Monday, 28 July 2008

The men in white coats


In films and tv dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, the scientist (usually male) was instantly recognizable by his white coat. As the printing industry began to move to photo-typesetting and computer-aided composition in the same period, the image of the printer in a white coat was part of the message to customers that here was a new, less inky age, with highly trained technicians producing perfect results from finely calibrated equipment. The printer was seen with the new tools of his trade: a light-table, film, and a scalpel. All that was missing was the stethoscope. Even when the machinery was not so different (Monotype used the same basic keyboard for its Monophoto machines as for its hot-metal system) the operator was duly dressed up in a white coat for the publicity photo, eschewing the traditional printer's brown garb.

This attempt to rebrand the printer went alongside calls for designers to re-think themselves: ‘Print designers … should be trained not in art schools, but in schools of engineering print design.’ Thus John Duncan in 1964. ‘There is still too much woolly thinking in out training programmes for designers. Too often the basic disciplines of draughtsmanship and the cardinal responsibility of communicating an idea or message are overlooked or neglected and issues are clouded by the striving for the vague goals of so-called originality and aestheticism,’ wrote Lawrence Wallis in 1965. ‘This is an age of specification writing,’ continued Duncan, accurately describing the role of the designer for computer-controlled composition as someone who had thought out all the issues beforehand, so the the machines could run at maximum speed, with little need for time-wasting corrections. ‘What other industry,’ wondered Wallis, ‘would put up with the specification being altered half way through the production of a job, or even worse with no specification at all, or with an inaccurate one.’

Alongside the elevation of the specification was the development of work-flow diagrams: the one below even schematizes the operations with labels such as ‘intellectual–manual’ and ‘automatic–electronic’.


What was this a reaction against? Perhaps the best example I can find from the early post-war years of a designer being determinedly anti-scientific (if you take scientific as meaning a method involving measurable, repeatable things) is Jan van Krimpen, whom Robin Kinross called 'the principal bearer of tradition in Dutch typography’. Here is is talking of how he would ‘specify’ amendments to a typeface design:

‘I meant to offer … to have them put in order, under my own eyes, by my own punch-cutter. … When we talk of punches cut by hand we use terms like “a hair or even less” or “the tiniest little trifle” &c. I am sure they could not convey or mean anything to the people of the [Monotype works who] talk of “tens” and “thous[ands of an inch]”.’

Sources: Penrose Annual, 1964; The Monotype Recorder, 43, 2, Summer 1965; OUP archives

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