The walls of SFMOMA

Men of Letters Poster Exhibited in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 25" x 37", (series shown above)

TYPEFACE TO INTERFACE, SFMOMA, May 14 – October 23, 2016

Analog days.

I am honored that my poster has been selected to be in the ‘Typeface to Interface’ exhibition debuting as part of the SFMOMA’s renovation grand opening. SFMOMA acquired this poster (and several other works) from me in 1992 for their permanent collection. The expansion is a breathtaking event for the museum and I am excited to be a miniscule part of its premier exhibitions. I am particularly thrilled to be on the walls of an exhibition that acknowledges one of the most dramatic transitions in graphic design history. I’m talking about time when we shifted from working in an analog process to working digitally. This poster was designed and produced entirely in an analog fashion and may have been the last poster to come out of my studio without the use of the computer.

1991.

San Francisco was still getting back on its feet after the 1989 earthquake. We had just completed our newly designed studio after having lost our previous studio in the shakeup. Along with new digs was a brand new Macintosh Classic computer (our third Apple) that perched on my office manager’s desk aside her black IBM Selectric typewriter. It had a 9-inch monochrome CRT display, 4 megabytes of memory and used 3.5-inch floppy disks. It was very beige. Its primary function was word processing and accounting and occasional gaming by my kids (Manhole) when I brought them in on weekends.

We experimented with typesetting on the Mac but were disappointed to discover the dreadful kerning (letter-spacing) and generally poor rendering of each character. The fact was we loved our typographers and were in no hurry to set our own type—or change many of our work habits for that matter. We made things by hand. For example, we made ‘photostats’ using a massive camera and made ‘mechanicals’ for printing by pasting up type repros on hot-pressed matte board. We sat at huge drawing boards armed with Mayline T-squares, non-repro blue pencils, Rapidograph pens, X-acto knives, amberlith, masking tape, kneaded erasers, rubber cement and the ever-toxic Bestine solvent. It was possible to get cut or poisoned on any given day on the job. Everyone got their hands dirty. Photographers shot on film, illustrators used paint, print tradesmen stripped together negatives on light tables, and typographers set type with expensive equipment and precision fonts—providing kerning and proof-reading with every word. Their type repros were usually delivered via bike messenger with a walkie-talkie on his/her hip. Printers operated 4 and 6-color presses and burned through mountains of paper in effort to ‘dial in’ the perfectly registered sheet. The speed of business was dictated by how long it took each of us to do our respective job—often in concert with one another. We made it our business to learn about each other’s business.

About this poster.

There was no doubt there was something ‘digital’ looming in the air and we all felt both excited and uneasy about what might lie ahead. The fact was ‘desktop publishing’ was about to infect every design studio in America—like it or not. As a design firm we were nervous, but no one was more anxious than typographers that had a million-plus dollars of equipment on their floor and balance sheet. This could get bad.

Since I didn’t really want to add the job of typesetting to our studio duties, I decided to throw my worry behind our typographer to try to help save their operation. They were Display Lettering and Typography (owned by Stephanie and Michael Varisto) and were the premier typesetter in San Francisco—at least in my opinion. Life without them was not desirable.

I decided to design a series of posters. The goal was simple—to remind the design community how beautiful, necessary and essential ‘real’ type was to our work. I wanted to show that type was not just words to read but a compositional element as integral to design as photography or any other visual component. I wanted this to be a not-so-subtle reminder that type isn’t some commodity that was just a function of typing on a keyboard and picking a font. Ultimately, typography was only as good as the people and equipment setting it. If you loved type—like me—you had a dog in this fight.

The concept was simple. Super-graphic photos of men contorted in the shapes of letters, surrounded by compositions of notable words set in multiple typefaces and configurations—all printed as giant black-and-white posters. I would design three of these posters and call them ‘Men of Letters.’

I assembled a team of comrades. John Casado took the black and white photographs (printed on paper from negatives). Jeff Hurn supplied me with a treasure trove of pithy quotes from authors from Kurt Vonnegut and Samuel Beckett to Ellen DeGeneres. Display Lettering set mountains of type. My designers Deborah Hagemann and Rene Rosso assembled the mechanical artwork for printing. ColorTech made the duotone separations. Robert Locke, Timm Crull and Richard Lawless of Watermark Press printed a few thousand of each. No one charged a nickel.

The posters were distributed generously. But by 1994, Display Lettering and most San Francisco typographers had folded up their tents. My studio, (and most others) were now setting our own type on our Apple computers—complete with mediocre letter-spacing and frequent typos. The digital tsunami was simply too big and we had lost the war. But what survived is a collection of posters that document a time in history that will certainly never return. A work product made by hand—by friends, for friends. And that’s an analog thing.

A quote from the poster:

“The higher a monkey climbs, the more you see of his behind.” –General Joe Stillwell