Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Throwing Away My T-Square

This is the last in a series of postings I will write about the history of typesetting as I have witnessed it throughout my career in publishing.

I was invited into a dimly lit conference room and offered a seat at the far end of the table. Positioned at the opposite end was an IBM-AT computer upon which sat what looked like a computer monitor sitting on its side so that the image would be presented in “portrait” rather than “landscape” configuration. Then, right before my eyes, the operator turned the computer on and I watched in amazement as I saw him create a magazine page onto which he placed three columns of perfectly justified type, several headlines, rules, and a window for the placement of a photo. This was all done in a matter of minutes without the need for the tools which I had come to rely upon to “paste up” a magazine page layout. When the demonstration was complete I was asked if I had any questions. I only had one, “how do you get the page out of there” was all I could think to ask. But, what I had just witnessed was my introduction to the digital prepress revolution that was rapidly taking place right before my eyes.

The year was 1987 and the software I had seen demonstrated was called “SuperPage.” After the vendor answered many additional questions (including how to get the pages “out of there”) I jumped head first into the deep end of the technology pool and purchased the software for an exorbitantly high price of $8,000. In addition, I had to purchase the specially configured monitor which was available only from a company located in Seattle, as well as an IBM-AT PC. But, I had a contract to produce a directory of several hundred pages, and the investment in the new technology was quickly recouped. Shortly afterwards, the vendor contacted me to inform me that there was an upgrade available for the software, but it would require the addition of a new device without which the program wouldn’t properly work. The device was called a “mouse” and it also required that I increase the memory in the computer to support it, so I purchased the mouse as well as added some additional memory to the computer to its maximum capacity of 640K of RAM. But, I also knew I would never again have a need for my faithful t-square, drawing board, adhesive waxer, and X-Acto knife. I had entered the world of digital publishing and there was no turning back.

Several companies introduced competitive products as the market for “desktop publishing” exploded. SuperPage was quickly replaced by such products as PageMaker, QuarkXpress, and InDesign and the various upgrades and new versions of each which seemed to be introduced almost daily. I continue to be amazed at the functions built into the current version of InDesign, functions that didn’t seem possible only a few years ago. The elements of good design, typography, and the use of color are just as important today as they have been for years. But, those of us in the publishing business have powerful tools literally available to us at our fingertips which make our jobs easier, faster, and which allow us to readily express our creativity. During my career in publishing I have been witness to a revolution in typesetting and layout, but also a revolution in new media which utilizes the tools we take for granted today. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

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  1. I remember these developments as well, though I was a neophyte editor at the time. I remember having separate machines -- called "soft" typesetters -- that would enable us editors to set up our own pages after a designer had sketched them out for us. We followed her design, creating the rules and adding the text, trying desperately not to drop a line of text across spreads because the machines weren't sophisticated enough yet to do that for us. The machines were brutally slow, and the task added a significant amount of time to our daily tasks, especially during production week. The pages were printed on camera-ready paper and the printer added the images. We've come a long way! But I, for one, have never disposed of my X-Acto knife! I love it, use it for myriad purposes, and find there is no substitute for it when you need it. Come back to the X-Acto fold, Bob!

  2. Just finished reading this 5-part memoir. I've been writing a book on this same theme for the last 10 years or so, but I'm not done yet, still working in what's left of the "typesetting" trade. I started in 1978 on a Varityper, learned Compugraphic and Bedford and the seminal commercial graphic system, Genigraphics. We all got laid off around 1991 and I swam upstream to prepress work in big time printing, where I've worked ever since, taking the disks from the "desktop publishers" and turning the files into offset plates. Always glad to stumble across someone else's take on the whole shebang! Jeff Schalles, Minneapolis

  3. Fear not. I still have my X-Acto knife and a half-empty box of #11 blades.