There aren't many self-taught graphic designers around - I'm one of the few, and there will be even fewer of us in the future. With the huge number of design graduates arriving on the scene each year looking for work, why would any employer want to take a chance on someone without a degree? Today, anyone without qualifications who wants to be taken on by a studio will need plenty of luck.
Well, I got lucky. I landed a job as a copy-checker in a big studio in the pre-digital era. One of my tasks was to give a final inspection to what was then called, variously, 'flat artwork', 'mechanical artwork', 'camera-ready artwork' and 'paste-up'. These terms will sound mysterious to anyone who has grown up in the digital world of Macs and DTP software, but for designers who were working before the early-to-mid- 1990s, these names will resonate, even if physical artwork itself is a fading memory.
My encounter with old-fashioned 'artwork' was momentous. I fell in love with it as soon as I saw it. I liked its beautifully crafted appearance; I liked the fact that you could hold it; I even liked its smell (ah, the solvent buzz of Cow Gum!). I knew just by looking at artwork that I wanted to be a graphic designer. It was a love affair that gave me the impetus to badger the studio's art director into giving me a job as a trainee designer, which he did, and which led to me becoming a graphic designer.
In the first half of the 20th century, type was set by hand by skilled compositors and 'artwork' was done by the printer. Designers 'marked-up' text with precise typographical instructions and indicated where photographs were to appear, and then handed everything over to the printer to be assembled. This process required a high degree of discipline. Corrections were expensive and time-consuming, and there was no room for error.
Everything changed when typesetting became computerised in the 1970s. Designers were still required to 'mark-up' text to be sent to a typesetting house, but now they got the setting back as bromides which they pasted-up in position as camera-ready artwork. This was the breakthrough: instead of sending instructions to the printer, the designer now sent 'finished' artwork; this was a piece of art-board onto which keylines, borders, bleeds and trim marks were drawn by hand, and with text pasted in position. Artwork was invariably black-and-white, done to scale, and ready to be placed under a repro camera and turned into film separations, from which printing plates were then made. Transparencies and photographs were attached with a trace or guide print indicating scanning instructions and position. The designer had much greater control than before - although far less than the Mac user of today.
But there was one last stage for the designer to complete before sending artwork off to 'repro': preparing the instructional overlay. This was a sheet of tracing paper that covered the entire artwork, and onto which the designer wrote all instructions. In much the same way that we spec digital files today, these overlays would contain all the information the repro house needed to turn black-and-white artwork into colour film separations.
Preparing physical artwork took great skill. It had to be perfect - if you pasted something up wrongly, it came back wrong from the repro house. There was no Cmnd-Z with mechanical artwork - you had to get it right first time. But as a rule, designers took pride in creating immaculate artwork with faultless line work and millimetre-perfect paste-up. It was a deeply satisfying exercise - the result was a tactile object that could be admired and inspected. It was a physical expression of the craft of graphic design, something almost entirely missing in the digital process.
Today, Apple is the graphic designer's best friend, but we tend to forget that when Macintosh computers were launched, they were marketed at business users on the premise that here was a machine that would enable firms to do their own design. I remember the ads - they were unnerving. Would designers be redundant as big corporations 'designed' their own annual reports and corporate literature in PageMaker? In fact, the Mac without a designer operating it wasn't much use to anyone. Business people who wanted to 'do their own design' had to wait until the arrival of PowerPoint, and it was left to designers to discover the true potential of the computer in design.
The arrival of the Mac signalled a major change in the way design was made and in the way designers approached their work. At first, there wasn't much difference: typesetters were the first to feel the chill wind of DIY computerised graphic design as, suddenly, designers were able to generate their own type (often with laughably amateurish results).
At first, this designer-generated type was output as bromides and pasted down in the traditional manner. But as the software grew more sophisticated and Macs became more powerful, the process became increasingly digitised, designers eventually taking control of almost the entire pre-press process. Where once design had a physical presence - artwork you could hold and smell - it was now an invisible data file of digital information passed to a repro house to produce final film to the printer's spec. It was a new era for graphic design, but most designers adapted quickly to the new all-digital working methodologies.
The designer Michael C Place, who operates under the studio moniker Build, worked for four years before encountering computerised design. "It was four years of toil in a darkroom with nothing but a PMT camera for company," he recalls, "but I gained a really good grounding in print. It's something I feel helped me immensely in the transition from manual to machine. Rather than just hitting 'print' after designing a project and hoping it comes back okay, I really understand the print process, something I think a lot of people don't fully understand."
