The Cow Gum Kids

“This was what made the top art directors the rock stars of their profession“

As mine was the last generation to be trained classically in the traditional craft-based methods of graphic design production and, as there are very few of us left still working at the coal face, I thought it might be of interest to share a few memories of the pre-digital production process in a design studio back in the late 60s and early 70s when I was just starting out.

Back then, working in a design studio was a bit like being in a band. There was a hierarchy of creatives – art directors, designers, visualisers, artworkers and finally, the roadie of the band, the much-maligned studio junior. Each person had their own specialism and the emphasis was much more on teamwork than today. You relied on each other to produce high quality work and to meet deadlines as projects were, of necessity, generally produced on a conveyor belt system and passed down the production chain at each subsequent phase. In a labour intensive schedule there was no way of cutting corners as every phase of the project was produced by hand. It was a band of brothers and sisters working together for a common goal. Personally, I dedicated myself as much to becoming a producer of high quality artwork as being a good designer and visualiser as this gave you another string to your bow when looking for work, (in very short supply in the 1970s!). Immense satisfaction could be got from producing a piece of artwork that reflected the standards of the studio and the appreciation of client, colleagues and printer of a clean and accurate piece of work was reward enough for the extra time and care taken.

Design

Each art director had their own style for producing scamps, which were very rough illustrations used to showcase ideas to clients. Mainly roughed out in black and white, this is where the ability to draw was more than vital – an art director couldn’t do without drafting skills. Also the ability to think on your feet in brainstorming meetings and produce a visual of your idea on paper within seconds was paramount. This was what made the top art directors the rock stars of their profession. They had the ability to perform and create in a live environment in front of their audience and they were extremely skilful and valuable people and therefore quite rare.

From there the chosen concept would be passed on to the designer to draft up a finished visual of the selected concept on detail paper using pantone markers. This was still a very rough process and, again, depended on the designer’s drawing abilities. Some visualisers left their work very open at this stage using a slick style in order to be able to meet tight deadlines and not commit too much to the look of the final piece of work. The production of this phase of the project was usually starved of time, with the client impatient to see a close representation of the finished project. Each studio had a preferred visualising style depending, in some cases, on the preferences of the client and how close you were required to depict the final, printed project. For instance, in the blazing hot summer of 1976 I was working in a studio with a team of 10 designers each using paintbrush and gouache to laboriously colour photographic print outs to colour headline type! Slog was not the word and care had to be taken not to let drops of sweat ruin the finished piece.

Semi-artworking

Towards the end of my traditional-based career I used this skill to develop a style of visualising that, for the time, was almost a perfect facsimile of how the project would look when printed — I called it semi-artworking. It was based on producing a black and white base print from a rough artwork layout and working over it with coloured gouache. Images were cut and pasted from photo library catalogues, then quite a new thing. A real speciality was to use different materials to show print techniques that were just becoming popular. Metallic boards to show solid backgrounds of metallic ink, film overlays could be used to indicate selective varnishes and blocks could be cut and stamped from art board to depict solid areas of embossing. As you can imagine, all very labour intensive, but the clients appreciated it to such an extent that we won 10 pitches against other design companies in a row. Oh for that record nowadays!

Paul Dibbens in his studio in 1974

Artwork

Each studio had dedicated artworkers that worked up the camera-ready artwork ready to send to the printers. An in-depth knowledge of print technologies, typography, never-ending patience, care and attention to detail were the attributes of a good finished artist. The artwork would be drafted and pasted onto CS10 board (expensive so don’t waste) using drawing instruments and ink with any photosetting and studio camera print-outs pasted on to the board using cow gum (spraymount was yet to come). A particular skill in this process was the ability to accurately specify blocks of type for the photosetter using typescales. Photosetting was expensive and took time to obtain for a typesetting studio so when your beautiful, clean galleys of type finally arrived they had to fit perfectly or the deadline could be missed. Ancillary information such as extra artwork and colour guides would be placed on detail paper and transparency film overlays. Corrections to the text were always a major problem with a lot of them being made to individual letters being cut out of unused text and pasted onto the artwork – a sharp scalpel and the steady hand of a surgeon was needed at this phase.

Repro

A long forgotten art since the onset of the digital age and the final part of the pre-print process. I never found it necessary to take much interest in this phase other than you had to learn to read a wet-proof printed from the printers plates and understand how it related to the final printed version. Quite often produced by an independent repro house, theirs was a mysterious skill involving image scanning and lots of red film from where the finished wet proof mysteriously appeared. Again, it was very expensive to make any changes at this stage as the proofs were made from the printers plates, so all your preparatory artwork had to be got right first time. Then the proofs were signed off and the plates sent to the printer to do their thing and you could go off to the squash court, or pub or preferably both. Job done.

I produced my last major job using the traditional process in 1990 (The University of Warwick’s Annual Report 1989/90 – see header pic). Since then developments in computer technologies have made being a graphic designer so much easier. The slog has been taken out of the work and the creative possibilities have become boundless. If you had said to the young me back in 1970, how computers (then huge machines with revolving parts seen only on SciFi movies) would affect my career, it would have sounded totally improbable, like an episode from Lost In Space (Google it!). It was a shame the skills built over all those years had to be lost but the most important skill in a designer’s toolbox, his design eye, have proved to be as necessary today as they were back then.

The Graphic Designer Start-up Kit circa 1970

  • 1 x Drawing Board
  • 1 x Anglepoise Lamp
  • 1 x Set of Rapidographs
  • 1 x Clutch Pencil (with refill pack of blue leads)
  • 1 x Putty Rubber
  • 1 x Set of Drawing Pens
  • 1 x Set Pantone Markers (with plastic tray)
  • 1 x Pot of Cow Gum (with spreader)
  • 1 x Set of Drawing Instruments (set square, compass, protractor, circle guides etc)
  • 1 x Scalpel
  • 1 x Pack of Scalpel Blades (Swann Morton)
  • 1 x Type Ruler
  • 1 x Typographer’s Depth Scale (Geliot Whitman)
  • 1 x 24” Metal Ruler (for cutting)
  • 1 x Cutting Board
  • 1 x Polaroid Camera (for reference)
  • 1 x High End Camera (I used the Yashica Mat twin lens reflex)
  • Pantone Swatches
  • Letraset Library
  • Roll of Detail Paper
  • CS10 Art Board
  • Roll of Overlay Film
  • 1 x Packet Plasters (for scalpel and paper cuts

And finally… one Agfa Repromaster 3800 studio camera (better be polite to your bank manager – those babies cost a fortune).

With thanks and appreciation to all those colleagues, associates and suppliers I have worked with over a long career. If you ever get to read this do please get in touch and we can have a wander down Memory Lane. Happy days!

This article was written by Paul Dibbens at Mustard Design – please feel free to get in contact

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