The Fourth Wall

11.20.08 Let’s Go on a Field Trip!

No, not to some futuristic alien-infested location straight outta your favorite sci-fi novel… in fact, we’re going to take a trip into the Past, the Present, and the Future. Simultaneously. Without a time machine! Designers have dubbed this adventure The Press Inspection, and with increasing rarity in our cost-conscious, hyper-paced profession, I relish these opportunities to visit favorite local print shops where good old-fashioned American industrial manufacturing meets frighteningly cutting-edge digital technology. The alienesque photo above? We’ll get to that in a minute. Or two. But first: How did we end up here on a gray day in November?

Today’s field trip actually begins on the other side of the world in a small children’s residential school called Yemin Orde Youth Village, near Haifa, Israel. Founded in 1953 to accommodate Holocaust orphans during the great immigration waves of the fifties, today the 77-acre campus is home to more than 500 children from war-torn and otherwise devastated countries around the world.

Crossing the ocean quickly to Washington, DC, a small office in an apartment building on Connecticut Avenue, we find one of designfarm‘s longterm clients, Friends of Yemin Orde. The American-based fundraising arm of the Israeli youth village, FYO financially supports the programs, the children, and the graduates of the school, as well as other disenfranchised youth who are served by outreach programs.

Next stop, a small unassuming brick building facade in Baltimore, Maryland, home of one of The Whitmore Group‘s printing plants, Schneidereith & Sons (fine printing since 1849, 5 generations of printers). This will all come together, you’ll see.

Entering the building, the acrid but weirdly pleasant and somehow comforting smell of printer’s ink threatens to potentially knock you out… until your senses adjust. And as soon as you get past the front office, you know that as a designer you are about to enter another world all together, far from your  groovy little office with its cheap-&-chic Ikea furnishings and an Apple computer or two; a world with a rich century-hopping history AND incredibly up-to-the-minute digital technologies. This is where the rubber meets the road the ink hits the paper. Yet, it’s so ultra-sparkling clean you could eat off the floor.

Just down that long shiny hallway and slightly to the left, is housed one of the most monstrous printing presses you’ve ever seen. The Heidleberg Speedmaster XL-105-41 (at a prices topping 3 million dollars, you may want to buy one used here) is just that… a fiercely speedy piece of German engineering, which when fully revved up will put 18,000 6-color impressions of your project onto paper per hour. A run of 750 pocket folders for Friends of Yemin Orde (two sides!) is completed in about half an hour. And I get to watch!

In fact I am invited to climb aboard the beast (I stupidly ask: Do I need a hard hat? Because I’ve always wanted to wear one…) where I am able to witness–close up and personal–the fact that despite the amazing computer technologies running this badboy… it’s still a lot of beautifully messy gloppy wet inks being laid down with perfection onto luscious bright white paper. The image at the top of this post shows the front end of the press where said paper begins its ridiculously fast journey.

The real reason I am there of course, is NOT to climb around the equipment squealing with genuine excitement and taking photos so I can write another endless (but fascinating, right?) blog post. It’s so I can do the job I am paid for by my client, the aforementioned press inspection.

We will look through a magnifying glass called a loop, refer to our Pantone color guides, check our ink draw downs (for this project, we had ink specially mixed and tested because we wanted something we just couldn’t exactly find amongst Pantone’s 6000 choices)… all to make absolutely certain that the end product is drop-dead gorgeous and will perfectly support our client as they approach donors for millions of dollars on behalf of the children of Yemin Orde (we call this full-circle).

But wait, there’s more.

While I’m at Schneidereith & Sons, “on press” as we say, I am treated to a few other eye-popping lessons in modern printing. Lying around the Epson Digital Press (a machine 1/10th the size of that Heidleberg but pretty impressive in its own right) are sheets from another of our projects. At right, designfarm‘s post-move updated business cards, along with former business partner, computer consulting experts MacLab‘s promotional folder inserts… looking so… well, Warholian.

Left, is a lovely water color painting. Do printers paint too?? Maybe. But this in fact is not a painting. It’s a high-end digital reproduction, output on archival canvas. A legal fake! Whoa! How’d they do that?

Turns out, The Whitmore Group has been doing a lot of that lately. Pictured left, the beautiful Hasselblad H3D 39-Megapixel Medium Format Digital camera (German engineering again, and with a price tag of $32,000 this ain’t no Powershot, ok?) with which ancient works of fine art are photographed, including many important corporate and government portraits, in order to create amazingly authentic reproductions on archival canvas. (Memo to self: If graphic design career tanks, think forgery, ebay, &tc. JUST KIDDING!).

Pictured right, Whitmore’s digital reproduction of a painting of Paul Morton, Secretary of the Navy, 1904-1905 with whom my rep, one Joseph Wagner, shares a certain uncanny bald-guy-with-bushy-moustache resemblance. Joe, and his moustache, have been in the industry for 30+ years. Talk about expertise. And in case you don’ t know, printing experts are truly an endangered species of sorts. Which is why we value the partnership with the few and the proud, like Mr. Wagner. And his moustache.

Not to get all sentimental or anything, but there is a definite price–and I’m not talking just monetary–to all of these present and futuristic advances in what was once a vibrant outgrowth of industrial-revolution America. If you are of a certain age (who me?), as you are escorted through the pristine plant, you remember a time when instead of the muted hum of enormous and enormously sophisticated machines, there was a constant deafening noise… and there were people (wearing ear plugs). Lots and lots and lots of people. Whole huge shifts worth of apprentice and master pressmen, plate-makers and strippers (NOT THAT KIND)… to name a few of the profession’s occupational casualties. So although this blogging queen loves watching technology march on, I acknowledge that there are losses. And it does make me sad.

But let’s end on a cheery note. Thank goodness we can still smell that ink in the air. Because baby, when that goes, I am SO outta here.