Desktop Publishing Changed Everything


The Overnight Switch from Analog to Digital

These days Software As A Service (SaaS) is taken for granted, as evidenced by the proliferation of cloud-based apps delivering digital publishing output from your phone to your social page quicker than you can say Instagram. The unbelievable transformation from carving text into metal to clik-send blasted out of the gate in the late ’80s and hasn’t let up since.

By the late 1990s, less than a decade later, the conversion from analog to digital was all but complete.

Stroh’s was a legacy beer brewed in Detroit for decades before turning toes up in 1999 when the 150-year-old company sold its labels to Pabst and Miller. Ten years earlier this transitional ad ran and though cutting edge for its day now appears quaint by comparison.

print didn’t know its days were numbered

There are four distinct fault lines to look back at: copywriting, typesetting, effects, and reproduction. All but one (copywriting) concern the production side of advertising, and this example from 1989 was stripped entirely by hand, while the copy was typeset digitally but without the myriad controls over spacing, kerning, font selection, etc. we enjoy today. (View the original.)

  • typesetting The type is set per the style of the time as “tight and touching,” referring to the letter spacing, i.e. kerning, and to some extent word spacing as well. This made for a very compact line length, and a dense one as well. The “color” of the type would be considered dark, thanks to the restricted letter spacing. (Helvetica vs. Arial – which is which, and why.)
  • copywriting The Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties were the heyday for copywriters. Text flowed like a river from IBM Selectrics throughout the land, and the colorful, intelligent long copy prose that was written both to line and column length(!) before being sent out for typesetting represented an intellectual and marketing apex that’s been on a slow, downward slide since.
  • effects Masking was one of the few effects that could be done on film. Otherwise, art was sent to a retoucher for post photography manipulation. An essential tradecraft that involved X-Acto razor blades, Rubylith frisket, and an eye for painstaking detail, masking was (and is, only now done digitally) the process by which objects were separated from their surroundings for reproduction.  •  In this example, it looks like every element was handcut with its own window precisely scaled to size, and the four-color separated film was stripped into the film negative. The type had to match up exactly, and despite the abrupt line between the photo retouched drop shadow and background – the graduated feathering filter was yet to be invented – this was state-of-the-art for the day.
  • reproduction Finally, the four-color process involved a 133-line screen, standard then although considered amateurishly coarse today. You can easily see the halftones, or screen, in the shadow detail.

personal computers power efficient, sophisticated software

What happened next was a true revolution in how we communicate. A process virtually unchanged since the invention of flatbed printing by the Egyptians nearly 3,000 years ago was disrupted overnight by the introduction of the personal computer coupled with the development of Aldus PageMaker in the mid-1980s and the Knoll brothers’ Photoshop image editing program a few years later.

Digital production meant the end of individual communication arts trade crafts like typesetting, engraving, stripping, and a number of other unique to the industry disciplines. By the late 1990s, less than a decade later, the conversion from analog to digital was all but complete.

desktop publishing transforms the communication arts

In the two decades since those two applications paired with the early Mac and, to a lesser degree the first illustration programs, advances in hardware and software have transformed the look, speed, and style of how we present information, in print, online, and on mobile. The ad above that then required numerous hands and an abundance of tradecraft can easily be rendered today by one person in less than an hour.