Silicon Designer was announced as a product in the fall of 2009, via a press release called, “Web to Print missing Link Revealed in Chicago.” This was distributed quite effectively around the world (No subsequent press release saw such results. what was the magic?) One of the many resulting inquiries came from Peter Gunning of Printing.com: “I’m interested in seeing how we would create templates on Silicon Designer.”
More than 10 years later, their implementation of Silicon Designer is still going strong. Silicon Designer can edit virtually any document online, but both the product and our company come from the print space, where a common class of documents is business collateral. Of all the online editing systems built on the Silicon Designer platform, Printing.com (now known as Grafenia, with their Nettl brand growing globally as well) exemplifies a very fundamental use case in the world of web-to-print: online editing of business collateral such as business cards, flyers, and postcards.
Printing.com showcases several Designer features we have worked hard to deliver:
- Extensibility – This has always been a primary goal of ours, and Printing.com has been innovative in many ways, using Silicon Designer as a foundation for their own unique product offering.
- Custom User Experience – Ease of branding and skinning is another core capabilitity, which they have put to the test themselves, in the course of licensing it to others, deploying to different types of users, and managing multiple subsidiaries.
- Localization – When you are developing e-commerce solution, this is a cornerstone of a solution with a multinational user base, and Printing.com has a global presence.
- From InDesign to the Web – Template setup is another aspect of Designer we have pioneered over the years, and with over 100,000 templates crowd-sourced by more than 1,000 designers, Printing.com has proven the ease of setup at scale.
- Modular Integration – Web-to-print solutions do not exist in a vacuum. Integration is another key ingredient to a successful pipeline, as Printing.com must enable the user to complete their order and get it into production without manual intervention requiring collaboration with e-commerce systems, customer-specific and stock photo libraries, and multi-facility prepress automation.
Beyond having these characteristics that help show what Designer has to offer, Printing.com is also worthy of study because they have such a deep background and refined vision around Web-to-print, going back years before we met. Their founder, Tony Rafferty, even wrote a book on the subject, “WEB2PRINT MD2MD,” which shared their vision and insight into this unique niche that we continue to support.
The Original Vision
In the early 2000s, the majority of printers inquiring about online editing were a bit naïve. They knew they wanted to be “on the web,” but didn’t really know what this meant. Printing.com, however, came to us with deep experience, and the most visionary ideas we had seen to date.
Tony Rafferty started the company that became Printing.com in 1992, initially selling commercial-quality flyers to nightclubs. From the beginning they worked with the latest desktop software for page layout, innovating in the art fulfillment automation. By 1998, they had grown to over 50 people, and their Flyerlink software connected client services to production over a LAN, which soon became a WAN as they expanded further.
With the rise of the World Wide Web, they purchased the domain name Printing.com for a little over $1 million in 2000. By this time, “Flyerlink” was running in web browsers, and they could claim to be a “web-to-print” business, as their outlets were using the web to submit orders, however their ambitions to enable the end-user to edit documents on their own, and submit orders directly, remained unfulfilled.
Until they met Silicon Designer.
Like a coiled spring
As I said, we were not used to printers being extremely visionary. Of course there are exceptions (you know who you are), but until the time we first shared screens with Peter Gunning (their current CEO) we hadn’t met a printer who took this as seriously as we did, or perhaps even more seriously. They were dreaming about ease of template setup the same way we dreamed of cropping images within non-rectangular clipping paths. And they shared our passion for an Adobe InDesign platform leveraging InDesign Server.
“As our road map crystalized, we centered our web2print product on InDesign Server technology, for sound reasons. First and foremost, the requisite training for a web2print operator was significantly reduced.”
— Tony Rafferty, WEB2PRINT MD2MD
Not only did both companies appreciate the extreme value of InDesign Server, but we also shared a love of “on canvas” editing, which has always been one of the primary features of Silicon Designer (though it has evolved to include form-based capability as appropriate). In Tony’s words. “Our main vision… was that templates should be editable ‘on the document’ rather than via ‘side boxes.’ We simply believe it was counter-intuitive, given how we edit PowerPoint, Word and the like, that anything other than editing on the document should be acceptable.”
Building the Solution
Given the perfect fit between our technology and the needs/vision of Printing.com, we wasted little time in getting to work, and were fully engaged by late 2009.
While they had automated the back end, they also had developed a detailed vision of the go-to-market of an end-to-end offering, extending to the individuals or companies that were designing and/or purchasing the print collateral. They had thoroughly thought through the nuance of B2B, B2C, points in between, and their concept “B2All.” This was a rare instance where the printer didn’t ask us for guidance (we always have our own ideas), but instead articulated an ambitious and carefully thought-through deployment roadmap, with innovative detail.
Crowd-sourced templates – TemplateCloud.com
As of 2009, “crowd-sourcing” was starting to become a buzzword, with Printing.com leading the pack. Already managing template creation by large numbers of people (they had hundreds of outlets at this point,) it was natural to extend their vision to an Internet community, and they were aggressive in building this out.
