Card 18100

By Sean Gallagher  |  Posted 2003-03-01 Print this article Print

Every year, American Greetings churns out 20,000 new cards to meet every need of "social expression" it can imagine. But the life and death of each of those cards is hardly determined by the pen of an artist and the gut of a chief executive.

-83962 - Days 1 to 60">
Card 18100-83962 - Day 1 to Day 60

Janice Travis' chosen card, American Greetings Identification Number 18100-83962, began just over a year ago in the creative offices of the company's compound in Cleveland, where more than 1,200 artists, writers and their editors toil each day.

In the first month of a card's lifecycle, the staff begins the creative process by searching an electronic archive spanning nearly a century of previous designs and messages. The information resides on an IBM DB2 mainframe database; and middleware known as the Content Manager helps automatically format documents for presentation on computer screens. Some new cards may be created by simply making modifications to older designs, or even by just adding new text to them.

Today, American Greetings designers electronically pass around their ideas. Yet, up until a few years ago, collaboration on new cards remained pretty much a manual process.

Rachel Benbunan-Fich, who holds a doctorate in management information systems and put together an American Greetings case study two years ago, noted in her work that company designers were mostly sharing ideas by passing papers around. "That was still a time-intensive process and resulted in long production cycles," said Benbunan-Fich, an assistant professor at Baruch College of the City University of New York.

The designers now use an intranet to share concepts. "The idea of sharing design and getting feedback is possible with any simple publishing and communications system," Benbunan-Fich says. "They don't need to be fancy, just efficient."

Those simple efficiencies can cut months off new-card development time, which American Greetings then accelerates by adopting other publishing technologies. Take the archive. American Greetings' creative types now upload 20,000 documents (about 35 gigabytes worth of data) and retrieve 25,000 documents from the system each week.

Ancept's Media Server is a Web-based software package built atop IBM's WebSphere application server. Media Server uses IBM Content Manager as its data store. Ancept's software manages the flow of the card-design process, handling the checking out and in of files as they are modified, and also provides a way to search for and view "thumbnails"—reduced-size images—of designs in the archive.

American Greetings began installing digital asset management software in 1999 to streamline its production process. The goal, according to vendors that worked on the project, was to "reduce head count" by eliminating paper- and disk-handling positions. "Favorable production efficiencies" contributed to the company's ability to cut material, labor and such costs to 38.2% of sales in 2002, down from 39.7% the previous year.

When the creative types settle on a new design, layouts are created in Macromedia Freehand, a standard graphic design tool at American Greetings. Freehand can be used for complex text layout and manipulation, as the Knight-Ridder chain of newspapers has found. In essence, it is a digital drawing board on which American Greetings creates cards.

When files are created, they are uploaded into the Content Manager repository for routing through American Greetings' card-making operations. As content is checked in, it is automatically assigned descriptions that allow text and artwork to be retrieved easily later, when an artist is, for instance, looking for previous "birthday cake" designs.

"There are 60 different fields"—individual pieces of such metadata—"pulled out of mainframe systems," says Josh Bruhin, Ancept's vice president of business development. "There's no manual entry of data at all." That means designers don't have to worry about organizing card content, saving time and preventing errors.

One of those fields is for the American Greetings Identification Number, or AGIN, an automatically assigned unique number that identifies the card. Card 18100-83962 got its name this way.

The number is used later to manage and track all aspects of the card's printing and distribution. The numbers signify order of production and are tied to replacement cards that are in the pipeline, so that cards are automatically channeled to the right bin on the shelf.

Sean Gallagher is editor of Ziff Davis Internet's enterprise verticals group. Previously, Gallagher was technology editor for Baseline, before joining Ziff Davis, he was editorial director of Fawcette Technical Publications' enterprise developer publications group, and the Labs managing editor of CMP's InformationWeek. A former naval officer and former systems integrator, Gallagher lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland.

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