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Hands-On: Graphic Design Tools Before the Desktop Publishing Revolution

Question for graphic designers: When’s the last time you used an X-Acto knife and glue to create a physical paste-up that you presented to a client in person? For today’s pros, getting down to business means tons of time spent at the computer, then sending files back and forth; but it wasn’t all that long ago that the job required an entirely different skill set, one that involved t-squares and layout boards and colored markers and pencils. Though you’re likely still using some analog methods for creative work–think pen and paper for sketches and brainstorms–that in-depth, arts-and-crafts element has been largely subsumed by digital tools.

Briar Levit is an Assistant Professor at Portland State University and a graphic design time traveler who became interested in those traditional methods after scouring for old creative instruction tutorials at thrift shops in her native Portland, Oregon. Intrigued by how little she knew about these more manual practices, she began to research; the info and insights she amassed through interviews with those who lived and worked through the era can be seen (soon!) in Graphic Means, a documentary about production in the industry from the 1950s to the current day.

Graphic Means (Official Trailer) from Briar Levit on Vimeo.

“It was such a short period in the history of graphic design,” Levit says. “It came and went, and most people who worked in those pre-digital methods have really moved on; they never looked back, they don’t miss it, and they don’t reflect on it that much. Because of that, people are forgetting what it was truly like. Most young designers today work with a few people in their office who used to do everything with their hands, and they may not appreciate the depth of those skills.”

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Now that a laptop or tablet can comprise a graphic designer’s entire creative studio, they have complete, on-demand control and ownership of their projects from start to finish–a far cry from what once was a more segmented workflow.

“There were a lot of steps and a lot of people who touched a piece of design before it went to the printer. Before computers, designers did not set their own type. Before graphic design really got going in the mid-century, you would hand deliver your manuscript, all marked up with specifications, to a type shop to do it for you,” Briar says. “Typesetters would input your text, and a machine called a linecaster would actually mold your line of type right there in hot molten lead.” This was called “hot type,” for obvious reasons.

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These massive machines looked like oversized typewriters, and they automated the typesetting process. Text would be delivered back to you on a long roll of paper, that you would cut and slice up and glued directly onto your layout.”

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This layout, or “paste-up mechanical,” would included different layers per color of commissioned illustrations and photography, each of which had to align perfectly when laid on top of each other. Only then, a printer would create a proof–a quick print of the final design–for a last-minute check.

“At this point, changes were a major issue. It’s not just like you could say: I’ll fix just that one word and send them a new PDF. Nope! You had to get down there with a knife; cut out just that one word; and get just that one word typeset by the typesetters.”

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Then, a new kind of type tech took over for linecasters in the 1960s and 1970s, on through the 1980s and the industry changed dramatically. “Phototypography was the central, defining technology shift of the pre-digital era,” Briar says.

Phototypography is a method of setting type with photography–not molten metal–and as such is often referred to as “cold type.”

“Rather than exist on pieces of metal, like with linecasters, all of these typefaces existed on film, or glass, or plastic,” she says. “Some were little discs that look like the size of a business card; some were long strips of film that look like something you’d put them into a projector; some of them were discs of plastic that rotated around. Projecting light through these surfaces would expose them onto photographic paper.”

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This milestone made everything much more nimble, but the process still wasn’t pared down enough that individuals would have the power to edit as they went. In our next post, however, we’ll be looking at what happened in 1984 when the first Macintosh came out and desktop publishing completely changed the industry. Stay tuned!

Graphic Means is scheduled for release in early 2017. You can sign up for Levit’s newsletter and follow the film on Twitter for the latest.

Digital Imaging