The Story of a Book and then some…

A recent online discussion of other people’s art reminded me of a book I helped to produce in my studio in the late 90’s. I operated a studio named Digital Media Production which grew out of another company and was a supplier of digital know how to the advertising agencies and PR firms that were located in the area. At one time we had up to two art directors, five production artists and a couple of interns, our normal work was to take the clients ideas and direction and bring it to a stage that would allow it to be reproduced in a professional system.

If that sounds vague it’s because things changed fast in those days. This day we happened to be book designers when a client came in asking for us to design and produce a book for her client a large food manufacturer. She came to us with her chef and we discussed their ideas, she wanted a beautiful glossy coffee table book produced in full color with large photos on one page and the recipe on the other. After some initial proposals her client came up with the deposit checks for all those involved and we were off.

Hardcover binding and heavy glossy paper meant meetings with book binders and paper suppliers. We already had a photographer in mind and the same for food stylists and set decorator so more meetings and scheduling, scheduling, scheduling. Mockups were approved, studios rented and principle shooting started which went amazingly well, we were averaging seven photos a day which is really good for food photography.

Since the client was looking for beautiful full sized photos we shot everything on large format cameras and were preparing for Hi-Fi 6 color printing with a special color for the clients logo and spot gloss and flood varnishes, this thing was going to pop off the pages. A few weeks after shooting we were ready to deliver our artwork to the printer.

This is when things got fuzzy as our client the agency had gotten into a fight with her client the food company and nothing happened for a long time. I put my copies of the project into storage and went on with life which was beginning to get hectic as my wife had discovered she no longer wanted part of me and since she was a partner in my company it triggered a confrontation with our third partner who now wanted and was within his rights to ask that we close the company. This left me really scrambling with no time to worry about a shelved project.

Some time later and I don’t remember how long but the money part of the project found my former partner and wanted to restart the project, a deal was made and I released the files which meant I handed a CD to Phil when he asked for it. I don’t know what the deal was as I had no involvement and my company was long gone.

Well life goes on if you’re lucky and I think over ten years did. In the meantime I did many other things only remembering about this project recently thanks to a discussion on facebook. My initial searches turned up nothing because when the book was finally released they changed the name and they changed authors making it harder to find. Well Goodwill in Texas had a copy for ninety-nine cents on ebay so last week I bought my first copy of a book I created over fifteen years ago but never seen. It arrived four days later in a flimsy plastic envelope, way too small and light for the book I worked on. That was the first change, instead of the big beautiful coffee table book what arrived was a 7″ x 10″ softcover.

That’s not all, opening the first page the light hit the paper at just the right angle to reflect off the ink exposing that the piece was printed on a digital press which is more like a photocopier than the 6 color + specials offset press we prepared our work for. Also with the pages a lot smaller they had to shrink the margins and now the copy is awkwardly near the edges and dips way too far into the gutter. The serif typeface being printed with a less quality method and shrunk down slightly had become too fine making the edges look jagged and tattered.

The final thing I notice is my credit has been left off, I guess I’d rather not be named when the results are like this so it’s really no loss just another point in a long list of disappointments. Since I still have the original files I have no problem proving it’s my work I just wish they had executed it better. Well at least now I have a copy and I can put this chapter to rest.

Oh I almost forgot, my used copy which was listed as good condition had been marked up by a previous owner making the condition much worse but I won’t hold Goodwill responsible. It seems some person had taken a blue ball point pen and converted all the recipes into some Chinese characters. I actually like this as it shows this book was actually useful to someone. All this brings back memories of tasting these dishes from when we made the photos, I hope they enjoyed them too.


Leading the digital pack in 1995

Of the most interesting jobs I’ve had my favorites were always those where I worked with people who were smarter, more skilled or just plane leaders it their field. One of these occasion was in 1995 when I was called to run the digital prepress operations for the Canadian introduction of the first digital offset printing press at the largest printing trade show in Canada.

Dr. Fischer was from head office in Germany, and the leader of the digital research department was in charge of making sure the machine arrived and was installed and run to the highest standards, it was his baby. I expected a stern ship’s captain but was pleasantly surprised when he introduced himself in a cheerful happy voice and a big smile. His assistance, of course he called the shots but it seemed like he was helping us and his funny jokes made the long hours setting up the show pass quickly. We completed our tasks on time with everything moving along smoothly.

As the last day of setup was coming to a close it was noticed that the huge show booth did not have enough light so the show services department were summoned and extra lights were quickly hoisted up to the rafters. It was as the last of the extra lights were being adjusted that the large scissor lift truck lurched backward and its steel frame clipped sharply into the delivery unit of our secret weapon press breaking and bending precious bits of aluminum and steel with a loud crunch.

The booth was filled with shock and horror, would Dr. Fischer freak out, would he hit the extra high ceiling in a screaming panic? Nope, in much more coolness than I’m sure anyone else there could muster he calmly walked over and started to explain to the press technicians which parts were from which other model machines and off they went back to the shop to collect them. I believe it was his control of the situation that allowed the work to progress unhindered by panic and drama. It took until late in the night but all was repaired and the show went on like nothing happened.

