The problem

So, this guy walks into a shop in Las Vegas. Not a coffee shop, a FedEx Office print shop. He hands over a PDF document of roughly 40 pages and asks for 25 copies to be printed and bound into book form, by the following morning. The standard option is reasonably inexpensive but then the staff point to another option based on high-end HP printers and premium paper. They print a sample to show how much better the quality could be. Far better indeed. It would be a costlier affair but the buyer finds it attractive and agrees to pay.

Next day, while picking up the finished product the customers casually inspects the copies. The first few look fantastic but then further on several copies have a lower quality of finish with the colours not as rich. Hmm, why? The staff quite simply shrug it off with the following explanation. 'Yeah, that happens with many large jobs as the ink levels in the toner cartridges falls.' Everything else about the service was good. The offerings and options, the pricing and the payment, the store environment, and the staff were prompt and polite.

So what's the problem?

If there is only a slight variation in the quality of some of the copies, is the customer being finicky?  The copies are printed, aren't they? There is no major defect or error. We don't fussy over how much sauce or cheese a pizza has do we? So why cry over a few thousand particles of ink? And the staff did offer to reprint the copies that fell short, didn't they? However, that is not the point of telling this story. The point here is the staff did not even see a problem. Addressing a complaint may make for good customer service but it is better to fix it in design. Seeing the problem is the precondition to fixing it in design.

What is a printer promising, if promising anything? What are customers actually paying for? The printing or the print? What are the underlying promises? Let's have a closer look, shall we? But before that, let's keep in mind what George F. Carter, Professor of Geography, Johns Hopkins University, wrote in the Baltimore Sun in 1963: "It is axiomatic that the eye sees only what the mind prepares it to see. The hunter sees the rabbit, the bird watcher the bird, and too many tourists see only the motels and gas stations."

We have to see differently through an imaginary device with two lenses. One for each eye. 3D glasses combine two separate projections into one solid image. Our new device works in an opposite manner. It separates ideas or concepts into two separate components. If you use it to analyse a contract, the propositions are split into performances and affordances. In the case of the print job, we see the printing of the document (performance) as distinct and separate from the supplied material (affordance).

The performance

The 'printing' of the document involves a kind of translation of an original image into an impression in ink. A processing logic figures out the physics of organising billions of particles of ink into the requisite number of dots per inch for high-resolution. Hardware and software work together in unison for the magical effect of a high-quality print.

Ink and paper aren't the only consumables in the printing of a document. The machine consumes energy and goes through wear and tear over its useful economic life. Every now and then it requires maintenance and support to keep it in top condition. So on and so forth, better explained by the friendly cost accountant.

All that just to create an impression, even before a single particle of toner hits the paper. Ink on paper is altogether another matter. Every single machine has an adequate supply of stock just sitting there waiting for the printing to happen on a moment's notice. That's the point of it. It bears repeating. The 'printing' would simply be an extremely elaborate example of electronic hand-waving, if there isn't the right amount and quality of paper and ink.

In general, performances are phenomena in which one thing is acting upon another thing for something good to happen. In this case the printing machinery, including software, is acting upon the PDF file from the customer, translating it into an inkable impression.

The affordance

Why do people go to print shops even if they have access to colour printers at offices or homes? Because print shops have materials and equipment that allow large scale and large volume printing. They aggregate demand in ways that gives them economies of scale and scope at levels that would be too expensive for their customers to maintain.

The pricing for colour printing works like this. You pay a fixed price per page regardless of how rich and colourful the image is. A page may have a Kathakali dancer from India during Onam, elaborate psychedelic art by Jesse Pinkman, or the tiny hut appearing as a black speck against the backdrop of the stunning white starkness of Siberia.

Regardless of how much cyan, magenta, yellow or black toner a page may consume, very little or a whole lot, the price per page is the same. Some pages are profitable to the printer while others are not. But printers spread the risk across a population of people who want colour printing, who in effect cross-subsidise each other without ever realising it. In other words, buying colour printing is a bit like paying policy premiums for health insurance. Every buyer is either getting a discount on the ink or overpaying for it.

But a deal is a deal. Every single page in every single copy should get exactly the same amount on ink. If a machine is low on toner in any of its cartridges, then the print shop staff know to replenish the stock. Knowing whether ink levels will drop below a critical level during a print job is tricker calculation but not as tricky as a Mars landing. Existing algorithms could do the trick. The first step is to make that sort of calculation an integral part of the design.


The affordance of 'ink on paper' is distinct and separate from the performance of 'creating the inkable impression'. But yet the two are collateral to each other because the promising of one shapes and influences the promising of the other. That is the X and Y of printing in general, or the structural definition of printing as a value proposition. It is also a class definition. That means all kinds of printing have the same problem structure. Seeing things this way allows us to learn from the designs of others, whether they come to our attention because of their successes or failures.

There are several types of performances and affordances and as many types of X and Y promises. By combining these various types – but always an X-type with a Y-type – we get more solid class definitions or 'stereotypes' (based on the Greek word 'stereo' meaning solid). The stereotype of transportation, for example, is made of the availability of a platform or carriage (X) upon which a thing can rest, and the safe and steady modifying of its physical coordinates until they match those of the destination (Y).

There are all kinds of laundries, from the commercial ones hotels and hospitals have contracts with, to the neighbourly coin-operated ones. They all fit the following stereotype. They promise a wash cycle (X) – a social environment in which so many kilos of linen can mix with so much fresh water and detergent and for so long. They also promise a cleansing action (Y) caused by the controlled motion of motor and drum.  

Follow along as we introduce 22 different types one by one, covering all sorts of performances and affordances. They are part of STRCTRL –  a new language for analysis and design, for developing more beautiful contracts, to improve the quality of infrastructures and services.