Design Like It’s 1989

Compugraphic IV Typesetter

Compugraphic IV Typesetter

Do you know what the machine is in this picture? No? Give up? It’s a Compugraphic IV typesetting machine! Of course it is.

When I began my journey in graphics, working in quick print shops, one of my jobs was being the typesetter.

House of Wax

I DIDN’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT BEING A TYPESETTER, but I watched Johanna gracefully and speedily play the keyboard like a concert pianist. It was fascinating to watch her read typewritten and handwritten pages propped up on the viewing clip and transforming them into justified columns of type in really cool fonts like Cooper Black, Souvenir, Benguiat, Korinna and Gill Sans.

I wanted to do that! So I asked if I could learn, and she showed me how to load the filmstrips that contained the fonts and which buttons to press to change sizes and widths and load the photographic typesetting paper, which would later be exposed like film, dried, and then sent through a waxer so it could be applied to the “boards.”

The Wheel of Heat

It was really a lot of fun, especially when I would put the “galleys” in upside-down through the waxer and then have to spend the next two hours scraping wax off the type so it wouldn’t have to be re-done. But, I learned.

I used my skills at print shops in Colorado and Florida and at the Florida Flambeau newspaper. The Flambeau was the independent newspaper for Florida State University, where I got my Bachelor’s. The office was located in the Ogelsby Student Union in a crowded set of rooms, filled with machines, people, and supplies. The woman who sold Classified ads was housed in a cage-like room next to me. I shared a room with Darryl, a designer, Jay, another designer, and sometimes the ad salespeople—Amy and Glenda. It was a lot of fun. The editorial department had several typesetters, but they seemed to get “sick” a lot. George, the manager, asked me to sub one night and I agreed. It turned into a daily occurrence. I would get a call on my phone (attached to the wall in my kitchen) around 11pm, and go in and set type for a few hours. I am a fast typist, and the Compugraphic machines were not able to keep up with me, so I would start typing on one machine, let it chug, go to the next and type on that and then go to the third and continue. By the time I finished on the third machine, the first set of galleys were ready for the big “wheel of heat” they were set on to dry. And so it goes. After a few weeks, it got to be too much. I was a full-time student, art director for Quick Printing magazine, president of the illegal Backgammon club, a fencer, and a volunteer for the Union Program Office. But, this was the overachieving 80s, so why not!

Typesetter From the Future

That experience helped a great deal when we transitioned over to “desktop publishing” in the 1990s.



The first computerized typesetting/layout program I used was Bestinfo’s Superpage. It ran on an IBM 386 that had a black screen and orange characters and took about an hour to load a headline. It would only run if it had a “dongle” plugged into the printer port on the back. When we finally abandoned Bestinfo, we ceremoniously disassembled that device and buried it. Often, I was unable to print from the program. I did learn a neat little trick that worked great: I would use the command line (this was DOS) and type: copy lpt1:. Bestinfo created a PostScript file (.ps) and I simply copied the file to the printer port (lpt1). Cool, huh!

Then from there, it was a series of programs, from PageMaker and FreeHand to Quark to InDesign. They got better over time and do more than anyone could have dreamt of with an endless variety of fonts, sizes, and graphic integration.

There have been several other programs that have been developed, such as Scribus, which does a good job, as well as LucidPress, and others. But, I must say, I do miss the days when I would cut galleys with an X-Acto knife, and then dig the blade out of my knee after I dropped it slumped over my T-Square, triangle and Rapidograph at my drafting table.