Introduction to Desktop Publishing

May 7, 2020

By Jean Lemoine

If there is one area that is so much a part of our daily life that we don’t notice it, to the point of ignoring even its name, it is Desktop Publishing. This term will generally provoke a perplexed silence, sometimes a Eureka like “Ah, yes! You work in a printing house! ». So what is this discipline? Through this article, Jean Lemoine, Consultant at ADNEOM in Luxembourg tells you more about this topic.

Desktop publishing is the art of producing personalized documents on an industrial scale and in an automated way. These documents can be statements, invoices, contracts, or any other management document, even personalized commercial leaflets or hybrid documents (management documents used as a support for commercial campaigns). It is, therefore, an essential strategic pillar of any company or administration which, in order to operate, must be able to communicate with its customers or components.

Quick history

Desktop publishing was born with management information technology. The first business applications already integrated reporting modules allowing lines of text to be sent to a printer. By using spacing characters wisely, it was possible to place data on a pre-printed page background. These print streams quickly became important and tools had to be created to manage them. The very rustic layout of the data in the various business applications quickly became a headache and the first independent document composition engines appeared, with applications only having to transmit a stream of raw data (even if the old applications were not always adapted to remove pre-existing layouts). The advent of laser printing, together with the development of vector fonts and advanced print languages such as AFP-DS, Metacode, PCL and PostScript for office printing, led to the emergence of highly advanced typesetting engines that now make it possible to do away with pre-printed page backgrounds and open up to new distribution channels such as PDF, e-mail, etc. The development of laser printing has led to the development of a number of new typesetting engines that can be used to create a wide range of documents, including PDFs, e-mail, and other electronic documents.

Customer communication

Companies generally produce two types of information medium :

– Management documents

– Prospectuses and regulatory documents

Management documents have the characteristic of being triggered by management actions. They depend entirely on the nature of this act and the information specific to this act. They are therefore totally dynamic, both in form and content, and must be tracked and archived. For example, bank or telephone statements, contracts, payment invoices, etc., can be tracked and archived. Their production is the core business of desktop publishing.

On the other hand, prospectuses are by nature static and very poorly personalized. Although they may be linked to business activity, they are only an accessory. They can also be completely independent. They don’t, therefore, need to be archived or traced individually. They also have their own production characteristics (format, support, finish, etc.) which are generally incompatible with the production of management documents. They can be newsletters, general terms, and conditions of sale or use of a service, order forms, sales brochures, promotional inserts, etc.

The production and management of prospectuses are therefore generally excluded from the scope of desktop publishing: their production will be entrusted to a reprography service, their management to a CRM tool. Their distribution will also often be independent of desktop publishing due to their inadequacy with the constraints imposed by management documents (materials, monitoring processes, etc.) unless they are related to business activity, in which case the prospectuses may be attached to the management documents when they are distributed. They are then referred to as “appendices”.

If the core business of desktop publishing is the composition and distribution of management documents, as well as the insertion of appendices, there are of course gateways to the production of prospectuses thanks to advances in printing techniques (four-color printing on white paper) and integration with CRM systems (hybrid management/marketing documents).

How it works ?

In fact, desktop publishing stands out in two distinct areas:

– “Batch” desktop publishing, which must process large volumes of documents (up to tens of millions) in a few hours and produce them industrially.

– Transactional desktop publishing, on the other hand, which must process individual documents and produce them on a desktop printer or re-inject them into industrial production.

An extreme case of transactional desktop publishing is interactive desktop publishing, which integrates document editing by the user at the very moment of the transaction.

These two modes of operation are in essence antinomic. In order not to dilute expertise or make maintenance more complex, it is essential, where necessary, to choose technologies that can deal with these two types of constraints and, ideally, to design an architecture that minimizes the impact on the treatment of these different types of constraints.

A publishing platform is presented as one (or several) processing chain.

Business applications build data and send them to the desktop publishing platform. From there, the desktop publishing platform will link the following actions:

1.           Acknowledge the correct handling of the data.

Once the data has been received, identified, characterized, and if possible checked (especially with the use of XML), a job identifier is created and an acknowledgment token is sent to the sender.

2.           Standardize the data.

A good practice is to always go through a standardization step, even when it seems incidental or unnecessary, preferably with an ETL tool recognized on the market (Extract-Transform-Load). Indeed, it is the ETL layer that allows the composition to be decoupled from both the data schema and the presentation of business rules. Don’t forget that publishing applications are built to last and that changes will take place sooner or later.

3.           Compose documents.

The composition is the central step in the document composition process. It is the process of obtaining documents from raw data.

4.           Distribute documents.

The distribution consists of sending documents to their recipients through the appropriate channels: traditionally by post, internal shuttle, or carrier, but also by fax and now by e-mail or, increasingly, by making them available on an extranet or cloud. Archiving is also seen as a distribution channel.

Distribution is the most complex part of a publishing chain, particularly in the case of postal distribution. Indeed, the latter must at the same time optimize printing, control and optimize inserting, and carry out franking.

In France, for example, franking does not just mean putting a stamp on an envelope but also ventilating the folds into different types of containers depending on their capacity and delivery point: a post office distributor, a departmental sorting center or a national sorting center. And this without ever breaking the printing and inserting preparation work. In addition to this, there is also the editing of labels for the routing of the mail bins, the creation of detailed deposit slips for the entire, usually daily, depot – as opposed to the job mentioned above.

In the UK, the preparation processes for postal distribution can even be pushed to the point of planning the postman’s route!

When mail distribution is spread over several countries, for example in Europe and Asia, with each country having its own address position standards, then the challenge is even more obvious since not only the distribution channel but also the internal rules of that channel can have an impact on the actual composition of the document, which takes place upstream. The issue is therefore particularly complex.

In addition to these treatments:

– the scheduling treatments ;

– monitoring ;

– document tracking ;

– accounting reporting ;

– the mechanisms implementing the Business Continuity Plan (or Disaster / Recovery Plan ) ;

– or user management tools (document validation, batch validation, data parking, distribution channel parking, etc.).

In an upcoming article, we will have a look at the issues of publishing architecture and some challenges that arise.

Jean Lemoine, Consultant at ADNEOM Luxembourg

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This post was written by Marine Herve