My days before the Apple Mac

A LITTLE INSIGHT TO HOW DESIGNERS WORKED PRE MAC
By Darren | 1 June 2017

I’m Darren, the creative director for DL Design and I thought as I’ve been in the print and design business some time I’d give you an insight about how we used to work before Apple Macs came along.

After leaving school in the late 80s I hadn’t made up my mind whether I wanted a career in technical illustration or graphic design, you see I’d always enjoyed technical drawing at school but had liked art too. Which way should I go?

Now I must mention this was in the ‘good old days’ of the Youth Training Scheme or YTS as it was known back then; it was an on-job training course for school leavers aged 16 and 17 and promised training to its applicants. The training place was guaranteed by the government, and trainees were also paid whilst on the course and through this scheme I found a position available at a technical illustrators in town, it was run by a lovely old guy from a small office on the second floor and it was here where I began my on-job training as a trainee technical illustrator.

Apart from being my first job from school and wearing my new suit and tie it was a real exciting learning curve for me; going to work; earning some money - all £27 per week, gaining my independence and learning about something I had a real interest in. It was also my first time sitting down at an A0 drawing board complete with parallel motion bar, my own height adjustable swivel chair in a commercial environment with the largest collection of set squares, flexi curves and Rotring pens you ever saw - more about some of those later.

The main focus of this business was producing detailed technical drawings and exploded diagrams for lathes and diesel pumps - fascinating intricate stuff all done by hand which meant the visual image had to be technically accurate in terms of dimensions and proportions.

I really enjoyed my time there and I can still remember the smell of stale milk and cheese as there was no fridge just a table with the cups and a kettle, I’m sure Health and Safety would have a field day now. Ahh the good old days!

The boss often used to have friends drop by for a chat and a cup of tea as he was well known and liked in the town and I remember one guy in particular who used to visit every Thursday which was market day and bring us hot sausage rolls from the bakery on the market hill. Apart from one day however when the poor guy turned up looking rather flustered and apologetic that he couldn’t find the sausage rolls but was sure he’d bought them.

It wasn’t until I looked out of the window down to the car park and saw a car parked with a bag of sausage rolls neatly perched on the roof, poor guy; he’d only put them there whilst trying to find his car keys and forgot about them (as you do!) and driven all the way round town with the sausage rolls still on his roof!

This on-job training was in conjunction with a couple of days at college studying craft, design and printing. It was a great way to learn about print which was something I knew nothing about and also get hands on experience at operating a printing press making letterpress Christmas cards. It was also a great place to nip to the pub at lunchtime and to play practical jokes - usually at my expense, one situation springs to mind is that is fixative, let me enlighten you.

Back in the days before the Apple Macs if you wanted to lay up type you had two options; either get it type set or do it yourself with the aid of Letraset (other brands were available). We would then send copy out for typesetting which was a process involving photosensitive paper being exposed to light through negative film to give a galley of black type on white paper.

The galley was then cut up and used to create a paste up of a whole page. A large film negative of the page was then shot and used to make plates for offset printing.

Letraset was great; it used to come on sheets about A3 size. When artwork was prepared by hand, Letraset sheets were available with letters in a large range of typefaces, styles, sizes, symbols, and other graphic elements. The letters could be transferred one by one to artwork being prepared and by using a burnishing tool which was usually the back of a scalpel handle or if things were really tight a blunt pencil; you could rub the letters down onto a piece of line board. The only problem was the lettering was very easily scratched unless it was sprayed with a fixative.

Now there were two main aerosols used back then; Letracote and Spray Mount which are not be confused as I found out to my cost. Spray Mount is still commonly used for sticking down photographs and pictures as it’s a very sticky non-drying spray which allows for repositioning of pictures and then there’s Letracote - a fast drying gloss or mat spray for sealing and protecting Letraset.

Not having used these products before I didn’t know what either one was or the difference between them as I’d always used Cow Gum and I digress because if you were a graphic designer pre Apple Macs, then you’d use Cow Gum nearly every single day for pasting up artwork. There used to be an enormous factory near Woking that made the stuff.

It had lots of uses, apart from the proper ones like sticking bromides down on to backing boards. You could let it dry and roll it into balls which would have the most amazing bounce quality. We used to have competitions by seeing who could drop their Cow Gum ball out of the window and get the highest bounce off the street below.

