The Craft of Graphic Design

Do you remember what a french curve is — or amberlith, a swivel knife, Schaedler rule or Rapidograph pen? While truly appreciating how computerized design software allows users to replicate effects with a single keystroke or mouseclick, I sometimes miss the satisfaction once derived from inking a perfect line or assembling a step-and-repeat pattern by hand. Measuring, marking with non-photo blue, positioning, burnishing—most have become part of the toolbar resident in every application.

Tasks taking hours, days, and sometimes more than a week can now be done in minutes. This abbreviated pace of delivery has seemingly eroded appreciation for the building blocks behind the craft of design as well as the basic principles supporting it. As in so many areas of modern life—the end product seems to justify the means of getting there—no matter how little regard is paid to the origin of the building blocks. Similarly, music is made by “sampling” passages and portions of other recordings, putting new tracks and vocalizing over the “borrowed” or “sampled” passages.

Recently, I had the pleasure of discussing the subject of vintage design works with some younger designers. Viewing this work from pre-computer days, their eyes seemed to appreciate the difference between these and designs of the present. Though they may not understand the whys behind these differences, they embrace the widespread use of illustration and items that appeared “drawn” in the layouts. We noticed frequent use of hand-rendered elements not seen as much today. “They look so different!” they exclaim. Perhaps this recognition from new eyes is behind the fascination with “retro” imagery of mid-century advertising and ephemera.

When today’s designers inspect a “mechanical” – from the era in which images were manually prepared in waxed layers for a static camera to shoot and strip up the film necessary to reproduce images on press plates – they tend to shake their heads in disbelief.


Amberlith knockout for use as line art. (ca. 1987)

Hand rendered type readied for camera shot.

Hand rendered type readied for camera shot. (ca.1987)

The staggering amount of resources required to produce printed pages is daunting to remember (chemicals, paper for each layer of the pre-production process, plastics, wax, solvents, film and cameras to shoot the images which were then re-processed to proper size and color, and so on!).

So much waste and discarded material sacrificed for final products, many times discarded.  Though I’d never want to backtrack, I appreciate the craftsmanship with which we plied our trade pre-1988, and applaud the uptick in hand-rendered images showing up in layouts.

Lest this blog entry’s dive into nostalgia render me a mush-minded old geezer entirely, I offer the following collection of pre-computer movie posters which entered my email box just this morning. Enjoy? Oh, I do hope so.

One Comment

  1. Hugh Butler says:

    I’m never nostalgic for the constraints we used to work with in producing graphic art, but miss the care and forethought that went into the process when you knew rework would take hours and cost hundreds. (Present company excepted, of course.)

    I have a book I just looked at for the first time in a while called “Paste-ups and Mechanicals”, which is about 150 pages long. Seems like a lot until you look at a users guide for PhotoShop!

    Thanks for the great images!

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