It’s well past cliche to commend Johannes Gutenberg for his invention of the printing press, but it was only when I read Just My Type, by Simon Garfield, that I realised how inventive he had been. As the management theorist Peter Drucker once said, innovation is about building a whole new system, not just having a single good idea. As Garfield observes, “Gutenberg’s vision concerned automation, consistency, and recycling.” He set the mould for printing technology for almost 500 years – a long time for a technology innovation to remain dominant, and he was the first person in Europe to use mass production. It’s worth unpacking a little of what Gutenberg did to understand it more clearly.

Metallurgy. The actual technology of making the type characters – the individual letters – was complex, involving a mix of hard and soft metals, and some liquid alloys. Gutenberg had worked in a smithery, and had learnt enough about metals to know – technically – what he needed to do. 

Moveable type. This was the most radical part of Gutenberg’s insight – and we understand it so viscerally now, because typewriters and word processors are also built on the same idea, that it’s hard for us to understand how radical it was. There had been experiments with creating blocks for frequently used words, but this was more cumbersome than just writing it out. In Korea and China, earlier printing methods involved setting whole pages with woodblocks and cast bronze type, according to Garfield. Gutenberg broke the words down to their individual letters, assembled them into pages inside a frame (or a chase), and then broke them up again into their individual characters after they’d been used.  

Inks. Traditional water-based inks didn’t stick to the surface of the metal type, but oil-based inks did. Gutenberg developed oil-based ink to get his prining to work. 

Sales and Marketing. In 1454, Gutenberg pre-sold all 150 copies of his Bible, thereby de-risking an expensive undertaking. The text of those Bibles was skeuomorphic – the type looked as if it had been handwritten by a scribe, because Gutenberg believed that this was the only way that  his typeset books would command the same market value as the handwritten ones. It took a later generation of printers, based in Venice, to develop fonts that look more like a modern serif.

The ‘whole product’

Back to Drucker for a moment. The ‘complete system’ was the reason why Polaroid succeeded in the instant photography business where competitors failed, and why Philips and Sony made money from the consumer audio cassette even though other companies had also developed the technology.

The technology marketing strategist Geoffrey Moore built on Drucker by talking about the concept of the ‘whole product’—the full solution necessary to make a market lift off: it is ‘the minimum set of products and services necessary to ensure that the target customer will achieve his or her compelling reason to buy’. Joseph Swan, Nikola Tesla, and Edison all invented a light bulb, but Edison designed the whole electricity supply industry.

Gutenberg didn’t die rich – he lost his printing equipment in a legal dispute with an investor – but he understood the idea of the ‘complete system’ long before the theorists got around to defining it.


The image at the top, of Gutenberg’s type, is from Houston Baptist University, and is used with thanks.