation the developers of the software tools we’d been using began flexing their muscles. During the 1990’s Aldus Freehand and Pagemaker were bought out by Adobe and then trashed, making it clear they were intent on eliminating their competition so as to attain market dominance by maximising the use of their own core products. They even gave away Acrobat Reader for free which cleverly created a dependency on their wares.
Before long Adobe rose up to become the leading provider of professional graphic arts software, with it’s flagship product: Photoshop. In the mean time Adobe started marketing its software as a ‘suite of products’ in an attempt to cast its net wider to find new users and as a result flooded the market with its products. All the while it’s traditional customer base — Graphic Designers were struggling to find work and had started disappearing. Many could only afford to upgrade their software every few years. However, Adobe’s arrogance and its quest for profitablity seems to know no bounds.
Adobe has sought to use it’s market dominance to change the rules concerning the use of its products. They are no longer content to SELL their products, and then wait 2 or 3 years for them to be upgraded. Now that they’ve conditioned everyone in the industry to depend on their products to earn a living they’ve sought to force users of their products to RENT them on a monthly or yearly basis on subscription. This could force even more players out of the industry and at the very least will increase costs for all those desperate to stay involved. Many fear that signing up to this new arrangement will expose them to Adobe’s insatiable greed, reasoning that in the future it could steadily increase the subscription fee whenever it felt like it, and the average user of their products be powerless to do anything about it.
What of the Future?
Without doubt we will continue to see a growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots in this world. And while I don’t consider myself to be in either of these groups, I sense that this move by Adobe will force me and many others like me to make a critical decision, whether to COMMIT to the industry or to ABANDON it. It seems it will not be possible to remain only half-in as in the case of many hobbyists who use their products. There’ll be no room for any hangers-on in the long term.
For those already committed to the industry, this could be seen as a good thing. Those looking for a silver lining in this dark cloud might reason that Adobe is actually doing them a service by thinning out the industry, forcing any pretenders to leave, or any cheaters with pirated software to cough up like everybody else and make it a level playing field.
It could take several years for all this to work itself out. But I’m not ready to put my pencils away just yet. What else could I do?