A lost world

Young designers accustomed to quiet, obstacle-free offices don’t know how lucky they are. Michael Peters recalls life before the Mac, when the senses were under constant assault and studios were full of snotballs and multicoloured sneezes

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. I know, believe me – I recently had to take a trip down memory lane when researching my book, Yes Logo: 40 years of Michael Peters Branding and Design.

I enjoyed remembering years of great design work but was surprised by a sudden nostalgia for the way in which we used to produce it. No Mac, no Photoshop, no colour copiers, no websites, no skinny lattes.

If ever an industry could claim to have been transformed, it would be the design and print business in the past four decades. Trying to explain to my publisher what those days were like made me realise that the tools of the trade have changed beyond belief and the design studio has changed forever.

So, what was a design studio like before computers? The first thing that hit you was the smell. A heady mix of petrol, pear-drops and vinegar – chemical smells of fixative, marker pens, cow gum, tubes of paint, pencil sharpenings and darkroom developing fluids. Enough to make the most hardened glue-sniffer wince. For designers, getting ‘high’ wasn’t always intentional. The air was also heavy with the mist of airbrush inks which invaded the nasal passages, only to reappear later in the day in the most colourful of sneezes.

As for the studio itself, it looked like a chaotic Aladdin’s cave, full of strange and very large machinery – free-standing drawing boards with parallel-motion rulers controlled by weights and high-tension wires, and plan chests everywhere with surfaces covered in industrial lino for cutting mats. More of an obstacle course than an office, a design studio often looked like a printers, waiting for the removal van to arrive.

Every studio had a Grant enlarger – an enormous metal box with a hood on the top to block out light – that enabled you to resize images by tracing them. PMT machines followed (that’s photo-mechanical transfer, not pre-menstrual tension), but the darkroom chemicals remained. There were airbrush compressors looking like miniature steam engines, bright desk lamps, and huge magnifying glasses poised over lightboxes.

The surfaces were littered with the tools of the trade – set-squares, T-squares, Columbia cement, Indian ink, fixative, steel-backed razor blades, putty rubbers, masking fluid, rapidographs, CS10 board, sandpaper blocks, drawing-board clips, brown gummed tape, paint, pencils, craft knives and French curves. All essential everyday items.

The whole business of type was different, too. From the early days of manually setting block type through to the arrival of Letraset, the paraphernalia of lettering was everywhere. Type books, with full alphabets in every size, lay near casting-off tables, zipper-tone, ruling pens, type scape, Koda trace, draw film and carbon paper. Lettering was a skill that needed a long apprenticeship, a good eye and a lot of patience. The process of typesetting has been totally revolutionised, and nostalgia for the old days cannot mask the sheer joy at the simplicity of the process today. It can, however, mean that a good eye is even more necessary.

Without the Internet for instant research, a designer’s inspiration for type and imagery came from books, magazines and photographer’s portfolios. Magazine carcasses lay around, plundered by those hungry for ideas, cut to shreds for their images. Even more magazines were squirrelled away in designers’ drawers, treasured possessions when copies were few. Books were prized too, and treated with reverence – often borrowed, always returned, but they had the owner’s name prominently placed, just in case.

Studios of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s also all had distinctive interiors, but often the fashionable interior design extended only to the reception and the meeting room. The back office was still as primitive in its furnishings as it was decades earlier. It would be natural to a designer to know that if you stood in one place too long your feet would stick to the floor. Cow gum again, the source of so many snotballs rubbed from presentation boards, and, later, Spray-mount contrived to make any carpet into a tacky, sticky surface that kept you rooted to the spot.

The sounds of the studio have changed, as well. The sound of the chugging airbrush compressors, the squeak of the marker pens and the clanking of the Grant enlarger gave way to the radio, the cassette player and the CD player, before falling silent to the iPod generation. Luckily, the banter has not been banished, and design studios are as lively today as any other time that I can remember. Humour and opinion will never be lacking in our profession, and as long as the challenges of good communication exist, the design studio will always be a place of ideas and stimulation.

We’ve changed a lot, but, as designers, progress is what we are all about. And even though I enjoyed my trip down memory lane I am definitely more comfortable looking forward.

I will always appreciate creativity, craft and the craftsman’s tools, but I know that, just like many other businesses, our tools have improved beyond measure.

One last thing about the smell. I sometimes think I prefer the smell of cow gum to the current odour of designers’ damp cycling gear draped around the studio.

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  • Mabel Forsyth November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    great article! I remember those colourful sneezes! and I have to say I do not miss Letraset one little bit!

    http://www.pinkpig illustration.com

  • Anne Greer November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    A brilliant article. I started out in graphic design in early 1970s during the three-day week – no rubbish collection, fewer jobs – and carried on through the excesses of the ’80s and ’90s. Somewhere along the line, I worked in a cow shed where we defrosted our hands in the morning in front of a Super Ser. When the type came back from the typesetters, we had to be careful and ingenious with the scalpel; once, two of us spent twenty minutes on our hands and knees, searching for a missing 9pt lower case ‘e’ – which he found sticking to the sole of my shoe. And the number of cap letter ‘R’s concocted out of three or four other Lettraset letters – well, I can’t count them. I still maintain that I went into the business because of the cow gum. And the pleasure of working with great people in a great line of work.

    Anne Greer

  • Sid Gibson FCSD November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    You were all lucky! When I started working in a printers studio we had to draw lettering on the litho stone itself – backwards of course. I remember my mentor of the time saying to me when I returned enthusiastically from an exhibition with the first examples of letraset (transferred wet on a gauze frame) that “It was alright but it was only for people who couldn’t draw”

    Nuff said.

  • Mike Krage November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Really enjoyed the article. Could also add to the aroma with cigarette smoke in the studio usually Lambert & Butler or Marlboro (pre-non lights) if you were tough. Naked flame, cow gum and spray mount what could go wrong?
    I remember developing studio tan in the darkroom with the PMT camera. I would emerge, blinking like a mole.

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