Rented Mac computers and other joys of graphic design in the 1990s


Discovered an old portfolio during spring cleaning. The book predates the iPod. Or, for those readers under the age of 20, the iPhone or Twitter. The design samples were probably created using an old Macintosh Quadra series. Or maybe a Macintosh LC II with an integrated Sony Trinitron display screen. Aldus PageMaker 5.0 was the software used for digital design page layout. Or maybe Adobe PageMaker 6.0 or QuarkXPress 3. Either way, the software had to be installed using removable media — 3.5″ floppy disks. No internet connection on the machines — unless you were an art director or lead graphic designer. Projects and tasks did not flood your email inbox. They were assigned by paper envelope work orders or creative briefs or landline telephone.


Each portfolio sample was mounted on black core matboard with spray adhesive. It was not that I did not own a classic black leather portfolio case with two handles and black filler pages and acetate covers. I did — and still do. But I remember being advised by someone in an ad agency to present work on boards. That way a client may spread the design samples out on a conference room table for a better examination.

Back in the early days of the digital revolution in design, a commercial artist needed to include a spectrum of work: page layout, photography, product design, illustration, package design, logo, branding, infographics and so on. As design technology advanced, the pervading question asked was, can you draw? A senior graphic designer at the ad agency where I interned had boxes and boxes of drawings for advertising campaigns. The paste-up boards featured his illustrations on the bottom layer with an acetate overlay for text and a top layer had written mechanical instructions for the printer. One of my goals as a young graphic designer — improve my illustrations skills.


The hardware and software during that period were rather primitive by today’s standards. Much of graphic design tasks veered toward desktop publishing. That consisted of typesetting blocks of text around images in a page layout. The cathode ray tube display screen became more of a designer’s interface than a drafting or light table. Within in years, the tactile connection between commercial artist and the art object were severed indefinitely.

Whether spoken or internalize, the mantra of young graphic designers in those days was adapt or die. The desire to rapidly assimilate to the new tech outweighed the intellect to consider the consequences. In the mid to late 90s I recall young designers often took full-time jobs in construction or sales to pay off student loans. The pay was better than design jobs. But when they tried to return to a career in graphic design a few years latter the advances in hardware and software were too much. For those of us desiring to be an art director in five years, creative director in ten and partner in 15 to 20 years, we took the low wages with the long term goal in mind.


There were no web sites in the mid 1990s where designers could download a free vector-based template of a t-shirt or book cover in order to showcase custom designs. I created all my own templates. Often on a rented Mac computer at Kinko’s that charged by the hour. Now the question remains. Do I recycle these samples? or store them in a museum — in the early period of digital revolution in design wing of the museum?

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Love letters and various type catalogs

Type catalogs and color guide book circa 1991 and 2004. These artifacts of graphic design history turned up in the garage while I was searching for something else. These catalogs reminded me of a certain passion for the stories behind the creation of specific typefaces. As a young designer, I looked forward to receiving type catalogs from T26 and Émigré.

Émigré often featured text about what inspired the type designer to craft the typeface. For example, Frank Heine wrote in the catalog Various Types:

“I’ve always had a desire to design a typeface based on a Renaissance Antiqua. There are two reasons. First, the Renaissance Antiqua can be considered the prototype for most of today’s typefaces. . . . Second, I am particularly attracted to its archaic feel, . . . “

I read those catalog pages the way, I imagine, a chef may read a sommelier’s writings on viticulture, enology, and food pairing.

A quiet love developed for the work of type designer Zuzana Licko. She created the typefaces Mrs. Eaves and Matrix II. Both typefaces were and still are my favorite typefaces to use in editorial projects.

If my digital tool box were restricted to only five typefaces, Helvetica, Baskerville, Mrs. Eaves, Matrix II and Gotham would be there. I thought briefly about Butler. But I know that is a passing phase. Ten years from now designed material that features Butler will look dated to this time period in the same manner that Copperplate of FF Trixie will always remind me of the late 1990s.

 

What will graphic design look like in twenty years?

Ah, ye ole Zip disk[1][2] circa 1990s. Once the preferred removable storage device for young graphic designers — now, well, . . . these days you will have to scavenge Amazon[3] or eBay to locate a Zip disk. Then you will need to find a Zip drive that will connect with a USB port in order to salvage any data.

Somewhere between the days of floppy disks, magnetic tape and CD storage,[4] the Zip disk was a practical way to transfer files from art department to pre-press department.

There were deadline nights in the art department — back when Friends and Party of Five were on network television. I would scramble with the rest of the design team to print out press proofs for a project. Then we folded all the proofs and color separations into a FedEx Envelope or Box. Next was to save all related files onto a Zip disk —the QuarkXpress document file, native Illustrator and Photoshop files, and fonts — and pack that into the FedEx package. One of the design team was tasked with driving the package to the FedEx dropbox by 7 p.m. pick up.

When I shared this story with an intern several months ago she displayed a perplexed facial expression. I took for granted the evolution of systems and technology experienced during my career in graphic design. It is something she may never fully appreciate. She will experience an entirely different progress of technological applications as she begins her career in advertising and marketing.

I told her that on those press nights a few of us at the office would use it as an opportunity to grab supper together at a favorite Mexican restaurant. Or maybe catch a movie. Some nights we would go play bowling as a team or hang out at the Village Cafe downtown. We were a twenty-something tribe of professionals working in an industry that was rapidly changing.

Kind of a reward for putting in long hours, she commented.

Yeah, I replied.

I wanted to continue sharing details of those days during the digital revolution in design, but stopped. She will have her own stories to share about those days when everyone used flash drives to transfer data. And how easier it was to upload PDF files from a laptop or mobile device to the cloud.

I cannot help but wonder what will graphic design look like in twenty years?

 

NOTES:


[1]Image originally posted: May 18, 2011. https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2011/05/18/anyone-remember-using-these-old-zip-disks-better/
[2]Christopher Phin, Think Retro: Who else kinda misses their Zip disks?, Macworld, January 27, 2015, accessed April 11, 2017 http://www.macworld.com/article/2875893/think-retro-who-else-kinda-misses-zip-disks.html.

[3]Amazon sells discontinued Iomega Zip disks (accessed April 11, 2017): https://www.amazon.com/Iomega-Formatted-reformattable-Discontinued-Manufacturer/dp/B00004Z83E

[4]History of Data Storage Technology, Macworld, May 5, 2016, accessed April 11, 2017 http://www.zetta.net/about/blog/history-data-storage-technology

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?

A page from the history of graphic design

There was a time — somewhere around the Middle and Upper Paleolithic periods of graphic design — when all pre-press art files were saved to a 250 MB Zip disk, packed into a Fed-Ex overnight envelope and delivered to a Fed-Ex pick location.

Working for a weekly newsmagazine, I was the last person to see that package and its digital content before it travelled 384 miles to the press that printed the periodical.

On one occasion I had to deliver the package to the airport due to a late breaking election story. That was before Adobe Photoshop CS arrived. And sometime between versions of QuarkXPress 4 and QuarkXPress 5.

The magazine introduced a virtual private network (VPN) in 2003. This linked the headquarters with various national offices as well as the press that printed the publication.

Soon Zip disks became novel items that were relegated to the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet. Like the extinction of the Neanderthals, the Zip disk has completely disappeared from all graphic design and print production today.