Pre Digital Graphic Design

Whilst all that a designer needs today is a good computer with up to date software and a fast Internet connection, it wasn’t always that way.

Today, the old traditional method of producing graphic design now seems a long and tedious process. At its heart, it consisted of crafting layouts together by physically sticking pieces of paper together and then photographing the results using black and white film. During a process called ‘reprographics’ parts of the film were systematically excluded or ‘masked’ out in order to separate the artwork into the different colours that the designer had specified. These ‘colour separated’ pieces of film were then used to create the printing plates.

Producing any publicity, no matter how it was printed was a chain of events, requiring a team of skilled professionals doing what was required of them in the correct order. This sequence imposed a discipline on all involved ensuring that whilst the production was a lengthy process, it was achieved on schedule and (usually) on budget.


Before any artwork was produced, the client needed to agree the proposed layout. This required the designer to make a mock up or ‘visual’ of how each page would look, including calculating exactly how much space a block of text would occupy in a particular typeface and at a certain size.

The ‘visual’ was created with coloured markers on semi opaque paper. Since typesetting was expensive the designer would sketch any headings by hand, tracing the outlines of the type from a series of type catalogues that the studio kept. This was done using a ‘Grant Enlarger’, which could project a magnified image onto a glass plate enabling to copy originals to the correct size for the layout.

Once the visual was approved, the final artwork was created, which was often by a junior although it was a skilled role.

Any text or ‘copy’ was typed up and proof read, and then sent to the typesetters. Since typewriters worked at ten characters to the inch, it was possible to calculate the length of the copy, and then using a complicated series of look up tables the required size of the text was established. The typed copy was marked with a series of typographic symbols indicating what was required and at the end of the day this was sent to the typesetters (often picked up by a daily courier). The typesetting was produced over night and delivered back to the studio in the morning.

Working on a drawing board, to ensure the artwork was kept square, designers literally cut and pasted the printed sheets of typesetting onto thick card to produce artwork. Any rules or borders had to be drawn by hand, and headings were created by the means of dry transfer lettering called ‘Letraset’. The position of photographs and illustrations were indicated on an overlay, and these were later added at the film making stage. After proofing to the client, any corrections to the typesetting went back to the typesetters, and the old typesetting was physically cut out and new text pasted in place.

Eventually the artwork was approved by the client as being ‘camera ready’.

Here are some of the treasured tools that a designer cherished and made his job possible.


Cow Gum is remembered by designers of a certain age with a mixture of deep affection and amazement that we ever relied on such a troublesome solution to what today is a simple problem.

Artwork was literally cut up and pasted into place using this remarkable rubber solution glue that came in a red and white tin with the word ‘cow’ emblazoned across the front and a smell and consistency that can never be forgotten. The Cow on the tin wasn’t a reference to the animal, but apparently to Mr Cow who invented it. It’s character and properties were similar to Copydex but with the added advantage of being spirit based – which made it cleaner to use and resulted in a mild high after an all-night artworking session.

At least 50% of all Cow Gum ended up where you didn’t want it, and had to be cleaned from your artwork with a Cow Gum rubber that looked a lot like a shoolboy’s collection of bogies. This was actually just a ball of used Cow Gum built up like a snow ball – but designers and artworkers would take great pride in having the largest balls of Cow Gum for the purpose. Eventually, these would become too large to be useful, and would have to be discarded – but fortunately they had the redeeming quality of bouncing like the most powerful rubber ball you’ve ever seen. To remove anything that had been stuck down with Cow Gum, required liberal dousing with lighter fuel, or Benzine. Once the offending article was removed, and the Cow Gum had dried off from the Benzine, the artwork was again cleansed with the Cow Gum rubber ball.

In time Cow Gum was replaced by the “waxer”. This was a pleasure to use compared to the other adhesive methods. Typesetting was run through the machine and the back would be coated with a sticky hot wax. It was easy to place the results on the layout board and it could even be moved without using Benzine. Aside from the hot wax burns on your hands and arms, the health benefits were outstanding!

In the process of time, even the waxer was replaced by an aerosol adhesive called ‘spray mount’. The spray was directed onto the typesetting which was held over a cardboard box to contain spillage. Within a very short space of time, the box was covered with a matted tangle of toxic glue, reminiscent of asbestos. Since everyone smoked in the studio, no one really paid much attention to any possible health damage that Spray Mount might create.


