Professional Typography & Design: The Path to Technomancy, Part 3

After I was hired to be a DTP monkey, I applied and refined my wild layouts, but had to tone them down quite a bit for business documents. (Wired back then was tame compared to my unrefined layout.) Being a bit of a perfectionist that cares about anything I do—whether paid or not—I started studying proper typography: I learned the difference between the hyphen, N-dash and M-dash, what x-height was and how to match serif and non-serif fonts. I studied the art of graphic design, the concepts and research behind the guidelines so I knew when I could break the rules and get away with it. I found traditional reports stuffy and boring. So, when I got the chance, I started refreshing the look of the company documents.

Before that — less than a few months after I was hired — a real graphic designer was contracted and produced 6 samples of possible report layout and design changes — none of which worked for my manager nor our CEO. The designs weren’t bad, but they didn’t quite reflect the concept and attitude of our company. After the designer left, they asked me for my honest opinion. I told them that I could do better. But instead of a complete and sudden overhaul, I would change things over time and work organically to experiment with what worked and what didn’t. I applied my “push to edge” technique and color knowledge to increase ease of understanding reports and improve the overall aesthetic. Each week I would change one or two small elements. I would run those changes by my bosses. They only balked once or twice over about 9 months of a two week long design cycle. I myself only trashed one small graphic element since it was way too cutting edge for the clients: stock traders and analysts. I used none of the ideas in the 6 prototypes the graphic designer showed us as far as I know. Frankly, I had forgotten what was specifically presented. I’m not 100% certain if it had zero influence on my design choices because I didn’t even see them after the initial assessment.

My supervisor and boss joked about my meticulousness and asked why I took the trouble to make such tiny changes. It was such a subtle change and they probably wouldn’t have gone for it had I not explained the psychological element to layout most people never consciously realize. I think they also realize that I “got it.” “It” being the fundamental concepts and mindset of our company.

During my tenure there, every few weeks I would play with the layout just a bit. I would introduce more and more aesthetically pleasing designs, play with elements and occasionally pitch stronger changes. They were cleaner but actually had more visual indicators to help absorb the information faster. Had I known about Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, it would have saved my months of organic learning. I learned to make my designs flexible: when a new format was needed I had evolved the visual design into a system that I simply dropped in new elements as they were invented. As new capabilities were added, I modified the visual language to include them and also account for backwards compatibility such as black and white printing, etc. While leveraging color printing to denote a standard color convention for reports. All reports where designed in color even though most were only looked at in black & white: it was a Superman TV series circa 1950 inspired move.

I disliked auto-hyphenation and turned that off and would hyphenate by hand using “smart” hyphens that would disappear if the word did not need to be hyphenated after an edit. It took longer, but I never had that awkward four letter word stretched across a shorted line or anything that would distract the reader from the content of the article. Our copy editor got so used to seeing things done “properly” that if one did get by me she thought the program had made a mistake, not that I had not noticed the need for a hyphen. The first time she actually mentioned it during casual conversation, is when she learned that I was hand hyphenating everything.

When a pie chart was called for, I hand made pie charts by turning circles I had used a radial degree tool to divide up and squash into faux 3D charts in Illustrator. This was before DeltaGraph existed—and even that wasn’t flexible enough for me, so I stuck with hand made charts, with hand-made gradients and drop shadows.* I pulled out the significant slices to emphasize the content of the copy. Pulling out a pie slice of emphasizing parts of a graph wasn’t a capability of any charts app at that time (and many to this day) had that I know of. There might have been in house ones used by major news media and ones that cost a few thousand dollars for all I know, gut not wanting to spend the money, I never looked into seeing if there was such a thing. Rather than it becoming drudgery to do this over and over for years, I actually enjoyed the zen of making those after a while, and could whip out a completed pie chart — shaded, graded and all — in less than 20 minutes.

