One snowy evening last year I was goofing off taking a well-deserved break on Facebook when I started chatting with a woman from Rhode Island. It turned out we’d both worked in graphic arts in the days before desktop publishing. We grew nostalgic about the tools we missed: T-squares, melted wax, non-reproducing-blue pencils, drafting tables. I told her that I’d worked late every Thursday night for three years in the bullpen of a Boston advertising agency to type-spec and paste up ads for the Sunday newspapers. Every sweater I owned had bits of border tape stuck to the elbows. One time I even found a piece on my cat. Soon we’d attracted a small crowd of our former colleagues, and we swapped X-acto knife horror stories and fond memories.
I’ve ditched a lot of my equipment over the years – mainly the drafting table and the cartons of type specification manuals – but I saved some favorite things. I kept the hand waxer I’d used on my first freelance job, a project so large and cumbersome I’d had to spread out the components on the floor of my bedroom and ended up overturning the wax receptacle on the top of my thigh, fortunately and unfortunately covered by very thick cotton sweatpants. I saved my pica rulers because they make great flyswatters. An E-scale and a set of rapidograph pens just because they’re cool.
But all that got me thinking of what happens when an entire industry is replaced. All that knowledge, all those skills I’d acquired, passed along from my art directors and more experienced colleagues, skills I’ve passed along to students and newbie artists. Just…gone. Another obsolete job wiped out, its downfall starting not with a bang but with an odd little box people were calling a Macintosh.
At first, the page-making programs (starting with, of course, Pagemaker, owned by the Aldus Corporation before they sold out to Adobe) were a tremendous relief. Measuring off a two-column newspaper ad with blue pencil on a chunk of board and then neatly drawing it out with a rapidograph pen and triangle or making neatly mitered corners with border tape did not take kindly to a shaky hand or a dull X-acto blade. Pagemaker actually made precisely measured boxes at any point-width we desired! Even with, be still my beating heart, rounded corners!
But then I started missing things. Small things, like sketching out headline type by hand (called “comping” back then). I missed using the math and eyeballing required to specify type to fill a particular space. I missed the craft of production.
I wanted to do something more to preserve that moment in time, that lost art. Perhaps I’ll write a book about our former line of work, at some point, preserve it for generations of kids who grew up thinking Gutenberg was that guy in the Ghostbusters movies.
But I’m starting with fiction, so I thought it fitting that Sarah Cohen, one of the protagonists of Sliding Past Vertical (due out later this summer), should be a graphic artist on the cusp of that great cultural change. It was more than swapping out our drafting tables for a computer desktop. It was a movement that changed the way we worked and lived.
More about that later.
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