Heavy Metal Madness: QuarkXPress 6.0 vs. Hand Composition
In my review of QuarkXPress 6.0 a few weeks ago here on creativepro, and in David Blatner's article this week, lots of comparisons are being made between Adobe's InDesign and XPress. I made the comment that neither of the two programs are particularly innovative, and that the differences between them are not all that exciting -- the basics of page layout haven't changed much since the publishing industry began.
To demonstrate my point, and to give XPress a fighting chance in the side-to-side comparison wars, I thought in this column I'd contrast the way pages have been composed for centuries, and the way we compose them in the world's most popular layout tool.
The Hammer vs. the Steam Drill
In the annals of automated page-composition (as opposed to hand-written publishing), there are really three major periods, so far. First, is what I'm calling the Iron Age. This is the longest period, dating from Gutenberg, when various metal and wood forms made up the elements of a page. Second, and most innovative, was the Phototype Age, that period from about the mid '60s to early '90s when the elements of a page became flat, and were produced photographically by computer-driven machines. And then, of course we entered the Desktop Age, where any tie to physical construction ended and the way pages actually come together is a deep mystery, known only to a few PostScript engineers.
The most innovations in page composition came during the Phototype Era when new font technology was combined with computer-based front-end word processing capabilities in reasonably affordable packages. The CompuwriterII from Compugraphic (shown here) opened the doors of page composition to a large number of publishers that could not previously consider in-house composition.
Throughout all three periods, the basic metaphors for constructing pages have remained pretty much the same -- we essentially make boxes and fill them up with either graphics or type. Sure, things have become much more automated, and in a digital world we can do all sorts of fancy tricks like add transparency and distort type (though you could do those things photographically as well). Excited about the layers feature in XPress? In the paste-up era, nearly every job had layers -- they were made of acetate and taped on top of one another. There's nothing new about layers.
So let's see how XPress compares to hand composition.
Building a page. In QuarkXPress, you begin constructing a page by choosing a form size (a box). The standard choices revolve around common printed page sizes, but you can set random sizes as well. In Hand Composing you begin a page by choosing a form size, only in this case it's called a "chase" and is usually tied to the size of a specific press. Both methods work pretty well, and help bind the page to the appropriate final press sheet. I'll give the slight nod to XPress here, because it is not press specific, and certainly gives you more flexibility.
In XPress 6.0 you build a page by starting with a specific size in mind, mostly based on standard paper sizes (top). In Hand Composition, the bounding box is called a "chase" and is based on the limits of the specific press being used for printing (bottom). Neither method allows you to easily reformat pages to different sizes.
But why are we still building pages that are tied to a specific output size? Despite some interesting experiments in automatic page re-flowing at the beginning of the desktop era (remember Pages on the NeXT Computer?), we haven't come very far at all in building documents that are size-flexible. Are we really going to carry current paper-size restrictions with us into the electronic document era? I know the British still drive on the wrong side of the road, so they'll probably want to hold onto the A4 format, as well.
Setting type. In QuarkXPress you choose a type style from an extremely long list (if you have a lot of fonts) and select a "standard" size, or put in your own. You have, presumably, paid for the rights to these type styles, and they must be installed in order for you to use them. And oh, by the way, the printer you send the file to has to have the same fonts (which he has, presumably, paid for), and both of you have to store them somewhere so you can call them up for use. Then you choose a corresponding leading, or use the handy "automatic" feature, which chooses the leading for you. The leading is "free" in QuarkXPress and other desktop programs, as it was in the Phototype era, because it has become the absence of anything instead of the presence of something.
XPress takes the edge in number of type sizes and styles available (top), but we're still selecting fonts based on unique files of pre-determined, licensed designs from type foundries. One disadvantage to metal (bottom): You have to learn to spell backwards.
In the metal world, you choose a type style from an extremely large (if you have a lot of fonts) collection of drawers and choose a "standard" size. You cannot create all sizes, unless you happen to own them, and there are no "half" sizes. You have purchased these fonts from a foundry, and the good news here is that your printer doesn't have to have the same fonts -- these actually travel back and forth physically. Then you choose a corresponding leading, though here the leading is made out of thin pieces of wood or metal, so you are restricted to using only the leading you own. But at least the leading travels with the job, so your printer doesn't have to have the same leading, either.
Quark hasn't figured out a way to charge for blank space (yet), so you can use all the leading and white area you need (top). With metal, all space has physical substance, and it is possible to run out of leading and have to buy more (bottom).
