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Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Obvious mistakes

While I'm reminiscing about my early career as a typographer in the days long before personal computers, here's a story from those days.

At this particular time I worked in the Sydney office of a large American publishing company—a publisher of books and magazines. I won't mention the name but you would know them. I worked in the art department as a typographer. My assistant and I had the job of specifying the typography for all publications and promotional materials produced by the company.

The head of the art department was a man we'll call D—a nice man but he had a huge ego. I don't think he was particularly creative or knowledgeable. He was basically an administrator. Everything produced by the art department had to have his initials on it in a little rubber-stamped box in the corner. And before he would add his initials he always had to change something.

This drove me crazy. If I had a typographic layout I'd done I would take it to him and he would say something like, 'That looks good, John, but I think you should add just a little more space between these two lines here.'

And I would reply, 'Well, if we add more space there, then we need to take some space out of here and that upsets the balance of these elements here.'

He'd say, 'Yes, you're right John, then what you need to do is this...' and he'd make another suggestion that was worse than the first. I'd explain why that wouldn't work and he'd come up with another suggestion. At this point I realised that it was better to accept what he said because every suggestion got worse than the previous one and one way or another he was determined to have some input into my layout.

Among my colleagues in the art department were two illustrators, we'll call F1 and F2. They were both about the age I am now. F1 did very fine pen illustrations that resembled hand engravings. He got a lot of freelance work from publishers who wanted illustrations that looked like they were from a previous era.

F2's style was almost the opposite of F1's. Where F1's illustrations were fine and detailed and took hours, maybe days, to complete, F2's were very loose. He had the ability to pick up a pencil, put a few rough strokes on the paper and in no time you were looking at a very free representation of the subject. F1 greatly admired F2's ability. In fact, both of them were masters at their own particular form of illustration.

One day I returned to our section after having one of my layouts destroyed by D's ego. I had a chat with F1 (perhaps one of my first mentors). He pointed out that when F2 took a drawing down to D for approval, D would say something like 'That looks very good F but look at this guy's leg. It's a little too short.' F would return to his drawing board, throw the picture away, angrily grab the first pencil that came to hand and redo the picture, being very careful to get the leg right. Ten minutes later he'd take it down to D and D would say, 'Well, the leg looks great now F but unfortunately this guy's hat is a bit crooked.' So F would return, throw that one away and start again. Sometimes he would end up doing 20 versions of that one picture and eventually would end up with an F2 rendering of a D illustration.

F1 then showed me how he handled the situation. He would very carefully make an obvious mistake in his illustration, one that was easily fixed. He would take it down to D and D would say, 'Look at what you've done here, F. This guy's got six fingers!'

'How silly of me,' F would reply. He'd return to his drawing board and make the illustration the way he wanted it to be in the first place.

After that I started making obvious mistakes in my layouts and D and I got on fine.

BTW, there's a footnote to this story. There was a photographer in the art department about my age. He often worked back late. I discovered much later that after the others had gone home and before the cleaners had gone through, he would collect F2's reject drawings. I once saw one of F2's sketches framed in a gallery. It was selling for about the same as my weekly wages. Perhaps that photographer was smarter than all of us.

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I do like the way you handed D tough guy ;p
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