Letraset was the brand name for the original dry-transfer lettering product that enabled designers to produce headlines and short pieces of text without the need to use the services of a typesetter.

It consisted of an alphabet of letters screen printed onto the reverse of a sheet of translucent (usually blue/grey) film and then coated with an adhesive. This meant that you could lay the film onto a sheet of paper and by carefully rubbing on the front of the sheet (with a blunt pencil or ballpoint pen) ‘transfer’ the letter to the sheet of paper – like a sticker, but only as thick as the ink it was printed with.

In an age where you can simply type any text into a computer, centre it, change the size, change the typeface and then print it out in any colour you choose – that might not seem exciting – but until the advent of computers this was cutting edge technology for visualising as a graphic designer!

It did mean you had to think carefully about whether to use centred type in your design. Where now you just click a button to centre type, with Letraset you had to work out which was the middle letter and start from there – working forwards to the right, and then backwards to the left. That was tricky enough – but you also had to remember that an ‘o’ or an ‘a’ is much wider than an ‘i’ or a ‘j’ – so you had to allow for that in you calculation. Suffice to say, there were a lot of visuals featuring slightly off centre headlines and titles.

It still came with its frustrations though. For one thing you had to buy an expensive sheet of Letraset for every typeface you wanted to use – and for every size of lettering. That was limiting – but actually is a good discipline for a typographer as it’s a good idea when designing to try and only use a few different sizes of type – and just a couple of typefaces. With the advent of computers and desktop publishing that rule went out the window as amateurs designers threw everything they had at every project – and the results were painful to every trained eye.

Another frustration was that every sheet only had room for a limited number of letters, numbers and punctuation marks – and the larger the typeface, the fewer the characters. So sheets were split on the Scrabble scoring technique. High scoring Q, X and Z are rarely used – so you only got a couple of these – but you got lots of E and A. Even so, the number was limited, and there was little more frustrating than getting to 1 o’clock in the morning and realising you didn’t have that last letter you needed. Designers simply had to become adept at making a capital E from an F and an L – or a colon from a full stop and the dot off a letter ‘i’. Goodness knows how designers in Wales and Poland coped.

If you were ultra-cool or worked at a big-enough design studio, you had your own special cabinet just for dry-transfer type. This was a good thing because the enemy of dry-transfer was dust or dirt of any kind. You had to treat the sheets with tender loving care or the letters would crack and peel. You could tell serious graphic designers by whether they had a special tool just for burnishing dry-transfer type. A ball-point pen would do, but there were a number of dedicated products for the task, including what amounted to a big ball-point pen with no ink in it.


These mechanical pens were an essential part of every graphic designer’s toolbox. Their entire purpose was to make your life a misery whilst achieving something that today seems beyond simple.

Imagine you want to put a frame around an image or draw a line underneath some text – easy right? Just tell the computer how long you want the line, how thick, what colour, what position, on the level or angled, square ended or rounded or arrows or …you get the picture.

Now imagine you have to do that by hand. Literally drawing the line onto a coated paper in ultra-black ink that sits on the surface of your art paper so that you can scratch or cut away the ink at the end of the line to give a perfect square end (don’t even think about rounded).

You need a pen that draws a perfect line, at a perfectly consistent thickness. One that is available with different nibs to give a line from 0.1mm to 2mm – or any of 13 widths in between.

You need a pen that is easy and clean to use, where changing to a different width is simple, and that will work reliable every time you need it. You need a pen that will work seamlessly with your drawing board and ruler to give a perfectly level and straight line.

That was the Rotring pen – in theory.

In practice it wasn’t quite as simple…

  • To get a perfect line at the desired width you had to hold the pen at exactly 90º to the paper. If you tilted it even slightly the line width would wobble or just break up completely.
  • If you left the top of the Rotring pens for more than a few minutes without using it, the ink would dry and block the nib completely – and dry Rotring pens were usually dead Rotring pens.
  • When you used the Rotring pens with a ruler, the ink would sometimes flow under the edge and create a terrible mess all over your artwork, your fingers, your drawing board, your ruler – just everywhere.
  • Even if you drew a perfect line, the ink seemed to take longer to dry on paper than it did in the pen. So while a pen would seemingly dry up in seconds if left, that perfect line would smudge on your artwork for hours.
  • Creating a corner on a box meant drawing four lines that overlapped at the corners, and then scratching the corner square by hand. Most times that worked fine – but having done 3 corners perfectly you would frequently manage to naff up the 4th.
  • Nobody actually had a full set of Rotring pens (they weren’t cheap) so any lines just had to be 0.35mm, 0.5mm or 0.7mm wide. Everybody had a dodgy 0.25mm nib as well – but the thinner the nib, the more likely you were to wreck it, and the thicker the nib the more likely it was to leak, smudge or dry up.