From manual to machine
Did his work change greatly when he went digital? "I don't think so," he says. "Well, maybe the complexity of my work changed, but the computer will always be just a tool to me. I also know that without it I would be scuppered. I don't ever wish to go back to the days of pre-digital, but I'm glad I went through it. It's made me a better designer."
Designer Jonathan Barnbrook encountered Macs during his time at art school: "They came in towards the end of my degree," he remembers. "Macs were just becoming available although they only had basic bitmap rendering, so I didn't use them that much until I was doing my post grad at the Royal College of Art. Even then it was too expensive to own one, so it was a case of sharing them with all of the other members of the college." Barnbrook attributes the smoothness of his transition from manual to digital to his familiarity with Linotype and Berthold typesetting machines: "They both worked mathematically," he says, "but they did allow you to go through the same process of refining that you can do on a computer - you could output something many times and refine it until it was perfect. This was very difficult to do with specifying type or Letrasetting, which was the norm before that."
Barnbrook is famous for his font creation skills. He has produced a number of distinctive and highly stylised typefaces that have become part of the digital typography canon. He was quick to recognise the power of digital font creation: "It was an amazing moment when I could tap out a rough font on the keyboard and see the characters typing on screen," he recalls. "I want to stress how difficult that process would have been, requiring a huge amount of time and money. I would say that it was almost impossible for anybody to do it before the Macintosh because it just wasn't possible to access the equipment or find the time if you weren't employed as a full-time type designer. In the beginning, Fontographer was very clunky but then FontStudio came out, and it finally became very intuitive to design fonts."
Place and Barnbrook are enthusiastic about the benefits of the computer. For both of them it was a boon that enabled them to do things they would not have been able to do manually. But both also warn against unthinking use of the computer. "It is just a tool," states Place. "I always sketch or write ideas out before going to the Mac. This could be a throwback to pre-digital days, overlays, marking-up for colour, etc. Thinking about it now, maybe this has influenced my style more than computers. I like to have something concrete to start with."
Barnbrook is equally cautious: "Working digitally gave you endless possibilities, which wasn't always a good thing. Many people would do things such as stretch type or add effects just because it was possible with new technology. There is also the tendency because you are working on a screen to regard the letterforms as just 'pictures', meaning that legibility was less considered. It also put the onus on the designer to learn how to craft typesetting properly, which had previously been done by a typesetter, meaning that a lot of bad typography was produced."
He notes other disadvantages of the digital way: "I think it's too easy not to have enough respect for type. Using letterpress or typesetting tended to mean that you mucked about with it less. I think graphic designers lost the ability to judge things like what is an appropriate type size or how to roughly copy-fit by eye. Also, very few people actually have the experience of drawing type with a brush or pen now, which I think is essential to understanding the basis of letterform construction and why we have things like serifs on letters."
Analogue vs digital
But in the end, Barnbrook believes that the benefits of the computer outweigh the drawbacks: "The main advantage is the absolute control it offers. In the right hands it can produce better work. Other positive changes are less obvious, such as the explosion of different typefaces now available - not just 'wacky' fonts by young designers, but also well-crafted fonts from important type designers throughout history that weren't available before. In general, though, it's not good or bad, it's about how people are educated to use something, so we have to make sure students leave their courses with a proper grounding in good typography, as that has nothing to do with technology - it's about text being understood by the reader."
Having worked on both sides of the digital divide, I'm passionately committed to computerised design. Computers enable designers to execute complex graphic effects that were previously impossible or prohibitively expensive. They enable designers to experiment on an unprecedented scale. Yet perhaps their greatest benefit is their ability to show designers - on screen - what the finished result will be. If you've only ever worked with computers, you will find it difficult to imagine what it was like trying to envisage the final outcome of a printed task without a computer. Well, with a computer screen you don't have to guess what the end result might be; what you see is what you get.
But, much as I relish the technical and creative scope of computers, I'm still glad I learned to be a designer in the analogue way. I meet designers who only know one way of working - they go straight onto the Mac and start producing endless iterations. They appear to have lost the notion of drawing, sketching or 'visualising' ideas. In the future if we only know how to produce ideas with the aid of a computer, design will be much narrower in its range of expression - restricted, in other words, to what the software dictates is possible. To me, the free movement of the hand, controlled by brain and eye, is infinitely faster and more flexible than any computer. Mind you, a piece of art-board with hand-drawn key lines and a beautifully rendered instructional overlay is better-looking than a PDF or Zip file pumped down the internet. That's for sure.