Top Ten Innovations of Prepress 1980-2010

by admin on January 4, 2010

So this idea of a blog post was bubbling around in my head for a least a couple of weeks, maybe more:  I thought it would make a nice end-of-the-decade summary. Plus, it would be easy to write. After all, there has been a lot of innovation in prepress over the last 30 years, n'est-ce pas?

Actually, there has been too much innovation to be comfortable in writing a blog post about in 30 minutes or less. The recent history of prepress is similar to the history of flight in the mid-twentieth century: In 1939, the speed record for a turboprop plane was under 400 miles an hour. In 1969, men landed on the moon. It's been like that in prepress.

So, after about a week of writer's block, I emailed 3 fellow bloggers, (Laurens of Prepressure, Gordon of QualityinPrint and Dave Kauffman of a list of about 14 innovations and asked them to pick their favorites. All of them quickly emailed back their rankings along with suggestions of their own. All of them pointed out significant innovations which I had overlooked, and this only led to more writer's block. It didn't help either that we got a Wii in the family household for Christmas (swordfighting in Wii Sports Resort is completely addictive for me).

But time marches on. The blog post must be written. And so, without further ramblings, here is the list:


1. The Apple-Pagemaker-Laserwriter Combo (1985)

This choice was the clear winner with two of the three judges picking it as #1, and the third listing Pagemaker in the third spot.

Unless you were there, it is hard to understand the excitement that one felt the first time you sat at a Mac and design something and printed it out. It was like hey I got some saltpeter here, and a little of charcoal over there, let's add some sulphur, mix it all together.  BOOM! Gunpowder.

Note: I remember reading some years ago, that the developer of the Laserwriter Postscript interpreter nearly went insane (or at least suffered a nervous breakdown) while coding it. If anybody knows of an authoritative link to the story, please email me or drop the link in the comments.


2. Postscript

The programming language of print. The #2 choice of everybody except for Laurens who thought it shouldn't mentioned at all because it was covered by the #1 spot.

Postscript was a notoriously hard language to learn, but it in the memory-constrained 1980s (remember when 128K was a lot), it worked well enough (Except when the RIP crashed. Which did happen frequently). It is not an overstatement to say Postscript was the foundation of Adobe, and without Adobe there would have been no prepress revolution.


3. (tie) Portable Document Format (PDF)

Everybody had PDF on their list. Technically, PDF is part of the Postscript oeuvre, but that misses the point: When the 1.3 specification of PDF was released in 1996, the second revolution of prepress started and the "PDF workflow" became the dominant form of prepress today in an amazingly short period of time. Who remembers CEPS?


4. (tie) Thermal CTP

Printers were going computer-to-plate well before Creo released the Trendsetter in 1995. Of course they were doing it with YAG lasers that were only slightly smaller than your bedroom. Without thermal ctp, it is likely that most printers would still be burning film.


5. PDF Workflows: Apogee and Prinergy

Does anybody remember the productivity controversy of the late 1990s? At that time, economic statistics were showing an unexplained burst of productivity in western economies. Some economists were argueing that investment in computers and IT was finally playing dividends. The more pessimistic economists were claiming that the productivity bump was nothing more than a mirage.

And the prepress managers of the time, who had invested in Prinergy or Apogee were shaking their heads and saying "HOLY-MOLY, productivity just went up 500%. Out of the ten guys working in prepress right now, which two do I keep?"

Note: The top five were unanimous picks. The bottom five only made on two out of three lists.


6. Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop 1.07 added support for CMYK (1991) - making 4-color processing much easier and especially much more affordable. Photoshop was also unique in that it never really had any competitors that seriously competed for marketshare in the digital imaging niche (although Corel Photo-Paint had a hard-core following, and Live Picture was brilliant, until Adobe bought out the company and strangled it in the crib).


7.  Digital ICC-based Color Management

The ICC spec combined with Apple's ColorSynch in 1993 was a stunning innovation to a generation of graphic designers who didn't really know how their printed piece would look until they saw it on the press. Color management went from mechanical, analog, craftmanship to digital science.


8.  Quark

Quark just squeaked onto the list. Yes, Quark-bashing has been a recreational sport in the prepress world for at least the last ten years but Quark 3.32 was a thing of majestic beauty in comparison to its peers at the time.

