The DTP Revolution

Although personal computers quickly replaced the humble typewriter, the art of typesetting and laying out high-quality printed documents took a little longer to go digital. True desktop publishing software is usually known by its acronym, DTP. This kind of program differs from word processors and home or small-office publishing packages in the precise level of control over the document that it enables. Designed for high-speed use by an experienced operator, a true DTP program doesn't try to suggest where a picture should be located on the page or correct your grammar. Its output format is designed for extremely accurate results when the document is transferred to the print shop.

Some proprietary DTP software was available in the 1980s, including Aldus PageMaker, but most printers were a technically conservative bunch of people. After all, the principles of moveable type printing had hardly changed in 500 years, since Gutenberg introduced this technology to Europe (see Figure 7-1). Moveable type means that each letter in a word or a line of text is an individual element, with a particular font style; letters can be rearranged quickly in any order for printing. Contrast the flexibility of this method to carved woodblock printing and the hand-inked parchments, produced slowly and carefully by monks and scholars, which the early printers were trying to emulate.

Figure 7-1. A German printing press from 1811, in the Deutsches Museum, Munich. Photo by Matthias Kabel, GNU FDL.

Right into the 1970s and 80s, some printers were still using typefaces cast from red-hot, liquid metal, just like Gutenberg (a goldsmith) had pioneered in Germany during the mid-fifteenth century. About 30 years ago, many printers switched to using electro-mechanical phototypesetting machines, but desktop computers were about to revolutionize the industry. Beginning in 1986, 5,000 print workers in London fought a bitter, year-long street battle with News International, publisher of The Times and other English newspapers, over its relocation to a brand new DTP-based printing plant at Wapping, east of the city center. The printers had been fired after refusing to move to the new facility, which was so controversial among members of their profession that it had been built in secret. Control was being taken away from the factory floor and put onto the computer user's desktop.

It wasn't until QuarkXpress 3 took hold in print shops during the early 1990s that the remaining traditional typesetters and layout artists were forced to retrain or lose their job to some teenager who knew how to work a Mac. QuarkXPress and PageMaker were also available for Windows, there was DTP software for home computers like the Amiga and Atari, and IBM had its own system based on the OS/2 platform; but Apple's integrated hardware and operating system became the de facto standard in professional publishing. The availability of Apple desktop laser printers played a part in that process, because they allowed sharp, accurate text proofs and final copy to be produced quickly and cheaply.

Digital preparation for mass-produced documents, sometimes called prepress, not only was much faster than the old typesetting and paste-up methods, but also enabled new designs and layouts that had been difficult to achieve before. However, much of the terminology and many concepts behind hot-metal printing were carried over into DTP software, which can make this kind of program hard to understand if you don't have a background in the industry.

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