Tools of the Trade: Graphic Artists

SD505One 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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9 thoughts on “Tools of the Trade: Graphic Artists

  1. lynnecantwell7 says:

    I know what you mean about obsolete skills, Laurie. I was pretty good with a razor blade and splicing tape by the time I left radio; now, if I went back, I’d have to learn digital editing. I suspect the biggest difference is that in the old days, we had to *listen* for where to make the cut. Now, you’re interpreting a graph on the screen.

    • laurieboris says:

      I wonder if switching like this has any effect on our brains. Perhaps different parts light up when you’re listening or feeling for a particular marker rather than starng at a screen. I had a friend who was an impeccable color retoucher. Not airbrush, on negatives. When the printing plant shut down the darkroom and gave us all Photoshop, she quit and became a yoga instructor. She said the computer “ruined the art” for her.

  2. Peabea says:

    Your post speaks volumes of making not only your art but most talents learned idiot proofed now. Hubby was an artist illustrator, and within the last 10 years I worked for a company of illustrators and engineers that now used the computer. Our drafting table that he’d manufactured from a door when he did freelance work is now a door again, but when I mentioned selling his ellipse guides and tools of the trade that are up in the attic, he gave an emphatic no. He has long since ever worked in that field, but his reply was that he might use them again someday. I had to explain to him he would have to learn CAD or some computer program nowadays. He has no clue about computers. ha His father was a Technical Writer and did the schematics and how to assemble for the very large earth moving equipment. We still have his drafting arm, etc, I think, up stairs and some of his how to assemble manuals. I doubt my kids will ever care about them. Also the many things that I learned as a secretary prior to the introduction of the computer and the DOS atmosphere (took me a while to get use to seeing things on the computer when Windows was introduced) have also become idiot proofed (sorry not meaning to offend anyone by that term). I agree, it was somewhat satisfying to figure out some things without technical help back in the day, but I still love my computer world.

    • laurieboris says:

      Funny, something I read while doing research for the book reminded me of how we moaned that desktop publishing would make EVERYONE a graphic designer. Old-time designers sneered at the computer, and, indeed, some awful stuff was created with six different fonts just because it was possible. Yet good design is still good design. We hear similar grumblings about the self-publishing revolution. Interesting parallel. Lots of people don’t like change.

  3. acflory says:

    I wonder what tools we’ll be using in 10 years time? I’ve never been a graphic designed but I think what you have all been saying applies across the board. Thank god no-one has found a way to replace words yet. 🙂

  4. Yvonne Hertzbergery says:

    It’s like so many things – when the new becomes the standard, the old fades away. It happens to language, too. Look at how many native languages have become lost. I hate to see it happen but it’s inevitable.

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