So, let's see. We are still buying fonts by name and foundry, they are still somewhat proprietary to the system you are running, and the format changes every so often. Hmmm. Hard to call this round. I think I'll give it to the metal, because your printer doesn't have to duplicate your whole library, or depend on you to send the fonts along with the job.
In the mid '90s there was a great program called FontChameleon from a company called Ares Software. When I saw it I thought we finally had the beginning of a universal font format that could be visually set to represent any specific style. Why shouldn't a letterform in the digital era be able to morph into any shape, size or style? No one minds paying for the artistry of type, but as someone who lived through the Phototype era, I'm tired of paying for the font container over and over again. If QuarkXpress 6.0 had a way to visually "dial in" different type styles, say from thin sans serif through thick black serif to ornate script, then I would be calling it a revolutionary upgrade instead of an expected one.
Placing graphics. In QuarkXPress you draw a box for the graphic you need, though you probably can't draw it exactly right because you don't know the height/width ratio of the graphic that's going in it. This is because you can't see it until you import it except in an unusable preview window. Then you select the file to import. And be sure you choose the right file format, because there are many different, sometimes incompatible formats, depending on where this page ends up. You can resize the picture to fit the box, or now in a major breakthrough in XPress 6.0, you can resize the box to fit the picture! What progress.
I would prefer to select graphics directly in the graphics box and have them preview at the appropriate size, not in a small preview window (top). With metal graphics, the file format is consistent (bottom) and what you see is what you get.
When composing in metal or wood, you import a graphic into the chase by selecting it from a drawer full of similar graphics, or by retrieving it from an engraver, who has made a metal "cut" from your artwork. You know you've got the right image because you can see it the entire time -- no need for a preview. There is pretty much only one standard in the letterpress world, so odds are anyone could use that same graphic without having to change the format. You don't have to worry about resizing, because you can't. And you also can't stretch the width or height just a little to fill in a specific space.
Another difficult comparison. I like the fact that in XPress you can resize images to fit a specific space. That makes layouts more flexible. But I hate the fact that you can't see the image previewed in place before importing it. And in metal there's that standards advantage -- the same file I have now was usable a hundred years ago and will remain usable a hundred years from now. But XPress gets the point here because of that new box-to-size feature.
What was good about the Phototype Era and the Iron Age is that you looked for things visually, even though they might be filed in logical containers. We don't organize ourselves in terms of file names -- we arrange our lives so we can find things by looking for them. When are we going to get a page-layout application that allows you to store and retrieve your images through a combination of hierarchical file structure, and plain-old eyesight? Import a graphic into the page just to see it? Absurd. And where are all the visual search tools we were promised?
And the Winner Is...
Well, looks like QuarkXPress 6.0 easily beats Hand Composition, though it wasn't a slam-dunk. Both systems have their merits, and both their limits. As construction tools they are clear and consistent, and do their best to perform as predicted. But I can't say either one is particularly helpful.
And though not covered in this battle today, let's not rule out InDesign. If Adobe can reign in some bureaucracy, they are in the only position to innovate. Quark has given up on anything but incremental improvements, it seems.
The next era of page composition is coming, whether Quark and Adobe participate in it or not. History would indicate they won't, and they could go the way of Linotype, Monotype, Ludlow, Compugraphic, Scitex or any of the many long-departed composition systems manufacturers. I'd probably put Adobe more in the Kodak or Xerox category, however. The company will be fine and may even prosper, but we won't see revolutionary products from them in the future. Those typically come from outsiders who aren't restricted by so much knowledge of the past.
The XML Era -- perhaps the fourth stage in publishing -- is breathing some new life into the page-layout business, and it could make page composition stimulating again. But we'll need tools for this new era, and I hope they aren't limited by the world's current reliance on Microsoft Word and XPress or InDesign. You can add XML support to current work methods (which is what they are doing), or you can see it as an opportunity to finally re-think the way we layout, organize, and exchange "pages" of information. We've got the building blocks here for some real innovation.
This is what we need: smart content that flows from one form to another, knowing how to behave when it arrives; designers who work in broader concepts than individual pages, setting rules for the behavior of type and graphics as it passes through a global marketplace; universal standards that once and for all get the system out of the way and let us spend all of our time creating instead of constructing.
Only then will I see the drawers of metal type in my garage as from a uniquely different era.
Read more by Gene Gable.
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