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Desktop Publishing & “Bring Out Your Dead”

2015 March 17

I hope most people are familiar with the “bring out your dead” scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (And familiar with the whole movie, really.) I’m reminded of it, a bit, by “The 7 Signs That Desktop Publishing is Failing You” by Amelia Salyers, which argument I stumbled upon the other day.

Ms. Salyers’ comments are mostly, and openly, a sales pitch for the offerings of her employer Inkling. Unsurprisingly, there are large holes in many of her assertions. Her overall thesis that “most desktop publishing software has reached the end of its useful life,” meanwhile, seems rather like the villager insisting that the old man slung across his shoulder was fit for the corpse cart, despite the old man’s quite audible protests to the contrary.

I make this comparison not only because it amuses me, however; I think it’s also apt in more ways than one. True, traditional desktop publishing platforms are hardly so near death as someone interested in seeing them off may want you to believe. At the same time, though, I think there is a further resemblance to the old man, who was alive enough to insist that he felt happy and might go for a walk… but was at the same time so feeble that he remained flopped over the younger villager’s shoulder, unable to mount any more vigorous defense.

I confess that at least one or two traditional publishing platforms do seem, like that old man, ready to be put out of their misery. Or at any rate, out of our misery.

Backing up, some of Salyers’ suggestions are so far from representative of my own observations as to be laughable, and yet they gesture toward a deeper truth all the same. The silliest is probably her third criticism of traditional DTP systems, “Layout and design must wait until the copy is nearly final.” Bwa ha ha. Nothing could be further from the truth. While this is an extreme, I have one project currently on revision 32; layout and design were essentially settled by revision 2, and have only changed since as necessitated by content changes. While you can argue that this is far from ideal, in 15 varied years as a design professional I have seen negligible evidence that finalizing content prior to design is any kind of practical constraint.

Salyers herself walks this back, a bit, subsequently referring to “the inevitable copy changes that come later in the process.” This reduces some of the absurdity in suggesting that copy is close to final when design begins, right after her previous criticism about an avalanche of revisions after the layout is begun. There’s some validity to this complaint, that “Editing and collaboration happen outside of the content, rather than in it.” But Salyers again gets carried away, proposing that “Your team’s inboxes are filled with emails and spreadsheets that contain wordy instructions about where errors and changes are, not just what they are. You can’t see comments in the content itself, making editing an incredibly tedious process, prone to human error.” Um, actually, there’s this program called Adobe Acrobat…

Still and all, a larger argument remains, here and in subsequent points that are mostly variations on the same theme: established content development platforms are largely pre-internet tools that, in an era when most users are connected 24/7, are rubbish for collaborative workflows.

Some of them are just plain rubbish, in general, moreover.

I actually like InDesign, on the whole, but it has definite shortcomings. Receiving client revisions in Acrobat, as I do most of the time these days, is an improvement over e-mails larded with directions for locating each revision… but it’s still a kludge for using an offline tool in an online world. I have some vague sense that Adobe has tried to introduce more advanced kludges, but I have never encountered anyone using InCopy e.g. I do think InDesign is somewhat better for producing digital documents than Salyers allows, but here too it might be more accurate to say “less clumsy” than “better.”

Meanwhile, if we’re talking about rubbish platforms, I think pride of place has to go to what a fellow sufferer and I refer to as the “Power Point Platform.”

I do a significant amount of work in Microsoft PowerPoint these days… and my god that program is an atrocity. At least InDesign is a very good tool for its original purpose, i.e. design of print documents. PowerPoint is not good at anything. It’s a horrible presentation tool, infamous for making presentations worse rather than better. Meanwhile, by one means and another it has arguably become the closest thing to a democratic, general-purpose content development tool that currently exists; most professionals have a copy, allowing them to edit layouts directly, and there is a way to approximate most layout effects possible in InDesign et al. It’s just that the horrible, wretched, moral abomination that is PowerPoint’s interface makes achieving those effects supremely slow and tedious.

And yet, PowerPoint lives on. I am more than ready to dump it onto the corpse cart—I wouldn’t mind seeing Creative Cloud go away, as well, but the actual use of Adobe’s software is nothing like such a deep offense to me—if only someone would give it a good fatal clonk.

For various reasons, this isn’t happening, and looks unlikely to happen in the immediate future. People have PowerPoint, they know PowerPoint; it’s such a godawful spaghetti-code s***heap that anything capable of maintaining accurate views of legacy files would probably be nearly as bad.

In theory, originally, the web itself was supposed to subvert this kind of garbage. The documents that compose it were to be open standards, and, once upon a time, innately editable as part of access to them. Instead, of course, even 20 years later with HTML having largely battled through the browser wars, and Flash sites, e.g., much of the web is still a read-only broadcast medium… and to the extent that content creation and editing is democratized, it’s dozens of distinct sub-platforms and walled gardens.

Meanwhile, PowerPoint lives on, and I have no idea what will kill it. Something, some day, probably. While some of the same forces are at work, here, it isn’t like non-alphabetic writing systems which persisted (and in much of the world still persist) for millennia after the advent of the alphabet. PowerPoint has existed for, what, 25 years or so? We probably won’t have to see the decline of an entire civilization before some new platform can take hold. If nothing else, it seems plausible that at some point in the non-remote future, software will be sufficiently intelligent that it will no longer need so much hand-holding, and will be able to render things like file formats and interface training obsolete, and simply execute users’ wishes and handle all the fiddly details in the background with quantum processors and self-teaching hyper-networked simulated brains.

Though, actually, I suppose I have just described a technological singularity, which might indeed result in a broad reshaping of civilization.

I still think there’s a reasonable chance that something else will bump off PowerPoint before that… but I guess I can’t guarantee it.

Sigh.

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