One thing I did not like was correcting punctuation. I had many reports to edit for proper typography, and decided much of my work could be automated. I wrote a Microsoft Word macro I entitled “The Cleaner” that cleaned up copy for layout. It had many features that saved a world of time and had many features. At this point, I can’t remember everything it did because I added features to it as I noticed common typographic errors. It took hours to make, but each use saved about 15 minutes of hand edits. After a thousands of reports over the years there, those hours spent refining it were well worth it. At a reporter summit, I offered all the reporters the macro so they could use it as well, along with an explanation of the what and why of computer aided typesetting differences from traditional typewriting. I recommend Robin Williams’ book, The Mac is Not a Typewriter to anyone interested in learning more since it was more accessible. I had read the book when it was first published and it enhanced my standards and opened my eye for detail.

I also decided on the initial pull quotes that reflected the tone of the reports, and would collaborate with our copy editor that would pull alternate quotes that were more reflective of the content of the article. Most of the time the pull quotes I chose were the final ones, but as time went on our copy editor — a super woman of copy editing — got better and better at finding even better ones. For the most part I stayed out of the actual act of copy-proofing unless it was a technical article where our copy editor misunderstood a technical term and changed the meaning of something. But over about 3 years it happened less than a handful of times. Still, I made sure our reports on the technology industry were accurate.

This was all in addition to my MIS/IT management duties. I fell into that when my managing editor had a simple (for me) problem that took me a few minutes to correct. After they realized I knew more about computers than just how to open Adobe and use products, they started coming to me for advice on equipment.

One day I asked our CFO how much the reports cost to print, and the number floored me. I told him that we were paying about thrice the actual cost of printing them. He asked me for numbers to back up my claim. I looked into it for hard numbers and came back to him a week later with a projected ROI of ~3 months, and an annual savings of tens of thousands of dollars.

I was able to pick out our first color laser printer, digital camera, scanner, made a computer upgrade plan, and was able to acquire the things we need to make our jobs both easier and more efficient. I learned a lot about comparing all sorts of technology and would look up any technology terms I didn’t understand. For instance, I learned what dynamic range is and why it is significant to know for judging the quality of digital-optical equipment (scanners, cameras). It was very educational and fulfilling knowing that I was saving the company money by really going over equipment with a fine tooth comb before purchase.

I developed a few guidelines for choosing equipment: The 20%-30% headroom rule, a 3-year replacement and hand-me-down cycle, the forward compatibility rule, and the one step behind bleeding edge rule, among others. I still use this approach and guidelines in any purchase, from my car to television, and it has served me very well.

Our CFO was a sharp guy and a penny pincher, as he should have been, but over time he realized I was also very thrifty and if I recommended it, it was probably a frugal choice. Eventually, I would just ask him if I could get something, he ask “why”? I would tell him, he’d say “okay,” and hand me the company card. The interaction often took less than 5 minutes, and became virtually frictionless. After  while, I had unintentionally memorized the AmEx number, and the salesperson of the our main computer supplier and I were on a first name basis. I could call, say my first name, and he would know who I was. The CFO was also a very cool guy I got along with well regardless of how easy he made it to accomplish things. He still tells the best stories I hear.

He also knew I would often spend my own money for props for graphics and not submit the receipts for reimbursement if it was less than $10. So, he probably understood that I was trustworthy. (I did have full access to all systems and data if I needed it after all, but I never used it.) My philosophy was that it would cost him more in time to issue reimbursements than the money I’d recoup. So, it became increasingly easy to request things. If something I asked for was less than $50 he would usually just okay it without asking for any good reason. Often he simply asked, “Do we need it?” and I would say, “Yes”or “No, but I think it might be useful.”  I can’t remember who it was, but someone told me I was foolish spending my own money when it could be reimbursed. What they didn’t realize is that that $10–$20 a month saved me time and hassle worth 10 times the amount I shelled out.

They started calling me the Tech Guru, and I handled all purchases if it had electronics in it. Once, I was handed the company AmEx Platinum card and told to go out and get an entertainment system for the conference room. I asked, “What’s the budget?” My CEO asked, “What would a decent but modestly prices system cost?” I answered with a bottom, middle and top number, and he said to try to stay within the top number. Trust and a solid professional reputation are great things to have, and they are worth more than money.

The level of freedom I had was incredible, and unrivaled in any other company I have worked for: it was a great place to work for a long time.


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