IKEA catalogues, 300 mile courier trips, and more. In this episode, Andy, Robin and Adam are joined by Geoff Turner, Head of Editorial and Production at Maths — No Problem! to discuss productivity. Are we more sloppy now that processes are easier? Is having team members across the globe an advantage or disadvantage? Plus, Andy and Geoff share experiences from their production pasts.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School Podcast.
Are you an early years teacher struggling with lack of support for lesson planning? Foundations can help. Foundations is the new reception programme from Maths — No Problem! It's a complete reception package with workbook journals, picture books and online teacher guides all in one place. Visit mathsnoproblem.com today to learn more.
Welcome to another episode of the School of School podcast. We've got the usual gang, Robin and Andy with us. Hi Robin. Hi Andy.
But we're also joined by a really special guest, a colleague of the three of ours who we've worked alongside. I'm a bit, I don't know if embarrassed the right word, but I've not seen you face to face Geoff in person. I'm in contact with you all the time, but for our listeners, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, about the role within Maths — No Problem! And I think we're going to launch into talking a little bit about productivity today, but before we do that, yeah, if you could just introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself, that'll be amazing.
Yeah, sure Adam and first of all, thank you for inviting me. I've been very excited to come on and I've heard great things. So thank you very much. So I'm Geoff Turner. I'm head of editorial production at Maths — No Problem! and I started in November, 2020. I have a team of people that some are in Canada and some are in the UK and it's a varying skill set of illustrators, designers, production editors and it's said quite often that people find their ideal job. And I think I was fortunate enough to find mine, so here I am.
So Geoff, what does a type setter actually do? I mean, I know what a type setter does, but I'm sure some people who are listening are like, "Type setter? That sounds like really..." probably imagining you with bits of lead and a vinyl type machine in the background or something.
Best to start at the beginning I think. So in 1989, which seems like a few centuries ago, I started my travels. If you like my career in publishing, I started as an apprentice type setter. And back in 1989, an apprentice type setter consisted of a terminal, which was a very basic PC that had some very basic software on. We are talking about the times after lead and printing and that sort of thing. We're talking a little bit more modern than that. So we are talking about what was called the Linotron 202 type setting system and the cord that we used to use because it wasn't WYSIWYG, it wasn't what you see is what you get. It was cord and that was called call recording and you used to have to write in code to type set to a machine, which would then output either on film or on bromide.
And the bromide would come off in galley form, so just one long strip of quoted paper, if you like. And from there, we would actually make pages up. Now you would think, "How do you make pages up from that?" Because everyone is so used to desktop publishing software and that sort of thing now, but back in the day, you would cut those strips of galley up and you would actually put hot wax on the back of them. And you would put them on an A3 cardboard sheet on a light table, and make everything up as spreads. And we did that every day and I was absolutely thrown in the deep end at the age of 16 and to be honest, I was fascinated. I couldn't get enough of it. Even when you're 16, 17 and there's lots of things to do in life, especially socially, if somebody said, "Can you stay until 9:00 PM tonight to get something done?" I was well up for it, absolutely.
So a type setter back in those days is something completely different to a type setter now. Of course, we have software such as InDesign, a Adobe creative suite. I think in between times people have used software such as QuoteXpress or WSYIWYG software, where you don't have to do all the dirty work. And even though I call that dirty work, there was even dirtier work before that, which involved hot metal.
Do you miss any of that though Geoff? Do you miss some of that process? I mean, it's quite the process.
No, because if somebody was to come to me today and say there's a mistake somewhere, I can sort that mistake out in super quick time. And I don't think people appreciate that where you can just sort those things out in super quick time. If there's a mistake in a book, unfortunately we may end up having to do a reprint or putting something online, of course we can change that almost instantly. Well back in the day it was, "Can you stay behind for three hours and actually sort this one error out?"
Can I jump in and ask a question Geoff? I know that I touched on very briefly at the beginning about productivity, right? From what you've described and really, it sounds like a far more labour intensive process when you started. I think this is true that often with labour intensive processes like that, that become more advanced and more technologically advanced so it's less labour intensive, often workforces have just fallen away, you're not needed. So you were working 40 hours plus a week back then. You're probably doing exactly the same now, what gives? Are you just producing more? You know what I mean? Does that make sense?
I would like to think I was producing more Adam. Yeah.
But do you know what I mean? Do you know what I mean about that? It sounds like the process took longer in the past.
Yeah. It did take longer because at the time, we did work for certain publishers such as McMillan and Hodder & Stoughton, them sort of companies. And to summarise an overview of that, if you like, when a book is done and ready to go to print, nowadays it's an email, it's a download to a VPN or a Google Drive, it's a file transaction. That's all it is and possibly an email just to support that. Back in the day, I was having to carry A3 boxes of product, if you like, which was going to go to plate to be printed.
