Notes from the Scrap Heap: A Lifetime in the Typographical Trade, Part 3

In the summer of 1994 I was out of work again, and I knew that I would never again work at galley typesetting. That was over, never to return. Fortunately, I had learned Ventura Publisher on my own—which made it easy to learn QuarkXPress. It worked in much the same way; additionally, all the commands could be accessed by means of menus at the top of the screen, and the monitor displayed exactly what the page layout would look like. All the guesswork and troubleshooting associated with old-fashioned bell coding—which had been supplanted years ago with computerized “front-end systems” based around a minicomputer like the Digital Equipment PDP-11—was gone. There was no longer any need to have an arcane system of commands stored in one’s cerebral memory; there was no longer any need to think like the typesetting machine.

Actually, there was no longer any need for a lot of things, for this new desktop publishing software was the true face of automation in the graphic arts. It wasn’t a Rossum’s Universal Robot; it wasn’t Rosie the Maid from “The Jetsons,” and it certainly wasn’t Lieutenant Commander Data from “Star Trek.” It was software that cost about $1,000, running on a desktop computer that cost about $3,000. And that was then. The hardware prices have come down considerably since then, just as the power and capability of the desktop computers has increased.

During the 1990s we saw printing processes that at one time might have required a dozen people reduced to one or two people. The first, and maybe biggest, change was that the text matter only had to be typed once: by the person who wrote it. During my apprentice years, writers and reporters wrote the copy on a typewriter—a manual typewriter as likely as not!—and I retyped it with the appropriate coding to generate a paper tape with the TTS coding punched into it. Now there was no more tape and no more paper. Instead I got a floppy disk—or, increasingly often, I received files through telecommunication. The Internet was new, and e-mail was by no means universal at that time. Telephone modems were all of the dial-up variety, and 2400 baud (bits per second) was as fast as they went. But anyone could tell that data telecommunication was the future.

So instead of typing, I opened a word processing file and flowed the copy into my page layout in (usually) QuarkXPress software. And what did QuarkXPress do? It replaced the process of cutting apart galleys and pasting them down onto boards. Instead of galleys, my type was all made up into its columns and pages, with running footers (or headers) and folios (page numbers) in place. And what about pictures? Not a problem: pictures were digitized on a scanning device. They were supplied as “chromes”: sort of like color slides, except much bigger and without any cardboard mounting. The scanner operator taped them to a glass drum on a device that cost more or less what a modest-sized house would cost. He then saved the picture files onto a device about the size of a loaf of bread that held a gigabyte of information—as much as any of us could imagine at that time. It was called the “data shuttle”: it plugged into the computer through a small computer system interface (SCSI) port. Today the drum scanner is an unlamented memory, and desktop scanners generally cost under $50 for a machine of the same quality as the drum scanner. During those years I predicted that in the future there would be cameras which would create a digital picture file instead of an image on a film emulsion. I called them “TIFF cameras,” because the standard file format for pictures that we used was “Tagged Image Format File” (TIFF). If I had predicted that they would be “JPEG cameras,” (JPEG is the acronym for Joint Photographic Experts Group) I would have been spot-on.

So the retyping stage was gone. And flowing the text from word processing into the page layout was considerably faster than cutting up galleys and pasting them down on boards. Additionally, there were all kinds of little camera processes that were no longer necessary: for example, in galley typesetting all type was black on a white background. That’s all it could do. Shooting a “reverse,” that is, converting black type on a white background into white type on a black background, took about twenty minutes. In desktop publishing there was no such process. One could create a black (or any color) box and knock type out of it. Zip bang. And no need to place it. I mentioned that we could place pictures and other artwork right on the page, just as they would print. And there was no need for an additional person to do “dot-etching” or other expensive and difficult work on film negatives. Adobe Photoshop enabled the same person who was layout out the page to adjust color, correct imperfections, resize, and crop pictures before placing them in the layout. And the process of knocking type out of a photo or burning type into a photo was now a process that took a few seconds instead of nearly a half hour a pop.

In my apprentice years, when the paste-up artist had finished with a “board” it was taken into the camera room, where the camera operator would take a picture of it. The negative would be imposed in position on a “flat” exactly in the position where the page would appear on the press sheet before folding, along with the other pages that would be printed in that “impression.” But in the desktop publishing process, there was no need for a camera to take a picture. Instead of a printer, we output the page layouts directly onto film negatives, eliminating another step—and another job—in the process. Furthermore, it was not just one film negative for the page: it was a film negative for each color. Yes, the desktop publishing software took care of color separations, too. There was no more need for multiple camera shots or masks. Even four-color process—the screening method whereby color photographs are rendered by four primary inks, cyan, magenta, yellow, and black—was registered exactly by the desktop computer.

