Autobiography of Malcolm XHTML

How I wound up spending the most of four decades looking at screens.

My first full-time employer Gregory Fosella Associates. Fresh out of art school...

I Want to Be a Phone: promotional postcard

I Want to Be a Phone: Promotional postcard

...I was hired as a production artist and junior graphic designer 1986. Making professional art was a lot more tactile back then. "Camera-ready art" meant building a "mechanical", which was a thick board with multiple layers of acetate, paste-up (typography or art glued to the acetate) and instructions for the offset printer. Sacrificing fingertips to the Exacto blade gods in production was considered a rite of passage, especially after being up for 36 hours on Jolt cola and hermit bars. Ah, the good old days.

The industry's technology hadn't changed in a century. Individual tools got more sophisticated, but the workflow process hadn't. Speculative mockups were hand-drawn (colored pencil or professional magic markers) and mounted on presentation boards. Typography was produced by paying a type house. Artwork was formatted with line screens on stat cameras. These elements were cut out and glued on acetate, which was then positioned by hand with registration marks. Graphic designers and illustrators handled the artistic expression. Proof readers were still considered a valuable asset. Account managers were responsible for client dialogue. Production artists built mechanicals from client-approved mockups.

Sometime around Black Monday, things changed. Computer companies, specifically the three-headed monster of Apple, Adobe and Microsoft, became more important than my killer paste-up skills. Inspired by John Lennon, employers "imagined a world" without production artists, stat cameras, proof readers, type houses and offset printers. This transition meant I was in danger of being washed-up at 26 years old.

Notes from the Underground

I borrowed an old friend's computer, an Apple Mac Plus ("loaded" with System 6). The machine had a ton of software, which allowed me to self-train at nights after work. With no printed manuals, the training moved slowly. At this time, as a broke-ass artsy dreamer, I lived in the Central Square neighborhood of Cambridge Massachusetts. About a mile away was Harvard Square's Wordsworth Books, which had a terrific computer section.

Whenever I got stuck with a Photoshop or FreeHand problem at home, I'd:

  • write the problem on my pocket-sized notebook
  • bicycle to Wordsworth
  • research, write the solution
  • barrel down Massachusetts Avenue at a furious pace, trying to get back home before losing the solution (sometimes my handwriting sucked)

I built a portfolio that eventually landed some temp work. Back then, they were hiring anyone who could turn on a Mac. At this point, however, my desktop publishing skills weren't as strong as other designers. Evidently, some namby-pambies chose to learn in accredited schools, with books and qualified instructors. Feh!

My preference was to get in situations way over my head, learn while trying my best, get fired, repeat. I always knew more leaving an assignment than I did going in. Eventually, the mistakes were smaller and less frequent, while the quality of my work got better. By 1990, I was known as a reliable deadline-hitter.

Didn't We Learn Anything from John Connor?

Like your friendly neighborhood drug dealer, corporations created a global dependency on their product. They correctly guessed that the short-term expense of the new technology would be offset by long-term profits. Several elements aligned to form the new dependency:

  • Apple Computer sucessfully promoted their "user-friendly" interface
  • storing data on disk consumed less space than colored file folders
  • shifting from a Fortune 500 model to individual consumers, hardware companies lowered their pricing

The end result: disguised as smiling servants, computers invaded our world. Somewhere, H.G. Wells and Nat Turner must be laughing.

Your pal Dave, now hoping to be an iPhone