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?

A tangled forest of 1000 letters

Wrangling pages of copy all day. Setting letters and words into rows and columns. Aligning headline copy and main body copy. Kerning. Leading. Placing an image — photo headshot of a person featured in the article. Assigning pagination to each folio.

Often I am too busy hammering out page layout designs and meeting a deadline for a press date that the elegance and beauty of each letter is missed. The leg of the letter K, the arm of the letter V, the shoulder of a lowercase N, the spine of the S become a swath of gray in a field of white space. The stoke of an A, the swash of a fancy uppercase B, the bowl of the letter D, or the counter — the closed space — of the letter O become a tangled forest of 6000 characters.

In a culture where everything seems instant and ephemeral, it is a delight to enjoy a timeless typeface inspired from a two thousand year old Roman edifice. If only for a few moments.

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

Dry transfer lettering and the human touch

Dry transfer type

From the graphic design history archive… Anyone remember doing advertising or editorial mockups using dry transfer lettering? Or the fact that mockups were expected to take several days. Not hours.

At the university where I received education in the art of design, I spent a lot of money purchasing packets of dry transfer lettering and Pantone triple nib markers. And I spent a lot of hours in the design studio developing the skill of paste ups and thumbnail layouts.

As I designed a multi-page layout project recently I could not escape the fact at how fast I was able to pull it together. The hand drawn layout thumbnails and non-repo blue line paste ups were not part of the process. Nor were there long days of sketches, dummied text, paste ups, Photostat machine, rubber cement, T-squares, proportional scale wheels and other essential pre-digital design tools.

Fortunately for me, I entered the world of advertising and marketing during the digital revolution in design. The design process for the multi-page layout project was exclusively digital — from concept to completion.

Instead of paging through thick, expensive design journals and other trade publications for color palette and typography and font inspiration, I visited a couple websites like Design Seeds[3] or Font Squirrel.[4] The color palette choice and font and photo selections were quick. That is the nature of the fast-paced environment of production work for a graphic designer.

Yet, last Thursday when the printed product arrived and I reviewed the freshly-inked pages, I was disappointed. The final printed product lacked the essence of human touch. At no point did my hand every touch the page. Everything was created by digital proxy. I can see the difference. Most designers see the difference. A careful observer may also see the difference.

NOTES:


[1] Image originally posted: August 8, 2014. https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2014/08/08/dry-transfer-lettering/
[2] It is a challenge to purchase the old style triple nib markers. Here is one source: AOE Artworld.

[3] Design Seeds: https://www.design-seeds.com/

[4] Font Squirrel: https://www.fontsquirrel.com/

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]
nikography


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.


NOTES:


[1] The original post was shared from Tumblr, January 20, 2010. https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2010/01/20/nikography-i-went-to-school-for-graphic-design/

[2] orginal image via synecdoche

Good design is subtractive

“Design that communicates efficiently is typically more subtractive than additive.” [read more]

Anatomy of print advertising

DSCN6003[DSCN6002[sqr-basic-lomo-dusk-tilt]]
Very excited about a mentoring opportunity with the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee this afternoon. Last October I volunteered and really enjoyed sharing my knowledge and experience of graphic design with the students.

Here are my notes on the five basic elements of a print advertisement.

  1. Headline
  2. Subhead
  3. Body copy
  4. Visuals
  5. Layout

A print ad includes other components (like, color, shape, logo, etc.), but these five elements are foundational to print advertising.