Our big deal was that we could print directly from a normal computer and at that time it was a Macintosh laptop to an offset press, no film making, no traditional printing plates and no waiting, push print and a few minutes later beautiful four colour sheets were flying off the press at up to 10,000 an hour.

We produced a newsletter specially for the show on a glossy tabloid sized sheet, one side was printed in the morning with news of that day and the other side was printed during the demo using photos and info from the group that was being given the demo. After the demo the room was filled with the smell of ink and the guests were handed the fresh sheets that contained photos of themselves with the warning that the ink was still wet. Amazing!

We also produced a more challenging demo that was printed in the evening. I combined many of the features of the machine that were difficult to achieve on normal small format presses like very tight registration, very long gradients, very small type, highly saturated colours and it was printed on the maximum size sheet the press would handle. This allowed an interested customer to compare our sheet to the other high speed machines at the show. Since at this time the competition were merely colour photocopiers their sheet was dull and smaller and the print was fuzzy and the ink sat up on the paper like drops of paint from a paint brush, they were no competition. Dr. Fischer also allowed me to print my name on the sheet as creator which made it the centerpiece of my portfolio for years.

After donning a shirt and tie for a week the show was over and the wrap party was held at a nearby steakhouse where the company paid for a huge keg of beer and fabulous dinners for everyone. It was here that I found out that our special press was the hit of the show and the expected target of 15 orders was exceeded by over 70 orders! Ahhh my job was secure.

Now with the show over I was back to developing the first digital demo center for the Canadian headquarters near Toronto. The company already had a very large traditional demo center with many printing presses large and small and all the equipment to support those machines like film processors, plate makers, light tables, cutters, punching machines, etc. enough to mostly fill a 10,000 square foot room. We were given about 500 square feet to start with and permission to get what I thought we needed.

Up until this point my duties were as technical consultant to the sales specialist for the new and up until now secret and unannounced digital printing products. The person I was assisting was trained on traditional offset presses and had some Macintosh graphic arts familiarity but not enough to complete the demo center. After the success of the show he was required to hit the road supporting the new customers and I was left mostly on my own to complete the task in anticipation of our demo press arrival.

As I spent day after day in the new demo center digital room, at first assembling and starting up the equipment and then proofing and preparing customer demo jobs staff members started to pop in and see what I was up to. This interaction with other staff members lead to other jobs including working with the marketing department on preparation of the monthly ad buys. I assembled all the ads for spots that ran in many nationally distributed trade magazines and delivered them in digital format. By the time of the next trade show I was producing signage to be displayed on everything up to multi-million dollar presses and a whole range of graphic needs.

1995 was also the dawn of the internet in business and being a unix networking person I was called to teach the company president how to access the internet with an ISDN connection we had installed in his office. Later I registered their first domain name and created and maintained their first web site.

Other interesting jobs were when the president would assign special top secret projects. These were usually tests to see how good the equipment really was, how close could we come to a competitor’s claim of being the best at something, how close can new equipment duplicate old methods, what changes would new processes have on quality? Many questions were answered and I swore to not talk about the results.

Since fifteen years have gone by I think I’m free to talk about them if anyone cares to hear. The real point is when you get millions of dollars of equipment and a room full of professionals in different disciplines you can do some amazing stuff. I feel some of the trade show jobs we created were totally unfair to customers as we had a large team and virtually unlimited budget that allowed us to produce a job until we got it perfect and then some. I remember modifying huge bitmaps to allow the ink keys to appear more uniform, which is kind of unnecessary but I’m sure allowed some kind of bragging rights for the show manager.


Getting my photo taken during the show, GraphicTrade1995, Toronto, Canada.

Designing a game with PLCs

I’ve been working with mini PLCs for over ten years now and I’d like to describe how I used them to control a sports training/amusement device I designed a few years ago and is still in production. The mini PLCs are a relatively new class of devices that unlike traditional PLCs everything you need in one tiny rail mounted box instead of a large cabinet that used to be required with traditional PLCs.

I was first introduced to the Moeller Easy line of mini PLCs by our electrical supplier who sent us an invitation for a seminar and workshop. By the end of the workshop I had my head full of ways to use this amazing new product, from energy savings to modernizing old equipment to reducing complexity and product count in new products or even to add new features that would have been unthinkable before.

A PLC is an industrial controller that has at its heart a computer, it interacts with the outside world through a series of electrical contacts and various inputs. They can operate as simply as a switch remotely operates a relay or can perform advanced mathematical functions to allow you to precisely control sophisticated processes and mechanisms. Traditionally these devices were developed for factories and required many different components to function. The power supply, input modules, output modules, display units, communication units, etc were each one device or more. MiniPLCs contain all the modules in a simplified form

English: Zenith Space Commander 600, an early ...

English: Zenith Space Commander 600, an early television remote control. The Space Commander 600 was available for color TV only. This particular design was offered between the years 1965 through 1972. Deutsch: Zenith Space Commander 600, eine frühe Fernsehfernbedienung. Die Space Commander 600 war ausschließlich für Farbfernseher erhältlich. Dieses spezifische Design wurde von 1965 bis 1972 angeboten. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

in one small box that could fit on the palm of your hand.

