Step-by-Step Graphics magazine

Young creatives—back in the transitional years of the digital revolution in design—coveted Step-by-Step Graphics magazine. One reason, the price of the publication was expensive for university students. Not as expensive other trade journals, but college students did not have a lot of disposable income. The cost of art supplies ate up most of the budget. Another reason, there was one copy of the latest issue for twenty students. Magazine copies were placed in the fine arts building’s library. The main reason is obvious, university students devoured each issue in hopes of creating work inspired by the amazing artists and illustrators featured in each publication. That was the goal. Graduate and earn a living creating graphic and commercial art.

I used to enjoy reading articles in Step-by-Step Graphics magazine. The editorial content was one part inspiration, one part innovation and a healthy dash of technical craftsmanship. The periodical was the inspiration and trend source for many Gen X graphic design student. Of course, we were never called, labeled nor pursued as Gen Xers at the time. We were simply called students.

One memorable story—for me, at least—was the 1992 feature of a medical illustrator. There was a page devoted to perspective and painting—airbrush painting. What does a 30/60 prospective grid mean, and will I learn about it in this semester, I pondered many winters ago. I marveled at the color photos of the artist pencilling arrows on a perspective grid and drawing ellipses with a template. And all the tracing paper required to pull off one truly amazing image about how a pharmaceutical product responds to cholesterol molecules.

Rabbit trail. There used to be an old bookstore in Milwaukee’s downtown area that had back issue copies of Step-by-Step Graphics and other resources like Communcation Arts and Émigré. I bought these back issues and toted them back to university. Some of you may remember when Step-by-Step Graphics magazine’s cover logo design changed—sometime in the late 1980s—from the rectangle black box with “graphics” in script font under the words “Step-by-step” to the square reflection logo.

When I graduated, the digital revolution in design matured. The need for hands-on technical skills that I spent years learning dissipated as computer hardware and software flooded ad agencies and publishing houses. New digital skills were learned on the job. Learn quick or go hungry was the unwritten motto.

Step-by-Step Graphics magazine disappeared sometime around the appearance of the iPod. Today, if you are searching for pro tips on graphic design and illustration, you search for YouTube videos on the topic. Imagine the graphic design profession without the internet. Without YouTube. How did graphic arts and designers work before 2005?

I went to school for graphic design

Sharing this post[1] with you from nikography — plus my own story afterwards. Because graphic design is hard work.

i went to school for graphic design, and did not spend my nights getting drunk. instead, i worked my ass off, spent most of my outside-class time learning/trying/doing as much as possible, and then got an awesome job after graduating.

protip: if you’re lucky enough . . . to be in college, you should be spending all available time learning, trying, making things, messing things up, experimenting and READING. . . .

i didn’t waste a single day. and neither should you. build your momentum and go with it.

for the but-i’m-an-artist’s: you want money? learn a technical skill related to your field and get good at it. then get better at it. . . . just sayin’.

final note: i had a BLAST in college, and miss it like crazy. working hard does not mean no-fun-allowed, it means relax harder 🙂 [2][3]

I had the unique opportunity to enter a graphic design career during the transitional years of the digital revolution in design (somewhere between the Upper Peasealithic and Macolithic periods). The university offered computer graphics classes during the final year of the academic program called commercial arts. The degree was catalogued as a bachelors in science (as opposed to a bachelors in arts).

All other graphic design classes were hands-on, analog, technical application of composition, typography, illustration, photography, color theory, and so on. And for that fact, I am grateful.

One afternoon, during critique of students’ work a professor called two of my classmates out of the room. Most of the students knew why. One of the two owned a personal computer (yes, this is back in the paleolithic days before wifi, laptops, and mobile phones). They did their copy layout (design jargon for arranging blocks of advertising text — usually Lorem Ipsum — on a page) using a personal computer and printer. Then they inked over the print outs and submitted their work. Or so the rumors went.

No one else in the class owned a personal computer and had to lay out the text for a three-panel brochure by hand using rulers, graphite and non-photo blue pencils and rubylith film for color overlays.

The professor had caught them cheating. They denied using a computer to do the text layout. Hushed conversation relayed that they were nearly suspended for the act.

The recollection of that afternoon seems so arcane and archaic. The level of craftsmanship and skill required to accomplish print layout work was demanding. Each design student spent hours a day in the studio working on each project.

It used to take weeks of hand-lettering and composing mock-up pages before submitting the design samples for ad director and client reviews. Now it takes me a morning to generate three design layout drafts of a two- to four-page project.

The digital revolution allowed for faster turnaround of design projects, but graphic design is still hard work. It is something I try to impart to interns and young designers.

If graphic design is not good, hard, rewarding work, than you’re doing it wrong.


[1] The original post was shared from Tumblr, January 20, 2010.

[2] orginal image via synecdoche