As I embark on this new venture I'm presented with a world of possibilities. Every font under the sun, every colour imaginable, gifs, jpegs, pngs of anything I care to think of. Instead I'll temper my excitement, stick to my guns, and knuckle down for fear of another dressing down.
I left school at 18, Margaret Thatcher was still in power and Northern Ireland was not big on opportunity. I took a years training/apprenticeship at a local newspaper. Lunch, always extended, usually included alcohol before sauntering back to the office where the atmosphere was, well… laid back. Everyone smoked at their desk, constantly. Work was a bit slap dash, law suits occurred frequently. It no longer exists, I think that speaks volumes. It was however a solid training ground and most of the people who went through it are still working in some related field.
They had the first real useable computers I’d seen, with a mouse and a GUI. It was light years away from sitting typing lines of code on a Commodore. Not only that but a laser printer spat out exactly what you saw on the screen. Most of the time it was even better than you saw on the screen as screen fonts back then were chronic. It sounds common place now but it was stunning. People sat at pasteboards (cut and paste…) with scalpels, cutting up galleys of type spewed out of the laser printer, pasting them down with prit for that week’s press. Spot colour, for that was all there was, was achieved by printing out sections onto acetate and pasting that over portions of advertising so the printer knew what to put on the ‘colour’ plate. There was no colour on the monitor, or the software (pagemaker) nor the printer for that matter, it was extremely limited in comparison to existing technology, but it was cheaper and more exciting!
Over the next few years the technology got better, faster and more colourful and I’d built up a bit of experience and also a lot of bad habits. Probably the worst habit was thinking I’d nothing more to learn, (that and putting 2 spaces after a full point).
By the mid 90s I’d found myself in the production room for the country’s school examination papers. The room was full of older men in various stages of retirement, myopia and alcoholism, crouched over pasteboards ticking, marking, scribbling, conferring, referencing, cutting and gluing. After a quick briefing where I was told “we use one font, no colour and a strict house style”, I thought “Holy shit, I’m back on square one”. I was lead to a Mac, Quark Xpress 3.0 and handed my first piece of work, type setting a straightforward marking scheme from handwritten manuscript. Simple, I thought, it’s all looks like Times New Roman so off I go bashing away. By the end of the day I’d done what I’d considered a reasonably good job, gave it a quick proof, stuck it in a job bag and went home. The next afternoon it arrived back like a bloody suicide note, red ink from header to footer, covered in hieroglyphics that made no sense. I prayed for the hole to open up. It didn’t. I sat there, staring at the bloody mess. I took a deep breath, admited I was floundering and went and spoke to “Big Eddy” Haughey, one of the older gents who sat opposite me.
”All the oul fellas are proof readers” said Eddy. Some had done it their whole lives, 40 years in some cases. Others had been typesetters in the 60s and 70s using phototypesetting and couple started life in newspapers using linotypes, technology dating back to Victorian times. They’d all worked at the Universities Press producing scientific encyclopedia, but had been slung on the scrap heap by youngsters who could operate a computer and a spell checker. I’d never thought of proofing as an actual trade, more an option on the “Edit” menu.
I showed him my copy like I used to show my mother a cut knee after riding a bike with no hands into a wall… intense pain with acute embarrassment. He looked down his nose, through his glasses and over his huge stomach at the red mess on his board. He sniffed and coughed. I flinched and winced. He pursed his lips and sucked in a room full of air and finally said… “it’s not too bad kid”. I exhaled a room full of air. He opened his drawer pulled out the style guide and a copy of the British Standard of Proof Readers Marks. He explained what the markup symbols meant and page by page I realised how little I knew about typography, about anything really. The difference between a forward slash and a solidus, an apostrophe and a prime, inches and quote marks, faux bold and Times Bold and on and on it went page after page. Every missing millimetre of indent, extra character space and typo was highlighted. Every toner blotch, paper crease and tea stain was a visual dressing down. Absolutely nothing got through the net because nothing could afford to. He finally said “listen kid, we don’t do fancy shit here, just keep it 10on12 and you’ll be just fine”. “10 what on 12 what” I said. “10 point body on a 12 point leading”, he said.
15 years later and I’m wrestling with HTML, CSS and Expression Engine. The words body, markup and stylesheet still mean much the same thing, leading has become line height, tracking is letter-spacing, ems have replaced points so I suppose it’s true, the more things change the more they stay the same. It’s laborious in comparison to print technologies, but it’s cheaper and more exciting. So I’ll keep it simple, keep it 10on12, metaphorically speaking. You don’t have to be fancy to be effective. You don’t have to decorate to communicate, stick to the basics, keep it simple and remember, experience usually trumps youth everytime.