Recently I designed a large-scale sign for my mom’s business. The challenge of the sign was to fit all the information on to a grid of A3 pages, so that we could print them cheaply on sticker paper and stick them on to a large board. When discussing the design I saw my mother’s brow furrow as she tried to arrange all the elements in her mind, trying to imagine how everything would fit. I kept having to assure her that, it was all right, I would figure it all out when laid it out on the computer. She was skeptical.

I designed the sign and we brought the A3 stickers home to stick on our big board. As my mom trimmed and pasted the pages she exclaimed her amazement at how easy the process had been, and how neatly all the letters and imagery fit. She went on to imagine how she would have made the sign back in the day. As she described the process, (cutting out letters, stenciling, sketching, measuring) my jaw dropped. It got me thinking: how on earth did designers get the job done in the “old days”? How could they possibly get anything accomplished without the aid of computers? Let’s find out:

The graphic designer, or graphic artist as they were called back then, needed many tools of the trade to stay in business. They needed an endless supply of scrap paper, art/illustration boards, paint, paint brushes, markers, glue, pencils, spray adhesive, fixative and other consumables. Not to mention rulers, T-squares, blades and pencil sharpeners.

Now our tools are mostly digital, a graphic designer needs a computer, preferably an Apple Mac and different software for different projects. We use the Adobe Creative Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign etc.). Other tools can include a Wacom tablet and stylus, a printer and most importantly: email and an internet connection.

While today we can go online and find literally hundreds of thousands of free and paid fonts in the amount of time it would take you to google the latest Kardashian story, back in the 1970’s and 80’s typography choices were much more limited.

There were these things called Zipatone and Letraset lettering, which were essentially sheets of transfer stickers with letters on them. They came in all sorts of different sizes and fonts. The designer would have to measure out the space that the letters would take up on the art board, mark out each letter, then painstakingly transfer the letters one by one, all the while hoping and praying that they measured correctly and the words would fit. If the artist made a mistake and screwed up one of the letters, they would have to start again on a new artboard. If you ran out of letters, or you just couldn’t find the font or style you wanted, you could always draw your own letters and fill them in with ink or paint. Or draw them on card then cut them out using your x-acto knife.

There are millions, probably billions of colours in the world. But the old school designer would be limited to the amount of markers he or she had on their desk. Art markers like Copic and Magic Marker still exist today, but they are used more for doodling than finished artwork. Another option for large areas of colour were yet more transfer stickers. These had to be measured onto the colour area and cut out using an x-acto knife. Making sure not to nick your finger along the way. If you really wanted to get fancy and mix your own colour, you could always use acrylic paint or ink.

Stock photo websites are very frustrating; I can never find exactly what I’m looking for. Even a generic photo, that you assume would be a piece of cake to find, takes forever to pin down. And they are expensive. Especially if you’re a small company or a freelancer, this can be an issue.

But stock photos in the dark ages, ahem, I mean the 80’s, were a totally different ball game. Advertising agencies would have contracts with a stock photo company like Getty Images. One company, not even two or three, just one. When a designer needed an image, they would put in a request, detailing the requirements, much like the search parameters on stock photo sites today. Later that week (yes, week) the company would send through a file of film contact sheets filled with images that fit the request. The designer would then have to sift through those images on a lightbox. Once the image was chosen and paid for, they would then have to return the unused film.

So now that you have your tools, your letters, your colours and your photographs, it’s time to create your layout, right? Wrong.

Nowadays I just start working, creating my layout straight away in the size that it will be when it is printed or posted online. I use high-resolution images and all fonts are vector shapes that can be scaled to any size I wish. Then when I’m done and I need to send a proof to the client, I simply export a low-resolution PDF or PNG. The computer compresses the file for me, so I don’t even give it a second thought.

But in the days before computers, there was a big difference between comps (short for compositions) and “camera ready” art that could be printed. Comps were black and white, because colour was difficult and time-consuming to create, and sometimes smaller in scale to the final artwork. Designers would create comps to show to the client and only once everything was approved did the actual layout part begin.

Designers would spend one to two weeks putting together a single page like a poster or a magazine ad. They would measure, mark, measure again, cut out the pieces they needed and glue it all in place with something called paper cement. Sometimes one layout would go through several stages of Photostatting. A Photostat machine was a huge piece of equipment that literally took a photo of your layout. You would then have a film negative that you would develop like a photo and then lay some more layout elements on top of it. This technique was necessary for when you had to layer different images together seamlessly. Then to finish off, the artist would spray the final layout with a toxic cloud of fixative, which is a kind of varnish suitable for paper.

Because this was such a mysterious and complicated process, and the client had approved the comps (and probably because it had been several weeks since the client saw what they approved) they would hardly ever, if at all, ask for changes once the final artwork was presented to them. Now this scenario is just a dream of designers everywhere.

Graphic Design in the Old Days

The Good Ol’ Days?

I for one am glad that we have computers now, and that the process is now a clean and relatively simple one. You still have to have creative ability and skill to be a graphic designer, but thankfully bleeding on the job is no longer a daily reality. Depending on the kind of agency you work for that is…. I work for a lovely and humane company, just for the record!

What do you think? Was it “the good old days” where you were able to shake your designers hand and now it’s all emails, holograms and lasers? Or is it good riddance to those outdated, painful and toxic times?

My opinion lies somewhere in the middle: although I enjoy the aid of computers and the freedom they provide, I feel a kind of nostalgia when I think about creating a layout “the old fashioned way”, sans computer. Maybe it’s my fine art background, or my crafty nature (any scrapbookers among our readers?), but there is something quaint about spending hours and days pasting a layout together with paper and glue. And I think that a lot of the techniques and tools that were used back then inform the way we work today. For example layers in Adobe programs, which are reminiscent of the layers of imagery and paint on an art board. The difference is that now those layers can be rearranged, hidden or deleted in endless combinations. Not to mention the tools palette, which features a knife, scissors, an eraser, a pen and a paintbrush just to name a few. So although we don’t actually use the same tools anymore, the job and the creative process are still very much the same.

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