Graphics Firm Changes With the Technology

By Dan Muse | Posted November 22, 2004
Around the time Adobe PageMaker first hit the street, Howard Adkins was starting a small business to design and produce catalogs for educational publishers. Howard Adkins Communications opened its doors in Austin, Texas in 1986.

In the 18 years that followed, Adkins witnessed dramatic shifts that would change the industry as whole and his own business in particular. Layout and prepress functions that once required full-time employees slowly starting going away, and since the arrival of prepress sofware and leaps in printing technology, those jobs have been virtually eliminated.


Educational Catalogs Built With InDesign
Thanks to Adobe's suite of page-layout, image-editing and illustration software, Howard Adkins' small design firm serves some of the country's largest educational publishers.

Adkins credits Adobe's software with allowing him to streamline his operations over the years to save both himself and his customers money. And he sees Adobe InDesign CS PageMaker Edition as a natural fit for SMBs in the graphics industry.

Where InDesign shines is in its capability to work with native Adobe PhotoShop and Adobe Illustrator images. Previously, after a designer had prepared an image in PhotoShop, for example, and placed it in a page-layout program, the image couldn't be changed without the designer going back into PhotoShop to make revisions in the original PhotoShop file.

Adkins said one of Adobe InDesign CS PageMaker Edition's biggest advantages is the capability to produce good PDF documents. PDF (short for Portable Document Format) allows designers to easily create application-independent files that mix graphics, text and other page attributes. PDFs can be used to transmit proofs to customers or, as the quality has continued to improve, even produce files to use for publication-quality printing.

Of course, as PDF output has become more powerful, producing high-quality files has become more complicated, which is where a program such as InDesign CS PageMaker Edition comes in. "It's presets are good enough for most people. It's all built in, but it's also easy to go in and make adjustments," said Adkins. The capability allows Adkins' company to produce high-quality proofs on its Xerox color laser printer.


Howard Adkins Communications
Howard Adkins, founder of Howard Adkins Communications, examines a proof with Sarah Evans, one of the design firm's employees.

Another big addition to the InDesign version of PageMaker is its imposition features — that is, the capability to arrange pages in proper placement for printing and the post-press folding and stitching (also referred to as printer spreads). "Imposition is great and a huge addtion for most people," he said, even though the feature isn't one he can take advantage of himself. "Because we use large printers, we send individual page PDFs [which the printers then arranage electronically to match its press configuration]."

Built-in trapping (the capability to slightly overlap images and type to avoid white space that sometimes occurs during the offset printing process) is also a huge addtion, Adkins said. Previously, those functions were performed either manually or by a separate application. For small commercial printshops or design firms that need to supply press-ready files, the trapping and imposition capabilities are invaluable.

Imposing pages and ensuring proper trapping were once the domain of dedicated prepress departments. Until recently, pages were output to film (or negatives) and a stripper would prep the pages to be shot onto printing plates. However, that part of the process is literally going away. Computer-to-plate technology, combined with software such as Adobe's InDesign CS PageMaker Edition (as well as software from other vendors), has essentially eliminated an entire department from many print and graphics shops.

Translating Efficiency Into Profits
Adkins said the new version of InDesign has also reduced the time he spends in other Adobe applications such as PhotoShop. It's had a "big economic impact," he said. At one point, 25 percent of the company's revenue was directly related to PhotoShop billing. But because the company is able to do so much in InDesign, "we lost that revenue," he said. He realized that they didn't need to spend as many man-hours on each job, which left Adkins in a quandry. "Since we didn't need to do as much stuff we had to let people go. And I'm not someone who enjoys letting people go," he said.

The firm also had employees dedicated to preflighing (making sure that files were prepared correctly with the right fonts and images, for example). "Now everyone has the training to build files correctly." He added the company also had a full-time person dedicated to trapping. The end result is that the company, which once employed eight or nine people, now has four.


InDesign CS PageMaker Edition
With features such as built-in trapping, Adobe's InDesign CS PageMaker Edition allows designers to build complex press-ready documents.

Eliminating half of its workforce was not something Adkins did easily, but it was something that he had to come to grips with. "It was hard. It took us a while to realize what we had to do and how to do things smarter."

Having streamlined the company's operations, Adkins said he is personally enjoying his job more. "I'm back to board work. And I remember why I got into this business."

While many of the features of InDesign CS PageMaker addition are related to handling prepress tasks on the desktop, the software's capabilities run across all parts of the design process. "With InDesign, things that used to take a day and a half, now take about an hour. I have a three-page table that would have taken me three or four days, but I did it in an afternoon. Now, I like tab settings as much as the next guy, but ....," he said referring to the way he had built tables in the past. "From a craft point of view, it does everything we can imagine. I don't know what's next."

As you might expect, the educational catalag business ebbs and flows during the year. Adkins said the company has adjusted to deal with the cyclical nature of the business. "We have muliple large projects that hit in a 60-day period." The now streamlined staff is pushed during those periods, but "we deal with it through overtime," he said.


The Business Side of a Creative Company
In its 17-year history, Adkins Communications has never had a salesperson, and Adkins said he relies largely on word-of-mouth from existing customers to generate business. "Business has grown organically. I've done one cold call and it was 17 years ago. However, he is quick to point out that he is constantly selling his business's services. "Don't get me wrong. We have had to sell and resell clients many times over the years. We have to continually prove ourselves."

Like many design firms, Howard Adkins Communications computer choice might seem foreign to SMBs. "We are a Mac shop, though we do have one Dell sitting in the corner." The company also has an Macintosh server, although, Adkins said, he thinks about buying a PC server.

Given the sizes and critical nature of the files Adkins' firms deal in, storage is something the company needs to keep an eye on. He said they have terabytes of data stored on FireWire drives. "We do a complete backup every night. We swap the FireWare drives and always have one off-site." For accounting, Howard Adkins Communications relies on QuickBooks as well as the advice of an accouting firm. The company's books are not complex, Adkins said. "The number of clients we have is limited, and the number of checks we write is small, but the amounts are large."

Even with the streamlining and growth the company has enjoyed, Adkins doesn't relax. In fact, like many small business owners he knows that relaxing is an invitation to failure. "I always worry about cash flow, especially with this economy. This year, though, I wasn't sure we were going to make it. But it's turning out to be our best year."

Dan Muse is executive editor of internet.com's Small Business Channel and EarthWeb's Networking & Communications Channel.

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