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Working on my portfolio in the 1988

In the 80’s, when I was the exhibit designer for the Ringling Museum of Art, in Sarasota, FL., I fulfilled all the creative needs for exhibits and museum events. I not only designed and helped implement exhibits, but was also responsible for the catalogs, labels, brochures, banners, posters, signage, and invitations, as well as all marketing materials for the Museum events, such as the annual Renaissance Fair, and the Crafts Festival. And, finally,  items for sale in the museum shoppe, such as mugs, and shopping bags. The museum budget for exhibits and printing was just enormous. An exhibit could get a grant that included money for installation, catalogs, posters, signage, and invitations. We had to spend every cent, and we were happy to comply. These budgets also kept a whole array of other businesses afloat in the area.

My job as a designer in those days was more like an orchestra conductor. An exhibit could generate an incredible amount of design needs: catalogs, posters, banners, invitations, labels, ads, and signage. All had to be carefully crafted months ahead of the opening day in order to have enough production time. This was the era right when the Macintosh was starting to change the industry and everything was done manually with an xacto knife and rubber cement. 

In order to have a catalog printed in time for the exhibit opening, I had to coordinate with and manage curators, editors, photographers, typesetters, copy separators, banner and signage companies, and printers. The first step was to come up with the catalog design. There were mock-ups to be created and presented to the curator in charge of the exhibit. Once approved, the curator would send me  the typewritten text. I would then speck the type for the whole entire book: this consisted of calculating what size type would fit in a page according to a formula of characters per inch, plus leading. This, of course, depending on whether the type was serif or sans serif. It could take as long as a week to speck type for a catalog. Errors were very costly, so you had to be exact. The final document was the typewritten pages with markings around every headline, subhead, text, and captions, defining what font, weight, size, color and alignment. This information was then sent out to the typesetter to set it all on a Lynotype Machine. Typesetters were God: they had access to fonts! Designers didn't get to touch fonts until they came back from the typesetter in a long roll of photo paper, which would then be spliced with an xacto knife and pasted onto a Letraset 3-ply illustration board, prepared with crop and bleed lines and registration marks, and numbered.  Each page spread of the catalog was a separate board. You would mark with a box where a photo went and marked it with the name of the photo. The photos were usually slides which were chosen by looking at them on a light table and using a magnifier, then cropped with silver tape and sent to the color separation company. The separations were then sent to the printer with the final boards. Overlays were made either photographically on a stat machine, or by cutting rubylith: a tedious job with a steady hand and an xacto knife. Finally, you sent all the PMS color chips for each color called for throughout the entire catalog. The print-ready boards were then sent to the printer. Since they were a considerable pile of boards (about 100 for a 50 page catalog, plus the covers) and they were very heavy, they usually were transported in the museum van.

Ringling Museum of Art Sarasota Exhibit Design

Working on silkscreen signage for one of the museum exhibits

One fine day around 1987, I attended a Macintosh workshop at the Ringling School of Art. I didn’t know it then, but my work and my life were just about to change drastically forever. I watched someone take text, format it with different fonts, (FONTS!!! They had fonts!) Then inserted a photo, resized it, cropped it, and wrapped text around it, all within just a few minutes. And this was a very slow computer compared to what we all use now. Still, this was something that would have taken me a whole day to achieve. And not with fonts. I was stunned. Then someone scanned an photo of the Monalisa, and even though it was all in black and white, it was a miracle!

The next day I went to the curators and explained what it was that I had seen and how it could change everything at the museum. But, most importantly, how much money it could save the museum. Somehow, they saw the logic and convinced the director to buy one little Macintosh computer, a printer and a couple of software programs. The little machine had a tiny, black and white, built-in monitor and all of 4 megs of RAM. Three departments would be sharing it. In two days I could already design, create invitations, and all the labels for the museum exhibits. The savings on the labels alone allowed us to buy two more computers the next month. I had my own in my office and I was on to the next level of my Life's Nintendo Game. I was now a digital graphic designer.

Within a couple of months, all production in the museum had changed. The curators wrote on the computers. Their copy was given to me to work with–I no longer got typewritten pages to speck type on. I actually designed the pages in the Mac and gave them to the typesetter who would give me back the typesetting exactly the way I had designed it. I could not use what I produced in the computer for high resolution printing yet. But I never had to spec type again. I would be able to show the curators what everything looked like, in black and white, before it went to print. They didn’t have to imagine the projects. Design had changed forever. Other designers that I knew that saw the computer as their enemy and refused to get on the big change wave. Most were doing something else within a few years.

Sadly, today, I do the jobs of the typesetter, the type speckers, the color separators, photo retouchers, draftsmen, art directors, and much more, while making the money of a simple paste up artist. Somehow, we have had to learn to do hundreds of jobs that were previously done by different people and yet, we don’t get compensated for them. And to add insult to injury, the regular lay person doesn’t see the importance of what it is that we do because, since everyone has a computer and access to Photoshop, they think their nephew could do the same thing and they can save all that money! Right!!! I got news for them: the computer doesn’t have a logo key. It also doesn’t have 30 years of experience on design, color theories, marketing, psychology, typography, printing settings, resolutions, color environments, and quite a few other hundreds of expertise we draw on every day to create. At the end of the day, all they have is a computer.