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Technojunkie or Technophobe?
Streamlining: questions to ask when making technology investment decisions.

By: Julia Ptasznik

Julia Ptasznik is an honors graduate (BFA) and a faculty member of the Advertising/Graphic Design department of the New York, USA-based Fashion Institute of Technology. She has written and presently teaches a course on Professional Practices to upper-class design students. In addition to being the editor of Visual Arts Trends, Julia is a freelance consultant specializing in marketing strategy development, copywriting and graphic design. Her portfolio includes work for companies and organizations such as the United Nations, Buick, Bertolli USA, Sprint PCS, The Fragrance Foundation and Domino's Pizza. Prior to starting her own business, Julia has worked on both client and agency sides, most recently as director of communications of an international trading firm, Atwood Richards Inc., which has offices in 32 countries. Her previous experience includes working on design projects for the U.S.Open Tennis Tournament, well-known apparel industry brands such as Bonjour, and varied toy packaging accounts. Contact:

With offices in New York and London, Visual Arts Trends is an international quarterly "state of the industry" report for the creative professional Focusing on graphic design, advertising art direction, photography and illustration, each report offers a brief, business-oriented, definitive and timely overview of industry developments that affect aesthetics, pricing, salaries, working conditions and client relations. Visual Arts Trends combines unique proprietary research with material gathered by monitoring hundreds of publications, companies, membership organizations, online sources, and other relevant sources of information. The reports review and analyzes professional trends by business category and by specialization. In addition, each report profiles "hot" client industries interviews with senior executives of leading companies and organizations. An annual subscription retails for US$29.99 and includes four reports available for download as PDF files. Visual Arts Trends is a trademark of and is published by Colonial Communications Corp. Contact:

Let’s face it. We are all addicted to technology. Cell phones, e-mail, voice mail, electronic organizers, CD writers, digital cameras, audio-video-jaz-zip-SyQuest-Epson-HP-on-and-on-and-on… You name it, we’ve got it, and we are not afraid to use it. In fact, if someone took away all our gadgets, we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves, much less be able to get any actual work done. This makes us technojunkies. (Is there a support group for this, pray tell?)

On the other hand, the constant chasing after the ever-so-elusive technological learning curve can drive one insane. Just when you think you’ve gotten caught up, a whole new batch of upgrades, patches, not to mention the totally new and unfamiliar software packages, seems to flood into our offices. After installation, we pray for a break, and it never comes. The anticipation of what is yet to come is frightening, as the time periods between the upgrades are getting progressively shorter. Can you say "technophobe?" 

The dichotomy here is clear to you all. Every one of us recognizes how important, even integral, technology has become to what we do for a living. On the flip side, the majority of creatives would like to spend a lot more time on conceptual work – and a lot less on computer maintenance. The question is: Is this realistic, or should we just accept that this is the way it is and find a way to cope?

The first step in the twelve-step program of coping is to recognize that the availability of all these products in the market is in no way indicative of their necessity. Just as the rest of the business community, technology manufacturers are driven by profit – their need to sell more of their products to all those willing to buy them. Especially since we are in the business of communication, we cannot afford to be fooled by someone else’s claims of "gotta have it." The trick here is to look at your own "gotta-haves." 

Unfailingly, the best work is produced by designers and agencies who have found their own answer to one crucial question: "How much do I really NEED to know to do my job?" And our job is to communicate, or, in more detail, to create work that effectively communicates our clients’ messages by the means of graphic design. Graphic design – not computer programming, coding, hardware maintenance or technical support. Graphic design.

Having established that, smart designers and agencies take a minimalist, need-to-know approach to everything BUT design. Even the area of Web and interactive design does not fall outside of this generalization. Yes, the agencies that specialize in Web and interactive work have to contend with many more technological tools, as it is a technology-driven medium. Yet, those that produce the best work from a design standpoint are those that have really thought out and streamlined their technological functions.

When you think about it, it is really simple. On the graphics application software side, this includes decisions like making a choice between Freehand and Illustrator, rather than using both, for example. The same goes for utilities such as font management and virus protection, i.e. Suitcase vs. Font Juggler, Antivirus vs. Virex, etc. On the side of trouble-shooting and maintenance, some industry insiders recommend using a mix of several utilities ­ one for defragmenting, one for disc repair, one for catching software conflicts, one for crash protection. Perhaps, if you have a tech support person on staff or retainer. If not, it is probably wise to compromise by picking one utility that fulfills the majority of the tasks. Most people already have their software preferences. Deciding which best suits your business is not difficult, yet simple things like these can save an enormous amount of time and money. 

As to pre-press and production software, do you really need an application that handles trapping, for example? Or has extraordinary color management and editing capabilities? Or do you just need a good pre-press house or a printing firm that understands your needs and can handle these functions, leaving you free to concentrate on design work? 

Decisions as to peripheral devices such as optical and CD-ROM drives, tape back-up systems, external data storage units, and printers can and should also be made in a similar vein. For example, if you are a one-person operation, do you really need an automated tape back-up system? Or can a CD writing device or a Jaz drive you probably already own fulfill the same function without additional costs and training? The answer may be different for all of you, but the question should be asked.

The platform (Mac vs. PC) thing is academic by now. Whatever flips your pancake. But what a designer or a studio needs to decide is whether or not there is a real need for both. Maintaining a network of these often-conflicting machines may get somewhat complicated and expensive in terms of software upgrades, maintenance and technical support. 

While making a choice between different applications, printers, and utilities is beneficial, there is no question that these product categories are of paramount importance and are absolutely necessary. But what about the plug-in, arguably the biggest time- and money-eater? Saving the argument that plug-ins are most often used simply to "spruce-up" conceptually weak design work for another article, let’s concentrate on the concept of streamlining. There are a lot of plug-ins that are worth the investment, such as those that remove scratches and dust from scanned images, for example. However, it is the "special effects" area that needs to be examined most closely. Do you automatically purchase every border-making, shadow-dropping, button-twirling technology that comes across your desk, in the hopes of eventually being able to use this "cool" effect? Or do you first make design decisions and then go looking for a specific product that may help reduce the time and effort you have to put into completing the project?

In short, the entire streamlining process is about determining what you really need and eliminating redundancies. There is always the possibility of error when trying new tools; however, if you approach this in a systematic way, the probability of such error is much smaller than it would be if you blindly tried every new gadget that came on the market. Carefully looking at each new product’s features, reading reviews published in industry magazines, monitoring newsgroup discussions and, when it comes to software, making use of the demo downloads available from most manufacturers’ web sites can go a long way.

All right, if you are a student, learning every software and technology you can get your hands on may be beneficial, as it can help in getting that first job. But consider what you want to do with your life in the long term. Do you want to be regarded as an expert on design or technology? Going back to the beginning, what are you here for, anyway?

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