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Forecast: Variable Winds

(October 2008) posted on Thu Oct 30, 2008

Tackling variable data? Be sure you know your shop's capabilities.

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By Stephen Beals

The second economic factor is the impact of the printed piece. In this regard, variable print has a clear advantage. Study after study has clearly shown that a variable-print piece has a far greater impact on the recipient than does a static piece.

Breaking down the marketplace
Naturally, the first item needed for variable print is a digital workflow and a digital output device. But also understand that the farther you go down the list that follows, the faster and more powerful the RIP that sits in front of the output device must be. At one end, you can feed simple variable text to a low-output laser printer or inkjet device, and just about any RIP that will feed the device will be able to keep up with that kind of data. Once you get to the point of fully variable images and so on, it takes state-of-the-art hardware and software to keep up with high-end digital presses.

And there are a few other things to consider right off the bat. Not only do you need to know how the data will come in, you also need to know how the templates are coming in, and how much control you have of the templates themselves. Will the customer be working in Microsoft Word, Quark XPress, Adobe InDesign, or something else? This is one reason many software makers have opted to standardize on PDF for variable data: It’s universal and it’s a format they have learned how to work with well.

What follows are four levels of variable-data management, from the simplest to the most complex:

Baseline variable: This is the most basic level of variable-data management and is simply printing templates with different text in different places. Much of the document might be exactly the same, with only a name or address inserted here and there to "personalize" the piece. For these kinds of pieces, a mail-merge program or a Quark or InDesign plug-in might be sufficient. There are many suppliers of such programs and the learning curve isn’t terribly steep. They most often accept database files from Microsoft Excel without much need for tweaking.