Another favourite was leaving the can open on its side on the edge of a filing cabinet before we left the studio at night. After several hours the stuff would run down the side of the cabinet and reach the floor - just in time to catch out the cleaners on their 6am shift.

See, you just can’t have that sort of fun nowadays with InDesign or Quark XPress. It’s a shame to think of all those years spent using Cow Gum nearly every day now it seems to have entirely disappeared almost as though it never existed. The last time I checked it doesn’t even have an entry in Wikipedia, how sad.

Any road up - back to Spray Mount and one day at college I made the mistake of asking a colleague which one I should use for sealing my type which I’d spent the morning Letrasetting. Being the helpful soul he was I was hastily handed the Spray Mount which I proceeded to apply liberally all over my text. It took me ages to work out why every time I opened my folder the pages stuck together and why the rest of the class were busy giggling in the background, that was one lesson learnt needless to say I haven’t forgotten the difference between the two.

After leaving college and finishing my YTS I thought about it for some time and decided graphic design was the route I wanted to take and went out and got a job in the studio of a cosmetics company (now a housing estate) as their design studio junior.

I can still remember my first day catching the bus signing in at reception being met at the bottom of the stairs and escorted up to the studio. Imagine a messy studio full of drawing boards, T-squares, masking tape, rulers, layout pads, burnishers, ruling pens etc. that was me straight in at the deep end.

Naturally I got all the best jobs as you can imagine, things like spending a whole day drawing the letter O perfectly to having to clean out the most sophisticated machine in the room being a Photo Mechanical Transfer or PMT camera as it was known. A huge beast of a thing normally found hidden away in some darkened closet, with a foul smelling chemical processor that needed cleaning out every week. Apart from the fumes, the intense heat meant you generally emerged with sun stroke or at the very least a raging headache.

Surprisingly though I never did have to make the tea but there is a story attached to that and I jest. We had an enlarger in one corner of the studio so picture if you will something that stood about 5ft tall with a fabric lightproof cover at the top which you put your head under then a height adjustable glass shelf where you placed the paper to project the enlarged image on and at the bottom two powerful lamps and another shelf where the original was placed - what a piece of kit!

It was hardly ever used for its intended purpose but come to think of it, it was used every day - by the tea lady, the top glass shelf was the only clear area in the studio albeit apart from the dust where she could put her tea tray. There was a problem however, the studio was managed by, how shall I put it a rather cost-conscious studio manager therefore we didn’t have light box well that was until he came up with the Heath Robinson idea of a piece of glass perched precariously on an angle poise lamp resting dangerously on the top of the desk.

 

A busy day was beginning and all was going well; the design concepts were being produced using Magic Markers on layout pads. Several hundred pounds for a set of markers, however this cost was quickly recouped by the fact you could also sniff them which negated the need to buy drugs! and the illustrator working at her “light box”, in came the tea lady, down went the tea tray.... with an almighty crash. I bet you can guess where the glass for the make shift light box came from!

In my days before the Apple Macs the design process became quite tiresome to be honest, as I mentioned earlier the design concepts were being produced using Magic Markers on layout pads and once client approved, these ideas were transferred into camera ready artwork. A process which involved drawing up logos and graphics with a Rotring pen, using dry transfer lettering (Letraset) and photographing and scaling all graphic elements and copy on to bromide paper (using the aforementioned PMT camera).

Some where in between all this you will have calculated the body copy specifications to fit the area provided within the design and commissioned a typesetting company to resupply on photographic paper.

This wasn’t an easy process, because sometimes it still needed a bit of slicing up of lines to fit the area. Finally all the graphics and text were pasted onto line board to the finished size. Photographs were merely represented with scamped out line drawings, or at best a rough photocopied positional only.

This mono artwork was then sent off to the repro house with all the colour specifications marked out by hand on an overlay, plus the original 5” x 4” transparencies or trannies as they were more commonly known were usually supplied put in a bag and taped to the overlay.

The repro house then colour separated and photographed artwork into 4 pieces of film to create the four colour process (CYMK). Its no surprise that this process took eons compared to today’s methods.

Then we had the delight of the spray mount booth. The above process included many hazards and experiences. Spray Mount as I mentioned before, an aerosol glue you couldn’t help but inhale (nice!). Scalpels. The one’s surgeons use, razor sharp and great for slicing through your thumb or piercing your big toe whilst wearing canvas shoes in the summer.

 

And then the Apple Macs arrived in the late 80s And the rest as they say is history. 

Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to send me a comment if you like.