The Ecphorizer

Farewell to the Gluepot
George Towner

Issue #64 (March 1987)

When I was in my teens, I saved my money and purchased a turn-of-the- century printing press, a Chandler and Price 10 by 15. It was a massive cast-iron monster, the kind that closes like a giant clam with each turn of the flywheel. Somehow I wrestled it home, bought some cases of type from a

...pasteup technicians are facing extinction.

printer who was going out of business, and became a hot-metal printer. I learned the arcana of chases and quoins, friskets and makeready. I even earned a few dollars printing letterheads for my friends.

The reason I was able to afford a professional raised-type printing shop was because this technology, essentially unchanged [quoteright]since Gutenberg's day, was moribund. Printers were having their letterpresses hauled away and selling their fonts as scrap lead. Creating an image by setting type was being swept away by offset lithography, a process by which you could print anything that you could photograph. In the raised-type world, to reproduce a drawing or a photograph you had to have an expensive "cut" made — a zinc pattern mounted on a wooden block which constituted, in effect, a custom piece of type. In the litho world, you just made your drawing in black ink and pasted it where you wanted it. Offset lithography transferred the burden of image creation from one of acquiring physical pieces of type to one of acquiring an "artwork" — something that could be photographed.

Lithographers still had to fool around with plates and ink, with presses and feeders. But soon xerography arrived, doing away with even those minor inconveniences for short runs. Today you can take the artwork for your party invitation to your local copy center and run off forty copies in less than a minute.

Achieving the artwork became the focus of innovation in printing. Typeball typewriters with carbon ribbons turned out reasonably neat text, although in a limited range of faces and sizes. Rub-on lettering helped with headlines and dingbats. When you had all the photographable pieces, you moved over to your light table and reached for the scissors and glue pot; "paste-up" was the modern equivalent of typesetting. It could be equally time-consuming as well.

At this point, I went out and bought another monstrous machine, a Mergenthaler VIP phototypesetter. It produced professional-quality text galleys by exposing sensitive paper with letters projected from transparent film fonts. It was the size of an upright piano; it clanked and wheezed; but it worked. It created beautiful strips of "repro" type, all ready for paste-up. The VIP was a $150,000 machine which I bought for $400 because it, too, represented a fading technology.

Pasting up artworks is moribund today because a whole new approach is sweeping through the printing industry. Graphics of every kind are now produced by computerized "image processing." The result can even be laser-written directly onto a xerography drum, so that there is a direct route from the computer screen to the printed product. With a Macintosh computer and a LaserWriter printer, for example, you can now design, typeset, and print your party invitations in one easy process, without ever touching a glue pot.

A lot of compositors lost their livelihoods when offset lithography supplanted letterpress printing. Now pasteup technicians are facing extinction. Today the most efficient way to generate an artwork is on a computer screen, in the process known as "desktop publishing."

But there is more coming up. Even layout artists — the professional designers who determine the overall makeup of a printed page — are endangered. As desktop publishing programs become more sophisticated, they are taking over 90% of the layout artist's work. Only the top level of esthetic judgment remains outside the computer's voracious grasp.

Let's look ahead five years. You're a graphics producer with the latest equipment. How might you create a typical printed page — say, a piece of product literature? You already have the written text that expresses what you want to say. You also have a drawing or two that you either created with a computer graphics program or scanned from paper into a computer file. How do you put this stuff together into a professional-looking sales piece?

Your first step is to reach for a book of templates — dummy layouts of the kind of page you want to create. Each template is a design created by a top-flight layout artist. Its text may be meaningless, or written for another purpose; but it has the kind of esthetic balance and professional look that you want. When you bought the book of templates you got a computer disk with it. From the disk you select the template you want and feed it to your desktop publishing program.

The next step is almost magical. You tell the program to replace the text in the template with the text you've written. It quickly figures what type size will be needed (10.37 point will do nicely) and fills in the text block, automatically squaring up each line as it goes. You order up your drawings and the computer drops them in, sized to fit. If you want, you can adjust the placement of each design element, extend or condense headlines, make gray areas lighter or darker, or change the size of the whole image. If you are working in color, you can select the exact shades you want. When you're satisfied with the way the page looks on the screen, you press a button and your laser printer runs off one or a hundred finished copies.

Notice that there is no mention here of glue pots and light tables. Also, the only artist involved is the one that created the original template. Yet the finished piece can easily look like it came out of a Madison Avenue design shop.

As a professional writer , all this suits me just fine. My traditional product has been double-spaced typewritten manuscripts, correct in content but looking nothing like the finished work. The client has taken it to an ad agency or graphics design house, where it has been subjected to the lengthy process of production — typesetting, layout, paste-up, and so on. Now, however , my computer and I can deliver a final camera-ready product, all set for the printer . Even my rough drafts look like finished work. In the whole process between conceptualization and printing, the only job that the computer has not yet usurped is the writing.

Maybe some day the writer's job, too, will fall. Readers of this magazine may recall the short articles we have occasionally published that were written by Prosewriter, a computer program. Its maunderings glow with a certain sheen of rationality. But until that day, I rest secure. As far as I am concerned, the evolution of printing technology has finally put the focus where it belongs — on the most creative parts of the overall process of graphics production. My gluepot, and all that went with it, is now gathering dust in my garage. 

So GEORGE TOWNER has finally got rid of his glue pot. So what? Sometimes we feel that people who work with computers begin to live in their own little world. Or maybe it's people who don't work with computers who have the little world... You can read about George's latest book here!

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Contributor Profile

George Towner

George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.