Graphic Design and Computers


I have taken liberties with Webster’s definitions for the purpose of making more clear the nature of my comments. Constraint is defined as the act of holding back or repression because of external forces or conditions. Restraint is defined as control over one’s thoughts, actions or feeling–reserve, to curb, check or bridle, and this is internal to the individual.

I am one of those persons who instinctively relates to plants and animals but totally freak out with mechanical devices when they do not work. This includes cars to refrigerators and everything in between. I am convinced that machines sense my ineptitude and deliberately test me. With good reason, I have a deep-seated belief in the inevitable perversity of inanimate objects such as any kind of machine including computers.

My first computer sat on the desk for a year before I turned it on. The computer was delivered to me in 1983 and turned on sometime during the Fall of 1984. It was an IBM hard disk with Word Star software. I learned word processing – period. Twelve years later I was still using the same machine and software but did change printers although the new one is still a dot matrix. Now that my credentials have been stated, I can proceed with my remarks in clear conscience. To loosely paraphrase a well known axiom, They who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

History Repeats Itself
This certainly applies to design, and the concept is deserving of examination as it pertains to design, typography, printing and computers. In many respects, the computer has created a similar dilemma as that faced by Victorians–the sudden decrease of constraints with a corresponding increase in options because of new technology. I think we are seeing today many of the same conditions that beset our forebears. In hindsight, we know they failed to discipline themselves when presented with a greater range of decision-making.

During the fifteenth century there were numerous constraints imposed on printers. Most of them were physical and related to available technology. Presses were primitive, paper was handmade, type was made one letter at a time and illustration was restricted to woodcuts. Every aspect of printing was labor intensive and demanded great skill. During the incunabula period, books were precious. Most were printed with wide outside margins so that edges could be trimmed as they became worn or soiled. The combination of technological constraints, function and skills resulted in some of the most beautiful books ever printed. There was a unique affinity between handmade paper, type, woodcut and printing impression that has seldom been matched since that time. The books themselves are works of art. With each advance in the technology of printing, there were fewer constraints and lesser skills were substituted for more difficult ones. Woodcuts were first replaced by wood engraving or lithography, and later by halftone screen; text type was supplemented with decorative faces, and eventually, the hand-caster was replaced by automatic type casters. Printing presses moved from platen to drum and steam power replaced hand-operated equipment. Paper production increased through the use of wood pulp with new machines and processes.

Major Changes: The 19th Century
Evolution was relatively slow until near the end of the eighteenth century, and it was the nineteenth century in which dramatic changes took place. Printing and type design were both stimulated by, and reflected, the growing industrial revolution. As options increased because of improved technology, constraints on design became less of a factor. Technology that expedited printing or reduced its cost was favored although it decreased quality. With more options, there was a corresponding bastardization of design most commonly demonstrated through complexity and mixing of styles. With greater production of marketing ephemeral and various public notices, typographic novelty became the rule rather than the exception. Even with its excesses, letterpress printing was governed by a vertical and horizontal bias because of lock-up. With the invention of lithography at the end of the eighteenth century and its perfection during the early years of the nineteenth century, the right angle constraints were eliminated. With lithography, artists could integrate illustration with type, create new letterforms, curve or bend lines of type. Conventional typographic materials could be printed letterpress and transferred to lithographic stone where it was combined with that of the artist. Other than speed of production, there were few constraints for artists using lithography. By the 1870s, most standard typefaces were made in families of six or more styles of expanded, condensed, bold to lightface and ornamental. With the invention of electrotyping, the proliferation of designs and availability of type rapidly multiplied. By the 1880s, major type houses published specimen catalogs three to four inches thick illustrating thousands of styles, variations and sizes.

From 1828 onward, large letters for posters, announcements, marketing and various other uses were cut from wood and mass produced. These letters regularly ranged from four to one hundred pica but some were much larger. Until this time, text type was viewed as texture and ornamental display type as decoration. With the large wooden letters, shape became another consideration. With the invention of paper made from wood fiber, and reliance on wood engravings as well as finely delineated ornamental typefaces, paper surfaces were calendered and smooth. Paper was produced in an ever increasing range of sizes, grades and colors. None of them possessed the same qualities as the incunabula rag papers.


Making Sense of Chaos: End of the 19th Century >


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I think we are seeing today
many of the same conditions
that beset our forebears.

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