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adaptation, business decisions, design, evolution, graphic arts, print, production, productivity, search engine optimization, small business, typography, video

Sinking Ships

Sinking Ship

One of the most sickening sights in human experience

Back in the early 1990’s, I worked for a type shop called Characters Typographic Services. In case you don’t know, type shops were businesses that consisted of craftspeople who knew how to make the printed word look glorious. We did work for all of the major New York ad agencies: Ammurati & Puris, Lois Pitts, J. Walter Thompson, Young & Rubicam, Ogilvy & Mather, to name a bunch. We did publications too, like Good Housekeeping and Country Living. We even set the type for U&lc, the prestigious typography publication designed and issued by the International Typeface Corporation to introduce and promote their fonts. I was a proofreader, quality controller and assistant foreman (the highest rank a woman could achieve in a blatantly sexist environment, but I loved my job and my dopey rogues’ gallery of co-workers).

Our work was of the highest quality and we did lots of it. I worked third shift (some industries call it “graveyard,” but we called it “lobster”). We had no client contact, just the clients’ layouts and manuscripts, with instructions from the service department which said “MUST BE PERFECT,” “DUE 9AM” and little else. I prided myself on deciphering client hieroglyphics, and got to learn each client’s “style” over time.

I worked in the age of “cold type” (as opposed to “hot metal”) where product was output on photographic paper (galley type, “repros” and “stats”) that was delivered to the clients to be cut up and pasted down on boards called “mechanicals.” Type was set on dedicated systems, where operators would input code defining the fonts, weights, line spacing, justification, tracking and kerning. The only way to view the result was in the output. That’s what made it so challenging. There was no graphic user interface, no “what you see is what you get” preview on screen, and definitely no spell-checking. Only the most skilled and dedicated people could generate beautiful work in this fashion. It was incumbent on the proofreaders to find and correct every typo, every imperfection, every wrong font, and to know what to query to the client if it followed their specification but seemed wrong. You didn’t want to insult them; just point them in the right direction. This meant the difference between the dreaded “PE” (printer’s error, which was on us) or the chargeable “AA” (author’s alteration, for which the client would grudgingly pay).

Around 1992, we started getting requests to set type in a program called Quark. The shop began acquiring new computers manufactured by Apple called “Macintosh.” Being a Mac owner myself, this transition was not a shock. Since 1984, I knew it was only a matter of time until these computers would become the platform for typesetting. I just couldn’t envision all of the consequences.

Being able to set type graphically, with a representation of what you were doing on screen, was a huge advantage. The fact that the typographic capabilities of the applications were greatly lacking compared to what a professional could achieve with a dedicated system did not deter businesses from procuring these systems.

So clients started sending in their work to us with specific instructions to execute the layouts in Quark. They wanted galleys (production-ready hard copy) AND the files we created. Stupidly, we complied.

The owners thought it was “a phase.” They’ll be back. They’ll never be able to do the job we do.

Even without formal training on the new systems, we cranked out some decent stuff with the new tools, because we knew how it was SUPPOSED to look. We’d send the files on disks along with the galley type. The clients had a starting point for learning how to create their own type from our files. They didn’t care that theirs didn’t look as good as ours. They had paid for the hardware and software. Whatever they derived from it was good enough.

And so began the end of an era. Layoffs came in waves (including my husband, who worked the graphic arts cameras and set headline hand-type on a machine called “Typositor”). Gradually, we went from a staff of about 150 people on three shifts to six employees left on third shift the night we closed. We continued to work through the night as red auction tags were affixed to the equipment and furniture. I dodged the toe tag, even as I went down on that sinking ship.

In time, I found my way to service bureaus and became familiar with four color process. I learned Quark, Illustrator and Photoshop. Color management, trapping, bleed, trim, safety, and screen angles all became part of my new world. Armed with this knowledge, I became a production manager for a private label clothing company (creating production art and work flow delivery systems for Faded Glory for Wal-mart and Route 66 at Kmart). When the work load became overwhelming, I brought in a friend to handle Wal-mart while I managed Kmart. Eventually, Kmart decided to bring Route 66 in-house. Can you say “abandon ship”? (This time, I was told to walk the plank).

By 1998, I found the cojones to go out on my own. I represented a software company, designed tags and labels, created a bridal industry marketing company with a partner, producing books and a web site. I freelanced at service bureaus and trained their people in desktop skills. I contracted with a chemicals manufacturer to re-design their web site, update their marketing materials, and design packaging for new products.

My hands-on knowledge was needed on the college level, too, so I became an adjunct professor at City Tech in Brooklyn. And I also taught professionals at the Association for Graphic Communications, earning their prestigious Instructor of the Year Award in 2001.

With everything I did, I learned and evolved. I watched businesses rise and fall. Always on the lookout for emerging technologies, I weeded out useful tools for myself and my clients.

One thing that became painfully obvious to me at the turn of the century was that no one had the patience to read anymore. The internet had not completely killed print, although the nature of the printing industry had been seriously impacted. Fewer players remained to do the work that will never completely go away, as long as products require packaging and medications legally require package inserts. Internet use created universal attention deficit disorder. If the desired link doesn’t materialize within seven seconds, we click off to the next thing. We need it now or we, hey, what did that animation just say?

Animation. Video. Yes, that’s it! Moving pictures. That’s the way to get into people’s heads before they even realize you’ve been there. Show, don’t tell. That’s the future.

So I found my dream program at NYU: a Master of Science in Digital Imaging and Design. After a 27 year educational hiatus, I was accepted to a prestigious program that would teach me to do video editing and motion graphics. In 2007, I earned my Masters degree.

