I could not have done it! There’s no question; I would have taken one class and immediately switched out of design school. What would be the final straw? Setting the type by hand? Memorizing typographic ratios? Cutting out all that gosh darned acetate?
I am talking about graphic design before the advent of the computer, the subject of the new documentary “Graphic Means” by Briar Levit. I was fortunate enough to see a screening at the State Theatre put on by AIGA Austin and the University of Texas at Austin.
The film guides the viewer through 100 years of design history and practice. From hot type set in molten lead, to cold type beamed through film negatives, and the ultimate takeover of the computer, it is clear that design skills have changed throughout the ages.
“Graphic Means” has rattled around my brain far longer than it had any right too. The film is so comfortable in its skin— at times a parade of trade videos and cheery innovation lining up neat and tidy, design technology advancing without a care. You cannot help but look back and think they really knew how to design back in the day.
However, cutting and pasting, shooting and photographing, typesetting and printing— the antique design process reveals itself to be meticulous work. At one point, an animation illustrates over a dozen steps the designer would go through to print an all text newspaper! All the while the designer often had no idea what the final product would look like, meaning their work was the result of internal vision and rote precision alone.
In any other age, these designers would have been masters of their craft deserving a place in a pantheon of gifted artists. The quiet tragedy of this documentary was that the design technology outpaced its operators, leaving many artisans out of a job or forced to retrain.
A scene from the last day of hot type at the New York Times shows these craftsmen, whom we saw at the top of their game just years earlier, relegated to the dustbin of history in real time. Their somber faces seemed far away from their hands moving like lighting over piles of metal type. A board in the press room reads “The end of an era. It was good while it lasted. Crying won’t help.”
If I had been born even 20 years earlier, I would have struggled with the technical limitations of the field. I am grateful to be the beneficiary of a century of innovation and upheaval in the design field. If nothing else, it is clearer than ever that design will continue to evolve with or without me as I continue my education and career.
With that said, some constants present themselves throughout the film. People desire their ideas to be set to image and type, and they enlist designers to fulfill those needs. Both early adopters and hardline traditionalists continue to populate the design field. No matter where the technology goes in the future, human relationships enable and manifest themselves through design both then and now.