And I would be sent on a train to go down to Sevenoaks in Kent for a particular publisher and it was all... that was part of the process, you know? It was actually in the process from the beginning that once we finished this book on a certain date, Geoff being the apprentice would get on a train and travel for 300 miles with this huge box in tow and deliver it through the door to the reception and say, "Here's the book from company." And they would receipt for that and then I would make my way home, and that was part of the process, which seems amazing now. But yes, at the time we felt we were super productive.
I don't even know if you guys know this, but I apprentice in the same trade as Geoff. I started very much exactly doing what Geoff started doing, except the guy that he delivered those art boards to was me, right? So I was the next step in the process. Very well aware of Geoff and I remember the days when we used to receive those giant art boards. And of course, you'd take them out of the packaging and there would always be one line with about two words on it at the bottom of the package that came out of one of a dozen art boards, right?
That is so right, yep.
And then you'd have to figure out where to stick it back on the board, right? And that could take you hours to figure out because invariably it always was at the end of a paragraph or something. So it was almost impossible to decipher where it should be because it wasn't an obvious gap somewhere. Anyway, the thing that's interesting that a lot of people don't realise, so let's just say... and Adam, the process, because you've been involved in how many books have you contributed to now? I mean probably over a hundred, right?
Quite a few.
Yeah. So you know the process quite well, the modern day process right? Now just imagine this, just imagine because how often this kind of thing happens. We'll do a math review on a chapter and then someone will say, "We're going to take out this page or we're going to remove this bit here, and we're just going to reflow everything up." Nowadays, that's like, "Okay, that's pretty easy actually and maybe we'll take out four pages, we got to renumber everything and whatever." That whole process is not catastrophic. In those days, it often meant you had to start from scratch again, because it was literally, you were sticking pieces of paper onto a board. And everything had to move around, that didn't happen automatically. That was a manual process, moving everything about, right? And if you set your type and your type didn't break the way that it needed to, you had to set it again.
There was no, "Well I'll just add a return in here or whatever." Or there might have been, but it was a lot more tedious than it is now. So from a productivity point of view, what I found my experience was that everybody knew at that stage how much higher the stakes were of making a correction mid flow. And although productivity wasn't as high, there was a discipline because the options weren't there, right? Like if you came and said, "I want to insert a paragraph in this book." That would be like, "Well you're insane. That's going to cost tens of thousands and it's going to take months or weeks or whatever it is. So forget it because it's not going to happen." While now it's like, "I want to insert a paragraph." "Yeah okay, let's insert a paragraph." The day before it goes to print, you can insert a paragraph and you can make it work, right?
There's no way you could do that before and literally corrections. Like if Geoff didn't catch the corrections and I had to do the corrections, normally I didn't have to stick it on a piece of card. I would have to cut with a scalpel, the line out of a piece of film, which is nice and thick and brittle, literally cut it out and then stick the new line in the piece of film and make it work somehow. Which might mean cutting up the whole line and respacing it manually and sticking it back on with sticky tape, right? And then that's what we would make the printing place from. So it was really, really cumbersome to make corrections in those days.
So now let's just say that you did a book and it was like hard back. Right? And then you said, let's do a paperback version. Nowadays, you would take the same text and you would just reflow it in a more narrow column, different page format, whatever. In those days, no, no, no, you go back and re-typeset the whole book, you type it all out again for the new format. So if you want to do a new format, it's like starting from zero, right? So it's kind of mind boggling really, right? I mean, I don't know if that solved that particular problem, Geoff, by the time you were working in those, was it a Linotronic you said?
Yeah. Interestingly what you're saying there Andy is that the tolerance of a correction is now different. So back in those days, unless it was an absolute show stopper, it would get brushed aside. It's like there's so much work involved. Does it really need to be done? It's questioned. Nowadays, we are doing sometime minucia areally and you do get to the point where will anybody notice this outside of our skillset? You know? Back in the day-
And often the answer is no, right? We have this all the time. Yeah.
Yeah. So nowadays it's so easy to actually correct something that you're sucked into actually doing it, because I can do it. It's so easy. From my point of view, I know how hard it was to do it back in the day. Nowadays, it's so easy for everyone to do it, that you've almost got to stop yourself and say, "No, we've got to draw the line somewhere." Yeah.
Yeah. So although the process is easier, there's a sloppiness that you can introduce into the process, right? I don't know if sloppiness is the right word, but-
It makes you less productive.
Yeah and actually become less productive. It's easier to waste money now than it was back then, which sounds kind of ridiculous but it's actually true, right? Yeah, so it's interesting. Productivity's a funny old topic, isn't it? You know? It's hard to imagine how rigid processes were back then. And how hight the stakes were. Like if you were printing in rotogravure, so rotogravure is the most expensive printing process. It's only economical when you're printing in the millions. So I worked on a couple of projects in my day where if you made a mistake on a rotogravure cylinder... so what happens, rotogravure is actually physically engraved cylinder. Things that get printed in rote gravure would be like, I don't know, an obvious thing would be the Ikea catalogue. You know, when they print the Ikea catalogue, I don't even know if they print the Ikea catalogue anymore, but that was the largest print run in the world.
The way they did it was they printed it in one go and all the text was in black. So all they would do was substitute the last colour on the printing process, which was the black text for each language to keep the presses running. They print the Ikea catalogue for the entire world in one print run, and then would just change those black cylinders for all the different language variations, right? Because they sold the same stuff in every country. If there was a mistake on a rotogravure cylinder, I mean, you're talking about a copper cylinder that weighs tens of thousands of pounds, that's got to be engraved. It's a very slow and laborious process. And if you screw it up, you have to recoat the cylinder and copper, you have to scrape off everything on it, Recoat it in copper and then engrave it again. This is a big mechanical hugely cost. So a mistake in that over there was super costly. So you just didn't make mistakes and you didn't make changes unless you really had to, right?
I think just the cost of doing things then and the cost of doing things now, yes, we can expensive mistakes can still be made now, but back then it was hugely expensive. And now I think it's almost convenient now. It's almost too convenient and that's why I think you get to the point where certain people may become like a one man band if you like. I've got an Apple Mac in my room, I've got some software, I can do this myself sort of thing. Back in those days, that just didn't happen. You might have somebody who was fortunate enough to have a typewriter or some sort of keyboard to actually type some manuscript, but everything else was always done in a workplace back then as well.
I would say we haven't even touched on your team yet and there must be a different way of doing business now on a team, like there is today, versus what you did back then when you were apprenticing.
Well obviously in 2022, the biggest difference is that many people work remotely now and that there are huge advantages to that. But one disadvantages that no matter how many meetings you have using Skype or what we're doing now is you can't get that relationship going like what you would do being in the same office or the same workplace. So I benefit from having highly skilled people in various parts of the world and we do our best to come together and communicate as best we can to achieve what we need to achieve. There's always that thing in the back of your mind, where how would it be different if we were all under the same roof in the same office? Would we be more productive? I find things that I'm curious about, things like that, you know? Almost to the point where let's get on a plane and let's all try it out for a month and see what we actually do achieve by doing it that way, you know? Yeah, super curious about that.
Andy, are you up for that experiment?
Sure, let's try it. Let's try it. At Maths — No Problem!,! while Geoff was talking, I was just calculating how many different time zones are people actually working in? There's at least five, there may be six. So yeah, that brings new challenges. So at any hour in the day, during the week, there's somebody working, right? At Maths — No Problem!, working on the same project, so that creates a whole bunch of interesting things, because what it means is that if you get it wrong, you can lose two days in the process. From a productivity point of view. If there's an unanswered question and somebody can't get it answered and the person who can answer it is in a different time zone and they're sleeping, you can't get it done that day. So you'll lose the entire day, but you'll also lose the other... it kind of snowballs. So it usually takes about two or three days to resolve a problem that you could just tap someone on the shoulder and say, "Hey, what gives with this?" Right? So that's one anomaly.
But then there's a flip side of that is that it's entirely possible for you to go home with a whole bunch of unsolved stuff and undone work and wake up in the morning and all of it's done. So there's these magic fairies that work at night that keep going, so that you get this ultra productivity where normally you would say at the end of day, we finish here, we came back in the morning, it's exactly where we were. Now you're like, "I finish here, come back in the morning, everything's done." Right? So if you get it right, you can be ultra productive, but if you get it wrong, you could be terribly slow, right?
So the price is high. The stakes are high when you work that way. It's a reflection of the new world, this remote working, working in new time zones. I think we're going to see more and more of that in the world as things progress, but boundaries, those boundaries, the time boundaries and the geographical boundaries will be taken away and it will bring a whole bunch of new challenges to getting work done for everybody, right? I wonder if it'll affect schools in any way.
I wonder if there's ever going to be a day when a school operates in more than one time zone. Is it even possible, right? It could be. Sebastien's in university, right? My son, Sebastien and he does a lot of his courses when he's not even in the same city as the university, right? Because they're all online. They're all seminars are recorded and everything and he doesn't even need to be in the same city. Anyway, there you go. Something to think about. Geoff, thanks so much for joining us, right? That was kind of a fun talk.
Thank you. Thank you.
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