I managed to continue servicing my clients while I was in school, but could not pursue new business. Shortly after I graduated, my chemical company client and I parted ways. Uncertain about my prospects for employment (especially when so many younger people are willing to work cheap and very long hours) I formed a production company with two partners. Our focus was creating health-related products based on the principles of an ancient Indian branch of medicine called ayurveda. One partner was an ayurvedic doctor, the other, a local friend of mine and acolyte of the doctor.

Putting all of my new-found knowledge to work was exciting. I recorded, edited and produced video, designed logos, artwork, packaging, and an educational DVD. I even used the process as a case-study for a new course I designed and taught for the Graphic Communications Masters program at NYU in crossmedia publishing. Everything was working. Until it wasn’t.

Without going into all the (graphic) details, the failure of the production company was imminent. I was doing all of the work, my partners were getting the glory. In fairness, the doctor was a good, understanding partner; the other dinghy had a serious leak. We agreed to cut our losses and scuttled that boat in 2008.

During the production company debacle, I had been contracted to help a printing company. I rebuilt an obsolete pre-press room and taught their technician how to use the appropriate tools. The environment reminded me of my type shop days. I became friendly with the pressmen. The company prospered. Our relationship continued and evolved.

In time, I was asked to help this company with their web site. I took a stab at some designs, but I could not find a way to indulge the GM’s personal aesthetic sense. I backed off and agreed to show the boss’s son how to do a few things in web authoring. I advocated for the use of HTML to build their site so as to aid search engine optimization.

Months later, they had a web site, designed in Flash. Could I help them put it up? Sure, but I told them I thought it was a bad idea. The GM wanted this particular design and no other. I created an HTML page with keywords they chose to deploy the site and made it live for them.

A year later, business stinks and they want to know why their web site isn’t getting hits. I re-explained the problems with Flash. I also suggested they add video to the site to help draw users in.

I tried to redesign their site in HTML, but there’s no way I know to get the HTML to look EXACTLY like the Flash version. I even handed off my files to another web designer to help get the site reworked. But the GM is a notorious micro-manager who finds fault in things that no one else sees. And because of this, an HTML version will probably never be deployed.

I conducted video shoots of the facilities. The GM was very excited about this idea, and followed me around with his still camera, ruining my shots with his flash and finding disappointment in his images, which revealed that there were imperfections in the machines and scuffs on the floors. He did like a lot of my footage, though, but he’s analyzing frames instead of viewing video. If he ever permits me, I’ll edit some of the footage and deploy it on a dedicated YouTube channel. But that’s a mighty big if.

Consider me the Coast Guard in the waters of small business. I warn of dangers, and try to pull folks out of harm’s way. I’ve witnessed too many sinking ships to allow another to go down if I can possibly help it.

This ship is surely surely taking on water, and despite my repeated calls of “ICEBERG DEAD AHEAD,” I can’t stop the captain from doing what he will do. I can only be heard if he is listening. Perhaps he’ll veer off before it’s too late. Meanwhile, I keep an eye on the horizon and keep my other beloved charges on course. Smooth sailing, folks. I’m here to help if you need me.

About traceysl

Author of the groundbreaking book "Dementia Sucks", Post Hill Press, May, 2018. Having cared for my father, who had vascular dementia and died in 2004, and my mother, who died on April 14, 2015 after a long fight with Alzheimer's disease, I have refocused professionally to helping others through my experience. My company, Grand Family Planning, provides Coaching and Support Services. I am a professional speaker, offering programs for businesses seeking solutions to recruit and retain employees who care for loved ones. In this way, I share my knowledge and give meaning to the tragic turn of my parents' journey through the misery of dementia.


4 thoughts on “Sinking Ships

  1. Fascinating blog! Is your theme custom made or did
    you download it from somewhere? A design like yours with a
    few simple tweeks would really make my blog stand out.
    Please let me know where you got your theme.
    Appreciate it

    Posted by low interest credit cards | May 19, 2013, 9:46 am
    • Hi Mindy,

      Glad you like my blog. This one is created from a free theme called “The Morning After.” Being a graphic artist, I use Photoshop and other tools to create custom artwork to elaborate on the free, basic theme. Most of the free WordPress themes enable customization. It’s a matter if exploring the built-in options & knowing how to generate graphics that work within the templates. I hope that answers your question. Thanks for visiting & commenting.


      Posted by traceysl | May 19, 2013, 9:56 am
  2. Hey Tracey, that’s not how you spell Ammirati! (Maybe now we’re even. You probably saved me from 1,001 embarrassing typographic idiocies in our days at Characters.) I can’t find another typo in the whole blog post, of course, ’cause Tracey proofread it. How the hell are you? Really good to “hear” your voice. You sound very mellow after all that stormy weather we sailed through. How’s Big B? I’m over here in semi-rural Western New York, married since 2003 to my high-school steady, and I just became a grandma without ever having to be a mother first. It’s pretty cool. There is life after Characters.

    Nice narrative on Characters, I have to say. That captures it for sure. Wonder where and how everybody is now. Actually, maybe you guys have the answer to someone’s last name I can’t remember. I don’t want to put anybody else’s private business out here in cyberspace, but if you want to shoot me an email I’ll explain what I’ve been fishing for. Memory cells failing me. 😦

    I don’t know how current this blog is, so maybe you’ll never see this. Or maybe you will. And if you do see it, maybe you’ll answer. Anyway, best regards from one of those dopey rogues’ gallery of your former co-workers. More rogue than dopey in my own case, I hope. 🙂

    Hope you can access my email address that I had to give in order to post.

    a.k.a. jer

    Posted by Janet | December 19, 2014, 10:35 pm

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