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MYTHS and facts about
variable-data printing
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Citation Software Inc.
 Specialists in variable-data publishing since 1986

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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.
The key to success is finding the right variable-data-printing/publishing solution for your particular technical requirements and budget. Citation Software Inc. can help you to do this. We offer affordable, easy-to-use, state-of-the-art variable-data-printing/publishing solutions from several leading software-development companies, and we offer a FREE consulting service to help you identify the most appropriate solution for your company.

If you'd like us to assist you with the task of selecting an appropriate variable-data-publishing system for your organization, contact us by telephone at 888-260-7316, or send email to As stated above, we offer this service FREE OF CHARGE. (We are compensated by the software-development companies that make the products that we sell.)
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, full-color documents and 2) text-intensive black-and-white documents. However, some variable-data-publishing solutions are 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 graphics.

  • 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 graphic-intensive documents, make sure that you choose a variable-data-publishing solution 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 buying.

  • 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 production environment.

  • 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") and printing 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 master documents:

    1. Utilize a commonly used, interactive word-processing program or page-layout program like Microsoft Word or QuarkXPress.

    2. Utilize a special, interactive document-design program that comes with the variable-data-publishing system that you buy.

    3. 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 experience.)

    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 applications.


    There are several reasons:

    • 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 variable-data-publishing system 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 document-design software.

    • 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 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 following features:

    • 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 and several other bitmap formats.

    • 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 requirement.

    • 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).

  • 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.

  • 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.

    Be cautious 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:

    1. 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.

    2. 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 the future.
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.

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 variable-data-publishing systems instead of just one.

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