Getting fingers burnt by hot wax was once all in a day’s work for a graphic designer. Before the computer came along, designers used a tool known as a waxer to coat a paper with the hot adhesive before sticking it on a page layout in a manual process known as the paste-up. No doubt designers are only too happy to leave this and other labor-intensive production methods in the past, but for those who still get misty-eyed over rapidographs and Diatype machines, the new documentary, Graphic Means, promises to take you back to the days before desktop publishing and the digital revolution of the late ’80s (if it can get funded via Kickstarter this week).
A curiosity for the profession’s diverse set of hand tools, machines, and traditional processes that have since been replaced by the computer led graphic designer and educator Briar Levit to start collecting old-school design production manuals from the ’70s and ’80s. “We love to talk about the great mid-century designers, but no one really talks about the people who were putting all this stuff together for the designer.” One publication that stood out in particular was late designer Jan V. White’s Graphic Design for the Electronic Age (1988), which marked the transition into how the profession practices today.
“When I look at these books that show the design process step-by-step, I wonder if I’d have the patience as a designer,” says Levit, who started design school in 1996, when software like QuarkXpress and Adobe Photoshop had already become the tools of the trade.
“There wasn’t the instant gratification, things took a little big longer.”
A slower pace also meant more human interaction, another aspect Levit’s film will explore. How has the work environment changed as studios moved from analogue to digital? An entire generation of typesetters became obsolete, and some designers were forced out because they couldn’t make the switch fast enough. It’s also affected the relationships designers have with their printers and clients today. “Nowadays, we can send a file off and never talk to our printer. You send an email to a rep and they send it to pre-press, and you never speak to anyone who actually works on the file,” she says. “But before you had to get quite detailed in the markups and sort of become friends with those people because you dealt with them a lot.”
To bring this human side of production alive, Levit decided to take her role as amateur design historian one step further, to film documentarian. She usually designs books for publishers and institutions on top of teaching graphic design as an assistant professor at Portland State University, but Levit was inspired by how designer Doug Wilson portrayed a slice of design history in his 2012 film, Linotype. For her own directorial debut, Levit has assembled an all-women crew to champion equality in the film industry, but the more immediate challenge she’s facing is the huge cost of film production. Levit’s Kickstarter campaign aims to raise $25,000, which covers barely a fifth of the expected total budget (so give, and give generously). She’s also applying for grants.
With production already underway, one payout thus far has been the pleasure of watching an interviewee demonstrate the paste-up process live. “It was exciting to see this thing come together without a computer in sight,” she says. In the coming months, Levit will speak to more designers who worked in that era, as well as Paul Brainerd, the co-founder of Aldus, which produced one of the very first digital page layout programs, Pagemaker.
And while designers are certainly rallying around the beauty of handmade design, Levit doesn’t expect anyone to rush back to the days of waxes and paste-ups again. She simply wants to shine the spotlight on a soon-to-be-forgotten way of making, one that designers still reference (whether they know it or not) when they use terms like slug, burning, and masking. “You can be a good designer and not even know about this stuff,” says Levit, “but it’s going to enrich your understanding of the discipline and instill a sense of pride when you discover what folks did before you.”