The first Easy controls I ordered were used as simple timers to replace a couple of delay relays and some switch logic. I not only cut down on the number of parts and made more room inside of the electrical box but I saved money over the old parts and was able to offer some new features without increasing costs. That was a hit with the boss and I was hooked. Another advantage was I could now draw out my switch logic on the computer and try out new designs without cutting a single wire!  Another good reason is my back hurts when standing on concrete shop floors for hours so this armchair design worked for me.

During the 1970s the company I was working for had custom made a pair of machines that were used as a skills challenge during a nationally televised pro sports program. The machines were very bulky and weighed as much as a large motorcycle and each had a control box filled with timers and relays that synchronized and automated their functions. The system was never made commercially available but many people fondly remembered them as being on TV with their favorite star. I used to see a large photo of the event almost every day at the office so it was always somewhere on my mind but one day the idea of putting the functionality of the old system in a new machine with the tiny control came to me and I decided the time might be right to bring back the old TV star.

Designing starts with an idea but quickly moves to the notebook and sketch pad. For a product like this one which also plays a game while attempting to train a skill some fluency with heuristic theory is also helpful. There is also an aspect of  kinesiology when using the device, athletes will be expected to perform a series of repetitive motions so a study of how it affects human movement should also be considered. The company already had years of experience of training athletes and I based my game off a well proven model so we’re now off to the drawing board.

I start with a list of simple design objectives then proceed to sketch out the functionality with a flow chart. A simple schematic is hand drawn to help plan for complexity and to have a rough guide of the parts count and thus cost. I now present the company with my findings and ask for some kind of commitment and a budget. When this all starts to make sense some prototype assemblies were built and tested, I’m trying to add the new functionality to a standard model machine to keep costs down. The prototype parts are operated and a simulation of the machine is performed with a series of toggle switches operated manually, the test is recorded on video, this is done because video can be easily analyzed and timing information can be measured that will later be programmed back into the PLC.

Now that I know that the mechanical functions can be achieved I start to program my PLC. Basically the game is just a large number of nested relays, one function must be completed before the next can proceed and some functions require complete routines like the machine must reset itself between players, the machine must wait a certain amount of time to allow the player to attempt to complete the task, the machine must incorporate some sense of randomness to keep the players from guessing the sequence and timing, scoring must be acknowledged, etc. This became a rather long list and the final program was almost 200 lines long.

Whenever you design automated machines safety must be considered, machines are powerful and you don’t want a person injured by careless design so a certain amount of forethought and testing are required. I designed my circuits so that in case of failure the machine would default to the safest position, this means that if something like a wire is cut or a relay fails the machine goes off and not continues operating. I also used very large red reset/stop button on the machine and on the remote control and they were wired to directly cut the power and to open any pinch hazards. There are some special PLCs made that are dedicated to safety functions, for a machine of this small size this was not necessary.

Testing is not normally considered part of design but for devices that will be used by the public it is important to allow people not involved with the design operate the equipment, you can’t proof your own work so you never know what this will produce and the earlier you get some “real world” testing the easier it will be to correct these problems.I like to call it “user blindness”, its the ability of designers and engineers to overlook what a normal user would do.

Another nice feature of the Moeller Easy and other mini PLCs is the ability to update the program just by transferring it from a memory chip. After the first few machine were in use for a short while customers were providing valuable feedback and modifications were made to the program. These changes could then be given to the customer by just mailing them an inexpensive chip and having it uploaded with no costly trips back to the factory. People found the slow too slow and the fast not fast enough and this was corrected in software, tested on a factory machine and shipped to the customer.

From concept to delivery, mini PLCs might make sense to you too.

Why don’t we label energy usage like we label ingredients?

John Brower got me thinking with his post about saving the planet, well actually he was commenting about his son’s assignment to watch this film and he added about his efforts to save energy…   I agree that turning off an unused light bulb is a good thing but its a rather small thing when you compare it to industrial and military usage and those groups are actively working on making sure we never know the details of their operations. 


Part of the problem is much of the data of energy usage is shielded from our view for various reasons like;


-We’re only the public and why do we deserve to know the private business of huge corporations?

-We’re only the tax payers and why do we need to know how the military uses our resources?

-We’re only the consumers and why do we think we have a right to know what goes into what we buy?


Here’s one simple idea that could be implemented and its very similar to the laws that govern how ingredients are listed on products. How about if we had a “total energy cost” printed on the label? I don’t mean that label they put on refrigerators to show you how much it costs to run, you can (and should) buy a simple energy cost meter at the hardware store to find what all your appliances are costing you.


I’m talking about a label to display the amount of energy used to manufacture and deliver THAT product you are holding in your hand. How green are your vegetables when they require oil for chemicals, oil for farm equipment and oil for transportation to be sent half way around the world to market?


Right now there is no easy way you can compare the energy cost of locally made vs. imported products, I believe having it at a glance would change peoples habits and that might be why we won’t see it and I’m thinking of Monsanto’s efforts to fight GMO labels.