The Old Days of Graphic Design

In the “old days” of graphic design, we were heavily dependent upon hand-eye coordination in order 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 (i.e., no monitor to see what you’re typing!) 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 blade cuts* while slicing out typos and pasting in fixes to layouts for books, magazines, brochures, and all the other sundry means of print communication.

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 carrying the deadline anxiety of the whole department).

I was taught to shoot negs, to blacken them with sharpies and red tape, and to creatively edit them with the edge of an X-acto. Sometimes the staff in a pre-press operation wore white medical smocks, an image that combined twin aspects of their trade: cleanliness and performing surgery. What was the body? Expensive 4-color separation negatives (often costing thousands of dollars per set), prepared into complex layers for burning to printing plates. These men and women were usually called “strippers” (because of the act of stripping in negatives) and they were the final line of defense before printing began and the humiliating errors that had been missed by everyone else involved in the creative process became (expensively) obvious.

The Apple Macintosh and the Postscript Laserprinter arrived and this changed everything. It took over a decade, but the (relative) ease of use and the lower cost of materials destroyed industry giant Compugraphic*** and a long, long list of vendors that specialized in supporting an industry based on special coated papers and chemicals that suddenly no longer needed them.

The first design computer I owned was an Apple Mac XL/Lisa running Adobe Illustrator 1.1 and Quarxpress 2. 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 was amazing after years of 12 inch black and white screens of little Mac 512s and Mac SEs, or the expensive specialty systems like Xenotron.

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 at the wrist, and eye strain from lighted screens, it is now easier and a more effective way to produce graphic design than the old smelly days of photo-developing trays and burning wax.

But, all the same I miss the smell of Bestine and the morning odor of wax cooking in the heater, the scraping of debris off of rubber mats where the paste-up process occurred, and the crackling noise of the lamps from a stat-camera clicking on. Even the simple task of choosing a halftone screen and learning the tricks of making something work that seemed impossible to do, possible, was fun. But graphic design nostalgia is better enjoyed by reviving old design styles, and letting the more physically demanding methods of the past slip into a realm shared with departed technology like hot metal typesetting.

A whole world of communication technique predated the internet and today’s digital printing, and these old, unneeded skills are being obliterated by time except for a few historians and the private printing efforts of hobbyists.

But one thing is certain: regardless of the tools, the problems of graphic design communication remain the same, and solving them happens with the creativity of the human brain.

* I was never sent to the emergency room with an egregious X-acto knife cut, but I have seen colleagues exit the building via ambulance from such: nothing bleeds like the effect of one of those hyper-sharp little blades.
** 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, abandoned. What was once only leased because it was too expensive to buy had suddenly become antique junk not worth retrieving by the leasing company.


Leave a Reply

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