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Production Planning: The birth and evolution of ad layout

Putting newspapers and magazines “to bed” wasn’t always so simple. Back in the dark ages of production planning, getting ad layouts to editorial, and editorial layouts to “paste-up” was no different from herding cats into marching formation.

How would I know?  Well, I wrote the first ad dummying software ever used in newspaper production more than 40 years ago.

As with many game-changing products, that first software to automate advertising layout came from the pain of a toilsome process. Jeryl Wagner, the ad coordinator for Imprint Newspapers in Central Connecticut, was overwhelmed by the daunting task of laying out 14 weekly publications. And because publication days varied for each paper, she found herself repeating the same time-consuming tasks nearly every day of the week.

Since her job began an intense, deadline-critical production process, how quickly she performed it affected everything thereafter — editorial layout (where stories are placed), mechanical paste-up (where waxed galleys are placed on blue-lined flats), camera and stripping (where blue-lined flats are turned into negatives and corrected), plating (where negatives are turned into press plates), printing on our web presses, collating sections in the bindery and, finally, shipping to the post office for delivery into mailboxes the next day.

To boot, our printing plant was located off I-95 in North Haven and we were in West Hartford, nearly 40 miles away. If we didn’t get everything into the courier’s hands by the deadline, they would head home for the evening. I sometimes found myself driving the negatives to our plant where the pressmen were waiting — often unhappily, since their work went late into the night.

It was a tumultuous, bumptious process, fraught with error and beset by roadblocks. Fortunately, in those days, the owner and publisher of Imprint, Chris Larsen, and son of one of the founders of Time Magazine, Roy Larsen, had taken a deep interest in the theories of W. Edwards Deming. The studies of continued process improvement by Deming intrigued both him and me. Our collective viewpoint after analyzing production from a process flow standpoint seemed clear; we can fix this. And that is how it all started: watching Jeryl at work, asking exhaustive questions, and surveying the steps in the process with a goal that might not have seemed immediately obvious, push back deadlines. Why was that important? Because it gave us additional time to sell advertising; and more advertising meant more revenue.

Here is how the original process went. Jeryl would receive a printout of each paper’s ad manifest (or runsheet in newspaper lingo), spit out by an IBM System/34 using a home-grown ad booking system. The manifest was used by the ad and editorial departments to determine book size. With that information, Jeryl would take out a stack of printed layouts, number and name them, and then used a ruler and pencil to “block out” ads on each layout sheet, crossing each ad off the manifest as she placed it on the layout.

This process also relied on other crucial information: page requests, conflict management, special instructions, color requirements — all of which resided in the heads of her, the ad director, and individual salespeople. So, when the pages she had blocked out were done, they were reviewed by the ad director, and inevitably, changes were made — by hand. Placements were erased, pages shuffled. It took a good two hours or more to layout a single paper, along with a lot of pencils and many erasers.

The crucial point to bear in mind is Jeryl was the potential bottleneck at the beginning of this linear process. If the work took two hours, that was two hours before editors could begin their own layouts. Editors’ layouts needed to finish before the paste-up team could take the galley output from a Compugraphic 8600 typesetter. They then waxed the galleys and trim them with X-acto knives; placed waxed galleys on blue-lined flats using the completed layouts hung by clothespins on a wire above each paste-up board which served as the guide.

Seeing all this, I reasoned we could at least shorten the ad layout process through technology. I taught myself a programming language developed by IBM called RPG (Report Program Generator). I wrote the first program to ingest an ad manifest and produce an ad dummy, page by page, (using the | and – characters to simulate columns and boxes) on a printer attached to our IBM System/34. To my knowledge, it was the first in the country, and a huge success. It cut down ad dummying time to about 15 minutes from two hours.

Over time, I translated the initial work on that rudimentary system to an Apple II personal computer using a programming language called BASIC. As technology continued to advance, I adapted the code to run on the first Macintosh, a 128K model, first in BASIC and then in a language called Pascal. I called this desktop application — again, the first of its kind — The Paginator.

In 1989, I co-founded the company that produced the first commercial desktop ad dummying software available in the United States, ALS. ALS spawned AdForce and ALS for Magazines. For rapidly dummying classified pages CLS and ClassForce were born. In 2019, I wrote AdforceX, Cognitive’s premiere ad dummying software.

AdforceX is a thorough reimagining of each of its ancestors. Written in Swift, Apple’s modern programming language, 64-bit ready and integrated back to front with the macOS, front end systems and Adobe’s InDesign®. It is blazingly fast — automated layout is measured in nanoseconds, not minutes — and all the things that Jeryl and the entire publishing staff worried about are performed by the software itself.

And because Swift and the software development process is now so facile and fast, Cognitive is producing major functional enhancements, product fixes and customer feature requests in time spans measured in weeks and months rather than years… no different from the evolution of automated publishing itself.

In fact, what we have planned for the coming year will include incredibly powerful new features for AdforceX, including what we call SmartFill, which performs area composition and ColumnFlow (just like our classified products) along with conditional page requests. Don’t be surprised when we announce even more enhancements and features — and remember, too, that our product line-up also includes the Essential Plug-Ins Suite: AdImport, Fido and Split & Folio, all of which integrate each Cognitive program with Adobe InDesign®.

So, when you think about the production process today, I hope this journey through time gave you an appreciation of how technology has allowed us to improve and streamline work. As the person that brought our industry The Paginator all those years ago, I am ever inspired to continue what truly has been a passion project. AdforceX is the latest descendant and simply the most powerful in a generation of page planning software, ever.

Bob Baldwin ~ Proud Parent