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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

Level 3 variable: At this point, some interesting things begin to happen. We’re still dealing here only with variable text, but, for example, you may need a program that can handle a variety of data formats from different types of data bases. And you may find you have a variety of lengths in the data fields that can play havoc with your page design. That could call for software that will automatically resize the type to fit the given area. You may want to be able to control just how much the type can be resized (you don’t want 4-point type for personalized content!) Don’t worry, there are still lots of relatively inexpensive programs that can handle it. But the more sophisticated the software, generally the more it’s going to cost-and the more training and experience your operators will need.

Level 2 variable: Many print service providers are being called upon to be data managers; they need to be able to take in virtually any kind of data format and work miracles with it. In many cases, there are missing fields or missing data. How does the system handle it when a piece of critical data simply doesn’t exist? How does the printer know the job will work before the printing process starts and that every piece will print correctly? There comes a point in every production workflow where the demand will exceed the capability of the software and hardware. To stay profitable and please the clientele, it’s absolutely critical that the print service provider knows very well the limits of his hardware, software, and the capabilities of his employees.

Level 1 variable: At this level, everything in the document can change: images, texts, everything. An example might be a piece for a college that depicts the major that a prospective student is considering-perhaps with a liberal arts default for undecided students-with the appropriate headline. A biology major might get a picture of the biology lab while a dance major might see a shot of the latest dance production on stage. In fact, even the length and size of the document might change according to the recipient’s likes and dislikes.

Web-to-print, transactional, and multimedia
A trio of other types of variable work can have an impact on digital print service providers: Web-to-print, transactional, and multimedia.