They created that community, while we at Silicon Publishing were responsible for defining and explaining Silicon Designer’s template setup requirements, which were evolving then and continue to evolve to this day as new needs surface. They weren’t always happy with our definitions or explanations, and they held our feet to the fire to make sure we kept Silicon Designer extensible enough to support the requirements of their “Template Cloud” where designers could monetize their own templates.
10 minute templates
One new feature that they immediately rejected was our then-new “Template Markup Tool” – an InDesign plugin that assisted users in setting up templates. They had concluded, it would not be efficient to distribute desktop software to hundreds or thousands of individual designers.
Our template setup had to allow for some variation in the processes. In particular, it could not require a plug-in or extension. Instead, we worked together to integrate the Silicon Designer product with their self-designed setup methodology. By using InDesign layers and following naming conventions, any designer using out-of-the-box InDesign could define variable data elements, editable regions, replaceable images, and could completely inform the editing experience on a template-by-template basis.
Which fields on the template were editable? Was the text in a given frame to be copy fitted when customized by end users? Could formatting be changed, or just the content? Silicon Designer already had these capabilities, and we ended up agreeing that while tools were nice (and most clients do avail themselves of our robust toolset for making markup easy), there is also something wonderful about working in pure InDesign without plugins.
As Tony wrote, “editable templates are at the heart of web2print… templates must be easy to make or acquire by the printer. Equally, from the client’s perspective, templates must be easy and intuitive to use… ’10 minute templates’ became our mantra.”
You can see the way they set up templates for the application by going to TemplateCloud.com and downloading the Template Setup Guide. 10 minute templates: well over 100,000 have been created, and they have served as the starting points for millions of customized documents.
Customizing the user experience
We had long taken pride in Silicon Designer being a tool that clients can make their own, especially in terms of skinning and custom UI/UX. Printing.com had very clear goals for user experience, yet we really didn’t need to learn too much detail, as it wasn’t long before they were working in the application themselves, defining their own User Interface (“UI”) in Silicon Designer’s customization layer.
As we have explained in “Five Considerations in User Interface for Online Design,” the art of UI is a very important consideration, and while everyone agrees that a great UI is critical element to success in web-to-print, there is absolutely no consensus as to what great UI actually is.
We saw this long before we met Printing.com. From day one our vision of online editing included supporting any type of UI (form-based, on-canvas, anywhere in between) with the capability of arbitrary customization to the user experience.
As we explain in “Silicon Designer and the Power of Web Standards,” we have worked tirelessly to put UI in the hands of our clients, partners, and third party developers. This is because every Silicon Designer implementation includes a “customization layer” that allows design changes through CSS and other techniques, or even functionality changes through overrides of default behaviors. It is this extensibility that enabled Printing.com to fulfill their complex and unique vision.
Localizing and branding user experience and content
When we met them, Printing.com already had a presence throughout Europe; thus UI and the templates themselves had to be localized. They also distributed Silicon Designer different ways: in some cases they worked through subsidiary organizations in certain countries and licensed the technology directly to others.
Printing.com was able to deploy UI across multiple languages, with multiple brands, thanks to the customization layer of Designer, which enabled them to have distinct front ends with unique characteristics. Yet these shared a common back end which typically fed their centralized production environment (it did additionally facilitate multi-facility production).
As far as the content itself, they were able to create their own internal tool that allowed for easy translation of templates. The modularity and customizable nature of Designer let them give template designers an easy way to localize content, again making the template creation process as efficient as possible.
Points of integration
Printing.com had defined a number of features that required integration, and again, the very foundation of Silicon Designer was crucial in meeting their goals. They had, for example, multiple forms of image galleries that they wanted to use as asset sources. Not only could clients upload their own images and maintain libraries of uploaded assets, but the Printing.com sites integrated with stock photo services such as Fotolia.
Silicon Designer was quite ready for this, as we already had a model to abstract out integration from any image source, whether it be a DAM, a stock photo service, social media, or whatever else might come up. Our system of “drivers” for different asset sources made this easy for us to collaboratively support. They coded the image galleries, and we simply gave them an easy way to plug these into Designer.
Being focused on efficiency, variables were also a big deal to Printing.com: they didn’t want users to have to re-type information that was already known through site interaction (like company names, logos and phone numbers), so they extended the variable data concepts of Designer to support seamless integration with the rest of their web commerce engine.
Finally, they were all about production, and their Flyerlink system needed to talk to Silicon Designer in different ways. Here our RESTful services infrastructure and modular architecture helped provide the proper hooks for ensuring a high-degree of back end automation.
We are thankful to have met the wonderful people of Printing.com and to have helped them tackle the challenges of web-to-print. It is always nice to work with thought leaders, and it is great to see a deployment stay live for a long time (10 years and counting), while continually evolving to accommodate the ever-changing nature of business and technology.
The experience with this solution reinforced our commitment to extensibility, modularity, and ease of integration. Printing.com has also inspired our ongoing work in making template setup easier and easier. Their unique insight into the world of business collateral, coupled with their requirements for scalability across a global deployment, have proved valuable in informing and testing the Silicon Designer product, as we continue to provide a solid core foundation for online editing, ready to be implemented in very different ways by organizations with profoundly different visions.