The Old Days of Graphic Design

In the “old days” of graphic design, we were heavily dependent upon hand-eye coordination to do the job correctly.

I was graduating from a learner’s permit to a driver’s license at the same time I was learning to use a “blind-terminal” Compugraphic machine at an after school job in the DC area. I learned to shoot “stats” (or called elsewhere, ‘PMTs’*), cut border tape, run galleys through waxers, and sweated and cried from x-acto blades while slicing out typos and pasting in fixes.

I drew line borders with technical pens on vellum, and scratched at the results with an X-Acto to fix corners and crooked lines. I ran back and forth to “Stat Houses” with corrections (and sometimes a lot of deadline anxiety).

I was taught to shoot negs, to blacken them with sharpies and red tape, and to creatively edit them with the edge of a knife. Sometimes the staff in a pre-press operation wore white medical smocks which was an accurate reflection of their duties, which often included performing surgery on expensive 4-color transparencies, preparing negatives in complex layers for burning to plates, and to generally act as the final line of defense to prevent the printing of humiliating errors that had been missed by everyone else involved in the creative process.

The Apple Macintosh and the Postscript Laserprinter changed everything. It took over a decade, but the (relative) ease of use and the lower cost of materials destroyed Compugraphic** and a long, long list of vendors that specialized in supporting an industry that quickly no longer needed them.

The first design computer I owned was an Apple Mac XL/Lisa running Adobe Illustrator 1.1 and Quarxpress 2.3. Later I was using a Beta copy of Photoshop, which was an astounding improvement over earlier pixel-editing programs. I remember seeing for the first time a Macintosh II with a 13 inch RGB monitor, which seemed amazing after years of black and white screens. Since then the industry has continued to evolve, but the “personal computer” in a business environment has for decades been the center of the production process, and aside from carpel-tunnel wounds to wrists, and the eye strain of lighted screens, it is easier and a more effective way to produce graphic design.

I miss the smell of Bestine and wax cooking in the heater, scraping debris off of rubber mats, and handling halftone screens and PMT cameras. But graphic design nostalgia is better enjoyed by reviving old design styles, and letting the more physically demanding methods of the past slip into the realm of hot metal typesetting. A whole world of communication technique predated the internet and today’s digital printing, but regardless of the tools, the problems and the solutions look the same as they were hundreds of years ago.

* PMT=Photo-Mechanical=Process
** During this transition during the 1980s, it was a sad sight to see Compugraphic equipment stacked up in the rain, with the chemical processor leaning over against the pile. What was once only leased because it was too expensive to buy had become antique junk.

Categories: Graphic Design

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *