From the lost art of acetate overlays and X-ACTO knives to desktop publishing and using a mouse to websites and social media.
In 1984, Billy Lee asked if I’d be interested in working at his family’s newspaper, The Sacramento Observer. They had an opening that they needed to fill and Billy offered to teach me everything about newspaper production. He taught me about newspaper columns, single and double-truck layout, and proper margins; non-repro blue pens; layout sheets, acetate overlays, and Rubylith; border line tape; PICA pole rulers and X-ACTO knives; how to calculate percentages when enlarging/reducing photographs, and how to process Ilford film with stop-bath and fixer in their walk-in darkroom.
My experience at The Sacramento Observer perfectly prepared me for early 1986, when I started work at PennySaver in Ranch Cordova, CA. Management eventually put me in charge of the 7-person ad production art department. Two years later, in 1988, PennySaver bought an Apple Macintosh SE – which they kept in the manager’s office so none of us would break it. It’s the first time I’d ever seen a Macintosh in person. Desktop publishing was coming!
In the beginning of 1989, I joined the art department at now-defunct Sunrise Sales in Sparks, NV (near Reno), learning all about t-shirt artwork design under the tutelage of artist Michael Thill (who designed beautiful 7-color hand-drawn illustrations and full-color CMYK art for high-end satin jackets). I eventually designed and printed my first 1-color t-shirt, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, using Letraset Dry Transfer Letters and border line tape on a clear acetate overlay, enlarged the art with a darkroom enlarger, burned the art onto a silk screen, and manually squeegeed the Plastisol t-shirt ink onto the shirt. I still have one of the original t-shirts 🙂
In 1990, Jim Minor hired me as art director for his advertising agency, Minor Advertising, in Reno, NV. Minor invested in a desktop publishing-focused art department with new Apple Macintosh computers and Apple laser & color printers. I stayed after-hours many nights getting up-to-speed with Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, and Aldus Pagemaker (before Adobe bought them).
In this role I built relationships with top talent, including Tom Carver, co-founder of design firm Carver Letcher Miller (CLM); Marjie Swiatek, lead sales at Dynagraphics Printing, where I learned about 6-color printing, metallic inks, paper stock, and press-checks; and Rob (whose last name I no longer recall) who owned Reno Type, the go-to prepress service bureau and color separator in the early 90s, where I learned about CMYK film, overprint techniques, and color proofs.
Jim Minor fired me in 1992, and for good reason. I sucked at proof-reading. And after the 3rd time a client discovered a misspelling in an expensive full-color brochure, Jim had to let me go. I learned a hard lesson: people don’t trust me when I’ve been warned – twice – and continue to be lazy!
Striking out on my own was a scary eye-opener. Started a tiny one-person company called STON Graphics (pronounced like stone but with no “e” on the end) with an office on Roff Way in Reno. I also started to use Aldus Freehand for layout during this time.
My first real new client was one of Reno’s high-end restaurants in the early 1990s, Adele’s at the Plaza. I got this client by re-designing their late night menu – for free. And when I showed my version to the owner, Paul Abowd, he ended up having me re-design all of his menus over the next few years.
During the mid-1990s, designing CD covers for ~30 bands was the next big push after meeting Tom Gordon, recording engineer at Granny’s House Recording Studio in Reno.
By 1999 I’d named my graphic design business eyeboxgraphics (everything was lowercase back then) and all of my clients were starting to ask me about designing a website for them. The leap from print materials like business cards, brochures, and CD covers to website design was terrifying! I didn’t know jack-shit about HTML.
I spent 3 painstaking months building my first website using a WYSIWYG editor called NetObjects Fusion. And Barnes & Noble quickly became my go-to web design research location: grabbing 5-6 HTML books, a cup of coffee, and researching how to change the color of hyperlink text.
From 2000-2005 I built websites using Macromedia’s WYSIWYG editor called Dreamweaver. And all of the graphics, especially the cool-looking menu bars with roll-over effects, were created with a combination of Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.
In 2005, my brother Lance brought me on board to design a website with his team – and to deliver a final CSS file for the project. This was another huge leap forward design-wise, so I immediately bought the CSS for Dummies book! This same year I also started building WordPress websites for clients. WordPress provided a Content Management System (CMS) that Dreamweaver didn’t have. My clients wanted to be able to make minor changes to their Dreamweaver-built websites, like change some text or swap out an image, but couldn’t because they didn’t know Dreamweaver or HTML.
Fast-forward to 2016, and I finally decided to replace Adobe Illustrator with something new. I’d been using Adobe Illustrator since 1990 – twenty-six years. Now I was jumping ship to Affinity Designer. And in 2017, I switched from Adobe Photoshop to Affinity Photo. Couldn’t be happier!
In 2018 I started designing t-shirt graphics again. A design called Every Floor Is A Dance Floor™ really got traction on Instagram, so I built a WordPress and WooCommerce shopping cart website around it. And I now use a print-on-demand technology from Printful drop shipping and fulfillment to provide on-demand t-shirt printing. Damn, this sure is a long way from when I designed and printed my first t-shirt (Mozart) 30 years ago in 1989.
As of 2019, there’s a jungle of design sizes to keep track of: YouTube’s 16:9 ratio. Instagram’s 1:1 and 4:5 ratios for the feed, and 9:16 ratio for Stories. Facebook and Twitter each have their respective preferred pixel sizes for posts.
Like the X-ACTO knife and computer mouse of the past, my smartphone is now an integral design tool: camera, video recorder, even minor image editor. I use iMovie, HitFilm Express, and lately DiVinci Resolve, to edit videos I’ve shot with my smartphone. Then I use Affinity Photo and/or Designer to design the YouTube thumbnail art. Same for designing social media ads: smartphone to capture stills and video; Affinity Photo and/or Designer for graphic design; video editing.
Even grabbing screenshots on my smartphone has become a regular part of the design process, which includes trimming with a photo editing app and posting to social media. I also use Canva (.com and App) to layout motivational phrases as single images, or multiple images for Instagram’s 10-image gallery.