In addition to the mechanical pen, the designer carefully used the T-square, drawing board and triangle to make sure everything was cut just right and artwork was assembled square. For the more ambitious, there was a compass to attempt to rule perfect circles, and a set of ‘French Curves.’ These were plastic templates for the designer to attempt the impossible – to draw curved or irregular rules!

Producing artwork took a steady hand, good eye, and the use of some toxic solvents and razor sharp cutting tools. Our college teachers, as with any production designer who had been in the business for more then ten years, had multiple scars on their hands from blade cuts and were criminally insane from the solvents soaking through the finger tips into their brains.

Despite the health hazards and rampant insanity, there were some great things about this whole “hands-on” process as you felt you had created something unique with your own hands.


The introduction of computers into the print and publishing world in the late 1980s instigated a massive revolution in the printing and publishing industry. ‘Desk-top publishing’ as it was know, subtly moved graphic design from being an art form practiced by skilled craftsmen into more of a science that required designers to develop new and very different sets of skills and abilities.

This new computerised technology created a staggering improvement in the quality of print and over time enabled a huge jump in the technical ability of designers. Alongside this came a dramatically shortening of production time, which in theory meant less production costs.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. The publishing industry was in a bad way in 1988 – 1990, with printers going out of business every day due to the dire economic recession that prevailed. As with any new revolution in working practices, the introduction of computers into the industry was often seen as an economic lifesaver by management and treated with the utmost suspicion by the workforce. They had cause for concern as this dramatic advance saw many casualties. Sections of the industry were swept away in a matter of a couple of years, and many traditional skills were lost completely. For many, the choice was stark – retrain, or never work in the industry again. For some, it was too late in their working lives to make such a huge change.

Once “desktop publishing” was mainstream, there was complete shift in the role of the graphic designer. Many agencies that had traditionally been part of the production cycle closed as their services became obsolete. As a consequence graphic designers were forced to take on these roles, which were formerly not their responsibility or part of their skill set. As the technology became more established, the graphic designer’s thinking and creative skills were surpassed by the need for digital expertise.

During the 1990s, the accessibility and cost of computers meant that the general public could now access the technology, and this undercut the design profession, since anyone could now make a flier or a brochure. Designers found themselves and their services undervalued, or obsolete. Being proficient in the tools of the design trade has become more important than acquiring the actual skills of the designer, and as a consequence excellence in design has largely become irrelevant or overlooked altogether.

It’s a sad fact that the ability for anyone to publish anything with inkjet printers or as webpages with no traditional design skill, has resulted in design anarchy.

Whilst it may have appeared a slow and cumbersome process, the traditional method of designing for print, ensured that it was not possible to shortcut certain essential stages in the production process. The designer required the services of an editor, then a typesetter in order to create a piece of artwork. Proof reading was essential as changes to any artwork required going back to the typesetter, and this would normally take up to 24 hours to achieve and would increase the expense. When the artwork was approved, it was given to a reprographic department who would create the necessary films and plates for the printers, which took time to achieve. All of this meant that the whole process needed to be regulated and scheduled correctly if the printers were to have the available ‘slot’ to print and deliver on time, and on importantly on budget. A typical small magazine simply couldn’t be designed and printed in less than two weeks due to all that needed to take place during that period. With computers able to set type instantly; the 9-5 day became a 24-hour possibility.

Some twenty-five years later since the revolution took place, it is quite normal for a designer to be taking copy corrections from a client less than thirty minutes away from when the publication is due on the press. The shortening time span in production creates much stress for all involved. It seems as if editors, writers and janitorial staff feel they can ask to see what an image looks like blown up, shrunk down or coloured in pink, moved left-right while they stand over the designer’s shoulder, usually drooling and breathing heavily.

Apparently it’s called progress! Would I go back to the old days? Probably not!!

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