QUESTION: My company needs to
set up a variable-data-publishing system. Do we need
to hire somebody to write custom software?
ANSWER: More than likely,
you do not need to hire anybody to write custom software.
If you want to have your own in-house
variable-data-publishing system, you
can probably buy "off-the-shelf" variable-data-publishing software
(aka personalization software) that will meet most of your needs or all of your needs.
Buying off-the-shelf software
Buying off-the-shelf software is almost always less expensive
that hiring somebody to write custom software.
If you're curious about the differences among various
variable-data-publishing systems, continue reading below.
- Some variable-data-publishing solutions are designed for
creating both 1) "high-end," graphic-intensive,
documents and 2) text-intensive black-and-white
documents. However, some variable-data-publishing
created especially for printing "high-end,"
full-color documents and are not an especially good choice
for text-intensive, black-and-white documents. And, the
opposite is true: some variable-data-publishing solutions
are ideal for
black-and-white documents (or highlight-color documents)
but aren't a good choice if you need to print
full-color, design-intensive documents with lots of
- Some variable-data-publishing systems
generate code that prints documents at a
relatively high speed on certain types of printers; others
generate code that prints documents much more slowly on the
same types of printers. Print-optimization technologies.
make it possible to print complex variable-data documents
at a relatively high rate of speed.
If you'll be producing large batches of
make sure that you choose a
that supports a print-optimization technology
that works with your printing equipment.
- Most variable-data-publishing systems support
quite a few different
database formats. Make sure that the system
that you're buying
supports the database format that you'll be
using or — if it does not — make sure that
you can convert your data into a format
that is understood by the system that you're
- Some variable-data-publishing systems
cannot be driven programmatically — in
other words, they
require interaction with a human being to
initiate a production run. If you need to create
single documents or batches of documents on
demand without human intervention, these systems
will not work for you. Choose a system that
can be integrated programmatically with your
- Some variable-data-publishing systems
create printed documents only; others
create on-line documents only (HTML or PDF); still other
systems are capable of creating both printed documents and
on-line documents. (Note also that some
variable-data-publishing systems can
create documents in XML format — see below.)
- Most variable-data-publishing systems
are based on the concept of creating a
"master document" (a.k.a. "boilerplate document")
variable information in designated places on the
master document. Depending on the
variable-data-publishing system that you buy,
you will use one of three methods to
design and create
Even if you are a programmer or if you have
a programmer at your disposal, you will save
a lot of time and money and you will minimize
errors if you
choose a variable-data-publishing system that
can utilize master documents that were created
in Microsoft Word,
QuarkXPress, or other widely-available
- Utilize a commonly used,
interactive word-processing program or
page-layout program like Microsoft Word or QuarkXPress.
- Utilize a special, interactive
document-design program that comes
with the variable-data-publishing system that you
- Write a program, using a programming language
specified by the documentation that
comes with the particular variable-data-publishing
system that you buy. (To do this, of course, you need to
be a programmer or at least have some programming
There are several reasons:
Some variable-data-publishing systems are
suitable only for producing relatively
simple documents that don't require complex
graphics or complicated
formatting; others can handle almost any
kind of graphic requirement or formatting requirement. With
this in mind, think about whether you need the
- In most cases, using an interactive human
interface to design and create a master document takes
a lot less time than writing a program to
design and create a document.
- Generally, it's more expensive to pay
a programmer to do something than it is to
pay a non-programmer to do the same task.
- If you'll be receiving master documents
from people outside your company (for example,
from customers), you'll probably be able to
use them as-is for master documents if your
variable-data-publishing system can utilize
an industry-standard file format
(such as PDF
or EPS) for master
documents. On the other hand, if your
requires that you use special software to
create a master document, or if your
variable-data-publishing system requires that
you write a program to create a master document, you'll
have to re-create the master documents that
are given to you by people outside your company.
This will take time and
cost money — and you'll also run the risk of
inadvertently introducing errors. And of course,
somebody at your company will need to spend
the time to learn how to do the programming
or to learn how to use the special
- If you need to make a change to a master
document, or if you need to create a new
master document, the task will be
easier and less expensive if special skills
are not required.
Some variable-data-publishing systems generate documents in Extensible Markup
Language (XML) format. Such documents are very
versatile: if your company has programmers that
understand XML, these documents can be printed
on paper and/or displayed on line and/or
converted to other formats and/or used as the
basis for exchanging
information automatically with other computers.
- Copyfitting: Do you need to fit dynamically
generated sentences or paragraphs into a
pre-defined area? If so, make sure that the
system that you choose can handle this
requirement. Some variable-data-publishing
systems aren't designed to handle this;
other systems have
advanced features that allow you to specify
whether text should be enlarged or reduced
to fit a specific area — or instead, whether an
error message should be displayed on the
screen or written in a log file when the
text doesn't fit.
Don't assume that you
can deal with this by limiting the number of
characters that are allowed in a database field
— it won't work! Click
here to learn why.
- Support for graphics formats: If
you'll be creating graphics (e.g., logos, etc.)
and incorporating them into your documents,
make sure that the system that you choose
can import graphics in the formats that you'll
be using. Be particularly cognizant of
the fact that very few variable-data-publishing
systems can import graphics in Encapsulated
PostScript (EPS) format, but almost all
systems can import graphics in JPEG format
- Data-driven charts & graphs: Will your
documents include bar charts, pie charts,
or other graphic representations of the
data in your database? Many variable-data-publishing
systems don't support this.
- Data-driven tables: Will your
documents include tables that contain
data from your database? Not all variable-data-publishing
systems allow you to include such tables in
your documents — and not all systems do a
good job of formatting the data in tables.
- N-up layout: Do you need to be
able to lay out several documents on the
same page? Not all systems can handle this
- Dynamic page breaks: Do you need
a system that determines where pages begin and end
depending on the text and graphics included
in a particular document? Some systems don't
handle this well (or at all).
Most of the available variable-data-publishing systems run on Windows 95/98/NT computers;
some run on Macintosh computers, Unix computers and various other
kinds of computers.
Some of the available variable-data-publishing systems print only
printers that understand a particular page-description language.
For example, some systems print only on PostScript
printers; others print only on printers normally used by
mainframe computers (e.g., AFPDS printers).
Some variable-data-publishing systems are designed for use with RIPs and printers
made by a particular manufacturer; other systems work with
RIPs and printers that are made by many different manufactures.
about buying a variable-data-publishing solution
that works with printers/RIPs that are made
by only one company. In most cases, it's better to
utilize variable-data-publishing software that is not designed
for use with equipment from a particular company. Why? Two reasons:
Last (but certainly not least)! Setting up a variable-data-publishing
system is a major undertaking. Although it is true that some variable-data-publishing
software systems are much easier to use than others, there is no
avoiding the fact that you and your employees will need to invest
time and effort to get a variable-data-publishing
environment functioning properly.
- If your software only works with equipment made
by a particular company, you're choices will be
limited when it comes time to buy new equipment.
- If the company goes out of business, you'll
be stuck with software that you won't be able to
use with new equipment that you'll purchase in
Therefore, when you are deciding which
variable-data-publishing system to purchase,
be sure to consider any potential future
requirements. For example: maybe your first
variable-data-publishing project will not
require copyfitting — but if you
think that later on you'll take on projects
for which copyfitting will be a
requirement, you'd be wise to invest up front in
a system that supports copyfitting. If
you don't, you'll need to buy another system
in the future — and your employees will need
to learn how to use two different
instead of just one.
Let our Wizard help you find the right product!
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