On a side note, the firing of the original Quark's team in Denver and the offshore of future development in India will go down as one of the most botched software projects in all of the history of graphic design/printing/prepress whatever.


9. Indesign/Creative Suite

After 20 years, Adobe invested in reproducing the optical kerning from phototypesetters that defined high quality typography that disappeared from the market during Quark's market domination.
By bundling InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop in one single package, Adobe managed to finally completely dominate the graphic arts software industry - a situation that isn't likely to change in the years to come.


10. The Digital Connection to the Imagesetter

Back in the eighties, and well into the nineties, prepress specialists weren't really called prepress specialist but... strippers (insert bad joke here). The job of a stripper was to photograph galleys and pierce together (or "strip") the film so press plates could be burned.
With Linotron/Compugraphic imagesetter connectivity in 1989, and then the publishing of Preps, the first professional imposition package, the job of the stripper became obsolete almost overnight.

Notable mentions:

CEPS Systems - Barco & Scitex Brisque

Before the desktop revolution this was how magazines were done - high end, custom hardware, proprietary software, real engineering marvels.

Agfa-Gevaert, DuPont, Eastman Kodak and 3M introduce daylight films (1980)

Still used today at thousands of companies worldwide.

Staccato screens  (1998)

Made FM screening a practical process and transformed how a great deal of printing is done (e.g. 80% of phone directories and ~70% of newspaper inserts now printed FM).

Lastly, just for laughs, Microsoft starts shipping Comic Sans in 1994, soon to be the most loathed font in the world.

About the Contributors

Gordon Pritchard

Formerly Print Quality Marketing Manager for eleven years at Creo/Kodak. Presented at print technical conferences, trained printers and buyers regarding print quality issues in Europe, N. America, and S.E. Asia. Articles published in trade journals, co-authored TAGA paper on halftone screening, authored BRIDG's guide to halftone screening. Previously Technical Director of Hemlock Printers - Western Canada's largest commercial sheetfed shop. Created Laser's Edge, Canada's largest prepress service bureau. Former Creative Director at McCann Ericksson Vancouver. You can contact Gordon at and of course visit his blog on printing, prepress and other stuff.

Dave Kauffman

Dave learned Postscript at a course given by Stephen Herron in the mid-80's and wrote a small application that let you customize the PostScript screen dot shape, which basically got him a job at Creo. After learning the vagaries of PostScript and OPI with the development of PlateMaster he worked with DJ and Dave Hylands to build a PostScript optimizer called PreScript, which lead to the the PDF 1.2 spec and a viable format capable of building Prinergy.
Dave Kauffman's blog is here. His latest blog entry is on the future of Adobe.

Laurens Leurs

When Laurens from isn't photographing ancient printing equipment, he 's probably staring at old phototypesetters and outdated prepress equipment or worrying about the current state of our industry.

*Attributions to specific contributors were removed after 1st draft as in the opinion of the group, it detracted from the focus of the piece. Therefore, consider all factual errors and clumsy turns of phrase to be the fault of the owner of this blog. If you read something particularly clever or insightful, it was somebody else who wrote it.

**Dave is being far too generous in according credit to me in development of the seminal product known as Prescript. The core development team consisted of 3 people: Glen Cairns, Raymond Mak, and Creo's first principle software engineer, Dave Hylands.

My role on that team was one of tester. Oh, and to get the coffee. In my defense, entering the coffee room at that time was considered hazardous, as that was the same room where Amos Michelson, then CEO of Creo, got his coffee. One time I dallied too long reaching for extra cream, and was sent to Wisconsin to deal with an upset customer whose files were taking too long to rip. (And I'm not kidding. I really was sent to Wisconsin. Same day. In January. )


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Jason January 9, 2010 at 2:40 am

Remember the Kodak Prophecy system?

Henk Gianotten January 17, 2010 at 9:31 am

Great list.
However, in my opinion PostScript must be on position 1. Apple and the Laserwriter on 2. Apple without PostScript would never have been such a success. PostScript without Apple would have delayed the success. Right now, nobody could print without PostScript and PDF, some could without Apple.

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Vertis January 27, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Great list! Ill never forget the good ol Scitex Days! Expensive equipment.

Naresh Kumar July 22, 2010 at 4:41 am

I want old Katana Image Setter


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I have with katana FT-R 5055,it is displaying ‘image error’ and wouldn’t complete recording.what should I do?

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