by Kym Ramadge, February 2024
Our industry has a diverse, multi-stranded history full of fascinating and now, lost crafts and trades. Graduating on the cusp of desktop publishing ascension in the early 1990s, I was fortunate to witness the phenomenal change in technology sweeping graphic design and associated industries. This is a brief overview, each point could easily have in-depth research and an essay.
Many people are aware the advent of the Apple® Mac and development of software by QuarkXpress® and Adobe® was a revolution for creative industries, beginning 1984. The WSIWIG interface removed the need to learn ASCII or other clunky PC-based languages and the speed it replaced traditional typesetting and artwork creation was breathtaking, on the scale of the time.
But, how did graphic designers, commercial and finished artists work before this? What mysterious means were used to conjure up the printed material, film and television graphics, signage and all the other touchpoints of commercial advertising?
If you have seen Madmen or Darrin Stevens on Bewitched, you may have some insight, with Art Directors showing marker-rendered concepts to clients, working at an angled desk to make drawing easier. Prior to the ’90s there was a huge tactile part of work that is now, mostly, replaced by digital technology.
Here is 1960s footage from London inside Foote, Cone and Belding ad agency, (includes 1960s social values).
From 28 seconds, the inside of the studio is shown with the overhead desk lamps. Design students in the late 1980s–1990s had the same setup at university, with slightly newer desks. Professional studios were setup all over the world with similar layouts and furniture. Of course, by this time, the angled desks were barely used as we migrated to the computer lab with rows of Mac SE 30s.
Graphic design students were trained in methods to use in the professional workplace. They not only studied traditional Fine Art subjects such as Life and General Drawing, they were also taught how to use markers, overlaying the colours to carefully blend tones; paint with gouache, which is a flat paint for illustrations; rule lines with technical drafting pens; enlarge and expose artwork in the dark room to create bromides for paste-up; accurately hand-cut mockups of packaging with scalpels and use an Omnicrom CT 1000 hot foil colour transfer machine to apply colour to toner with heat.
These methods were primarily to have full colour mockups of design work for folios/presentation. This was the same both for design students, and in professional studios, before the widespread adoption of colour printers (either ink jet or toner-based laser printers). In the early 90s, colour printing meant taking a floppy disk or Zip Drive to the local copy centre, waiting, sometimes days; returning and paying for your prints.
To prepare an image for Omnicrom, the parts of the design, ie, text and image had to have toner to adhere to. The toner was either from a laser printer or photocopier. This forced the creative exploration of papers and best way to get the look the envisaged artwork required. A favourite technique of students to simulate gloss finishes was to use black paper, photocopy the pattern required on there and run through the Omnicrom machine with a clear cover sheet only, creating a gloss effect on the pattern. Pantone® colour sheets were used in the Omnicrom machine.
In our final year, 1992, we learnt the fine art of Cromatech. This involved creating separations for each colour required in the darkroom, mixing flat colours and using a silk screen with an underlay with adhesive. This was then applied onto the artwork to colour typography or other elements. Inside the darkroom was all analogue and included developer fluids and washing up facilities, as well as the enlargement camera.
Agfa is one of the large international companies involved in prepress, going back to the 1950s. With their history in photography, they were market pioneers in prepress, which all worked on analogue photographic principles. Pictured below left is an Agfa Repromaster designers and finished artists of the era will recall. The simple explanation is these machines were used for enlargements or reductions and to create separations of artwork into constituent parts. This step was prior to sending to a trade house for combining and setting the plates for offset printing. One challenge was keeping the glass at the bottom and at the top perfectly clean so as not to enlarge dust particles.
After the bromides were produced, paste up was the next step. This required using lined artboard, blue pencil (blue was invisible in the next prepress step), technical pens for line work and pasting the artwork into place. Accuracy and cleanliness were vital. Above are two photos from the 1960s showing paste up in progress. Pasteup also involved using Letraset sheets with text which was rubbed down into place. Letraset was a huge change when first released as it opened the range of available fonts and sped up the process of pasteup.
Also available were clip art books. These were used for decorative borders, simple graphics or in advertising in the same way stock graphics are incorporated into artwork today on certain projects. Instead of cutting up the Clipper book pages, the page was taken out of the folder, a bromide created, and then added to the paste up. Which is probably not what Clipper intended but likely a common practice in many studios.
Before the precision and ubiquity of digital full colour printing, there was far more use of special mixed colours for one, two and three colour printing. The Pantone® system was common. Paste up instructions for prepress would include putting a colour chip out of the book onto the side of the paste up, with instructions. Brands had (and still have) specific Pantone® colours to maintain colour consistency across all printed material.
All the materials referenced above were generally expensive and design students would save up for top-quality fine paint brushes to use with gouache; fiercely keep all scraps of Omnicrom, sharing with friends when you needed a scrap of colour; and keep coloured paper from previous projects.
The benefit of learning these methods back in the day was to comprehend the intrinsic link between the artwork design, prepress and all print outcomes. Designers had to understand setup for production. It demanded a rigorous attention to detail and meticulous fine skills. Of course, no one would deny the options available now in the digital world are far superior, in most ways, to old technology. Still, as letterpress type, film photography and vinyl LPs are all enjoying a renaissance, there is always the opportunity to incorporate some of these techniques, particularly in illustration work.
Article on Omnicrom:
Excellent article on working in packaging design in the early ‘90s in London: