Tools of the Trade

July 7, 2009 · 2 comments

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I‘m a web designer, but every now and then my print background bleeds through. I’ll find myself telling a client “Let’s push that left margin over two more picas,” or “I think we can indent the paragraphs two ems.” I can’t help it, it’s how I learned to think about composing a page.

When Aldus PageMaker – the first page layout program – was released in 1985, I was able to use it right out of the box because it replicated the pasteboard-and-type-strip method that I used to compose newspaper pages. The big change for me was having all of the measurement tools built in – a real luxury.

What got me thinking about this was my finding The Museum of Lost Art Supplies, a photo gallery of old and obsolete tools from the graphics arts trade. I was surprised at how many of those objects were familiar to me. Then I realized that I had quite a few of my own, some of which were within arm’s reach of my desk.

Here’s a collection of type gagues:

Type Gagues

These were used to determine the point size and leading of type that was already set in print. Here’s a close-up of the top left gague:

Type Gague

What amazes me about these tools is the persistence of Times and Helvetica as canonical examples of serif and sans-serif type. Some things never change.

I still rely on these items:

More tools

The color chart is a modern one with web-safe colors. The magnifying loupe gets used more often as my eyesight deteriorates. The proportion wheel is faster than a calculator, only because of all the years I relied on it. (It’s a circular slide rule, but “proportion wheel” sounds cooler.) The ruler at the bottom is calibrated in points and picas (72 points to an inch, 12 points to a pica, 6 picas to an inch), I hold it up to my monitor to measure object sizes on screen.

Did you ever wonder why the guides in Photoshop are blue? That color used to be called “non-repro blue,” a shade that didn’t appear on film negatives and was therefore used to mark up pasteboards.

Each object in the museum has a story, but very few of them will survive many more years. I enjoyed the brief trip down memory lane, but have managed to put many of those tools behind me (although I still code my CSS declarations in ems).

I won’t even mention why I still have a can of Bestine (pure heptane solvent) in the basement.

2 comments

Bryan July 7, 2009 at 10:08 pm

Clearly, you haven’t moved around enough. I think I lost the last of my nonrepro blue pencils years ago. Though I still have a steel pica ruler, because it makes a nice straight-edge for an x-acto knife.

David July 8, 2009 at 10:47 am

I knew you’d chime in. Of course, I still have the same steel ruler and x-acto knife, but I no longer use the offset blades.

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