It was not many years before additional software was developed to do imposition, or what we call in the prepress department “stripping.” Instead of pages coming out of the film output device, it was complete flats. And of course, the next development bypassed film altogether and output the images directly onto offset plates ready to be mounted on press. The imposition work station enabled one person to “strip up” a book, which might have taken three or four people a full shift, in about ten minutes.

All this was only a brief interlude, however, because anyone could see—and I did see it—that offset printing’s days were numbered. If one could image directly onto film, or onto a plate, that was good. But we already could image directly onto paper: all we needed was better quality. Digital printing today is supplanting offset. A small business need no longer go to an offset printer to have a circular done. Everything can be done in the office, and taken to the local Staples, UPS store, or Fedex-Kinko’s on a flash drive and then get the whole run, printed, folded, stitched, and ready to send out in an afternoon for a fraction of the price of offset. And that’s assuming a business wants to reach out to its clients by means of paper, not a universal assumption in this day of the Worldwide Web and electronic mail.

This is the real face of automation: a machine that we used to call a “microcomputer,” which costs about $500 for a device that is about a thousand times more powerful than the computer that the Apollo 11 astronauts used for the first moon landing in 1969. It is loaded with software that replaces the typewriter, the paste-up table, the lithographic camera, and the dot-etch light table. In the 1970s in one block of Varick Street in New York City there were about 200 companies doing business in the graphic arts, usually in one process or another. There were typography studios, plate shops, small press houses, and binderies. Today there may be a half a dozen shops if there are that many. Very few of my colleagues along the way made it to retirement in the trade. I was one of the last, and I have not given up yet!

In the late spring of 1994 I filed for unemployment benefits for the first time. It was a humiliating experience. However, in those early years of the desktop publishing revolution, there were still temporary agencies that placed people like me, and within weeks I was getting temp work. I registered with several agencies: one in New York City and another in New Jersey. The New Jersey agency, whose office was in the Woodbridge area, was having trouble filling a particular job, because it was in a press house in Denville—too far away! Sure, it’s too far away from Woodbridge, but from Sparta, where I live? It was the shortest commute I had enjoyed since 1977, when I was able to walk to work. I told them I would love to work in Denville, so they sent me there. They had a Macintosh computer in their prepress department sitting idle; it was going to be my job to make it go.

One of the things that I was expected to do was to work with photographs and art. Earlier I described the drum scanner and the chromes that clients were supplying. Part of my job was to output the photo files after they were scanned. The scanner operator took the film and printed the separated negatives as “match prints” as proofs for the client to approve. As likely as not, the client would have suggestions. “It’s too dark.” “It’s too green.” “I want more vibrancy!” And the customer is always right! I told the plant manager that I was a Photoshop expert. The scanner operator knew damned well that I was not, but he stood over my shoulder and helped me out: “Take the cyan down about five percent. Yeah, that’s good.” “Open up the midtones about ten percent. No, that’s too much. Take it down about three percent. Okay, that’s good.” Then he taught me how to use the “cloning tool,” my favorite Photoshop feature. During my first week, we had photos from AT&T, the company’s biggest client. One of them was a picture of an AT&T office building in Manila. It had graffiti on the wall, and the client wanted it gone. That sounds like a job for…Cloning Tool! It was better than a power washer! Option-click, click-drag, click-drag, click-drag, click-drag…and the wall was clean.

One evening during my first week I was working late—and I could get away with sucking up as much overtime as I wanted, since there was no one else to do what I did—and the night-shift stripper came in griping that there was no trap in the color separations. I told him that I didn’t know what that meant. Actually, I did, but I had no idea how to do it. A trap is an overlap of color: that is, if there is red type in the middle of a blue background, the red type has to be a little bigger than the knockout from the blue so that there is a slight overlap of inks. The standard amount is ¼ point, about 0.09 millimeters. I found that QuarkXPress has a trapping feature that has to be activated and configured. I did it, re-output the film, and the stripper was happy. After about three weeks like this, the company offered me a permanent position. Over the next three years that I worked for this company, trapping was something to which I paid more attention than anything else.

It was a good experience at this shop, but it has a lot of downsides, too. One of the partners was something of a madman, with a foul reputation throughout the trade. He fired people more quickly than Donald Trump fires celebrity apprentices. I managed to hold my own, however, and after three years left on my own terms. I missed working with type. My whole life had been typefaces, spelling, and punctuation, copyfitting and styling, and I was working with a plant manager who couldn’t tell the difference between Helvetica Condensed and Baskerville! I wondered whether or not he was actually literate.

A nearby press house had a large account involving typography and text editing with a big health insurance agency, and a former colleague asked me to join him there. It wasn’t bad, but after a little more than a year, the company lost the big account. I started looking around and just a little further down the road was a small type studio doing foreign language work, something I had never done very much, but something I had always wanted to do. I will have to share that experience in the next post.

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