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Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Crafts of Creation


For the many of us who have worked in the communications arena in the last 40 years, we all witnessed the dramatic diminishing of the soiled-hands processes of creation.  There was something greatly satisfying about manipulating type, one letter at a time, in the curtained chamber of a machine called a typositor. You would look through a viewfinder at a kind of filmstrip that floated over exposable paper. You would then line up the right character in the right place, adjusting the knobs to move the letters closer or further apart, or adjust the slant of the italic, or raise or lower the bottom of the letter – all measured by eye – press a button, expose the image, and out came a strip of the most elegant and crisp version of a particular font you could possibly imagine. Such were the headlines I created back in the day. It was a painfully slow process, akin to chiseling type on a tombstone, yet remarkably fulfilling.

Once you had your headline, you would move on to the body type, which was created in a much more boring mechanical manner.  Then it was time to prep your boards used for printing. All those words needed to be put in their place.  For that, we used rubber cement. You might end your day covered with gobs of it, using it to make scars on your arms and the back of your hands. It was a nursery school finger painting moment. Whee!

Whether you were compiling a fancy brochure or completing the layout for a quick flyer or an Ad for a local paper, the skills and tools required were the same. There were days when you mistakenly sliced off letters or burned yourself using the new fangled wax machines that quickly replaced the very inefficient but endlessly entertaining rubber cement.

And then there was a time I turned a middle-aged man into a zombie with my heavy-handed efforts with black and white retouching paints. It was all in learning curve of mastering your craft.

As my career blossomed, I spent less and less time doing hands-on work and became a supervisor of these efforts, which expanded to include video production. I now had more to do with the ideas behind the production than the actual physical creation. But having the actual hands on experience enabled me to speak to and direct the designers, artists and video crews with a real understanding of the processes and their limitations.

In this supervisory capacity some years later, in a be-careful-what-you-reap episode, I quickly learned the importance of providing these kinds of services within a large corporation. I had been on the job for less than 14 days; working in a converted strip mall along Florida’s Hwy 90 in Clearwater Beach, Florida. With a minimum of orientation and a maximum of responsibility thrust upon my young executive shoulders, I had, as one part of my charge, the supervision of a small in-house graphics department which provided services to a wide variety of corporate marketing and communications needs.  The staff consisted of a typesetter, 3 paste-up artists and an Art Director. The typesetter was from Chicago, over 60, and really funny and the rest of the crew was local and barely out of high school. The company had not yet commenced its national rollout, was not yet known coast to coast -- exploding in one year from gross revenues of $10 million to $780 million in the next.  I know it sounds ridiculous, but I was there. It was madness.

The company broadcast or cablecast 24 hours a day of live programming to homes across Florida and a few cable systems in adjoining states in the south.  We had just started broadcasting in the New York market. (For more chuckles on how that all worked out and then some, check out :
from July 2010
from August 2010)

We sold “schlocky” merchandise to those who called in to a massive sales room, housed in another building along Route 90. Those who called in and were lucky and somewhat articulate, were selected to speak directly to the “Show Hosts”, providing an endless supply of banter or “testimonials” about the merchandize and this new fangled experience of shopping via television while the camera remained fixed on the item for sale.


Part of the pitch frequently included showing Ads from catalogs, displaying much higher prices than we were charging for the same item.  Part of what the in-house graphics department did -- was actually create these catalog pages. I didn’t know this yet. But one day, when I walked into the studio, the art crew was in stitches. Our offices were filled with television sets so we could all watch the programming wherever we went, usually with the audio off.  I think it was part of some kind of mad indoctrination thing, that and the pale green shag carpeting was enough to make you insane. Anyway, the camera was fixed on a “catalog” page for an item -- I cannot recall what it was --that had just been comped up by one of the sloppier paste-up artists and apparently the type was not adhering to the board. My little art crew was yelling and laughing, “Stop the close-up! You can see the cut marks! Oh no, the type is lifting off the board!“ It was only then that I began to understand what they were talking about.

I called my boss, the Senior VP of Marketing. He returned my call several hours later suggesting I mention this to our new in-house legal counsel who suggested I come over to his office, which was housed in yet another and much fancier office in a much much larger converted strip mall further south along Highway 90.  I drove over in my convertible, music blaring, top down. I spent the bulk of my free time that year growing a tan while I drove from department to department. The corporate campus was still two years away.   As I explained to Mr. In-house Counsel how we were creating “sales collateral” for the show, his face kept getting redder and redder. He was brand new to the company as well. I explained that up until that day, my third week with the company, I didn’t know that we were producing this material, that we were, in effect, actually defrauding the viewers.

That was the last time we created this kind of material for the shows. No one in the Art Department had any sense that what they were doing might be wrong—or if they did, chose not to say anything about it. In the long run, the company didn’t need to do these Ads. There was enough money and endless credit in those days for anyone who wanted to buy something they saw being hawked, to just pick up the phone and call us. And they did. Creation can be crafty.  

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