Design History 101: How Designers Worked Before Computers

To the younger generations, perceiving designing seems impossible without the use of computers and the various design applications available. However, design started long time ago before the world started enjoying the pleasantries of the modern super computers. According to Milton Glaser, one of the many renowned graphic designers, “The Computer is to graphic design what the microwave is for food”.

This simply implies that computers are used to hasten the graphics design process just as microwaves are used to warm up food quickly. In essence, graphics design would still be possible even in the absence of computers and this is how life used to be back in the days when the world was still asleep as far as technology is concerned. So how exactly did graphic designers work without computers?

Manual and laborious

Before the computers, graphic design was rather a laborious and manual exercise that took several hours to complete even for very small projects. At the beginning of every job, the designer had to sit down and figure out what the client wants and think of the best way to start from scratch. It involved a lot of iterations since you first had to come up with sketches that would be shown to the client before you had the opportunity to proceed with the final design.

You may argue that the same process still applies to today. This is true but back in the olden days, you had to start the process of preparing each sketch from scratch unlike today when after you have the layouts right, all you have to do is make a few clicks of the mouse and you have different layouts.

A single design would be worked by different people

With the advent of the computers, only one person is needed to start and complete a design project. But before the computers came, there was what was known as division of labor in the design process. With division of labor, each person did only what they were good at during the process. For instance, if a designer were good in rapidography, their duty would be to wait and draw a line of the required size on the boards.

If somebody else was good with the Photostat camera, their main duty would be to position stats and show indications of where the cropping was to be done as well as the exact sizes and position of the photos on the page. Again someone else would be proficient with the mechanical boards, and their duty would be to help with the pasting and using the rubber cement to paste the Photostats on the correct positions where they are needed.

With the use of computers, division of labor is no longer relevant because most of the processes have been integrated into a software making graphics design to be an easy exercises. It is possible to draw a perfect line, resize the images, change the position of the image and do pretty anything you want with the layout without the need of external assistance.

How Printing was done

With the computers, printing graphics after you are done with the design is not much of a hassle. But before the computers, it was an exercise that required the expertise of highly experienced experts. The printers in graphics designs before computers and the advent of the modern printers used what was known as a mechanical. Each mechanical represented a page with the correct size of what was supposed to be printed.

For instance, if you wanted to print a page measuring 11.75 inches by 9.25 inches, then the mechanical would be adjusted to reflect these measurements either on a stiffer paper or cardboard. You were actually required to use the Photostats pasted on the mechanicals to show the separator the exact placement, size and position of every image. If there was a rule reproduced on a page, that rule had to be drawn by hand on the mechanical around the Photostat. You can thus imagine how hectic printing was back in the days.

How long it took to prepare the layout of a book

Preparing the layout for a book takes approximately fifteen minutes currently. However, before the computers, before anything was sent to the printer, it could take a couple of hours to get the materials ready for printing. It involved a lot of processes which included taking the Photostats to the studio to have them pasted down then sending them to the typesetting house before you could finally have them ready for printing.

Evidently, computers have made the process of graphic design to be simpler, faster and more efficient. By looking at the history of graphics design, designers come to appreciate the strides taken to make the industry what it is at the moment. One thing however remains unchanged. It is the design tools that have changed but not the core design principles. This is why Milton Glaser made the comparison of computers being to design what microwaves are for food.


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