PageMaker, Illustrator, and the advent of digital publishing

Who remembers Aldus PageMaker? I do; without it, I wouldn’t be celebrating a 35-year career as a graphic designer.

In late 1987, I worked as a technician in the engineering department of a major commercial food service equipment company in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. We made the big refrigerators, freezers, and preparation tables that restaurants use in their kitchens. Specifically, I was responsible for the “bills of materials,” which were the long lists of components that went into the building of each of our models, including stainless steel parts, compressors, wiring, gauges, and my pet peeve, screws.

One day, the company announced it would absorb the products from a related manufacturer in Florida. They would build and market this new line of equipment in just thirty days. My wife, Doreen, was responsible for marketing communications, so she contacted the commercial printer we usually used to design and print catalogs and product information sheets for a quote. The price was acceptable; the timeframe was not. Six weeks minimum at rush prices, eight to ten weeks if the usual process was followed.

This was unacceptable. Another solution was needed.

I’d recently bought a new computer: a Macintosh Plus. (I bought the Plus, which had one whole megabyte of memory instead of the 128K that came with the standard Mac because the salesman had assured me that was “all the memory anyone would ever need” since PCs at the time had only 64K of RAM. We know how that’s worked out.) I’d been playing with MacPaint and MacDraw and had experimented with laying out a “zine” that I was the publisher of using the Mac instead of a typewriter.

Doreen told me her problem at dinner one evening, and I was silly enough to suggest that perhaps I could produce a small catalog with the new products using my Mac. She was equally silly enough to take that suggestion to her boss, who completed the silly trifecta by agreeing to the offer.

Two weeks later, using only MacDraw, I had sixteen printed pages ready for the commercial print shop. When he saw them, their rep almost refused to touch them. They were high-resolution dot matrix pages, and I could tell he was offended by the suggestion that his company was expected to print something from them. A reminder that our company could take the rest of our business elsewhere convinced him to accept the order, which, while not the same quality as the rest of our printed materials, was on time and did the job.

My wife’s boss was happy. Not only had they gotten the mini-catalog they’d needed on short notice, but my work was less expensive because it took less time and was less labor-intensive. I made a nice bit of money on the project; it was nearly a fifth of my annual salary then. I continued to create marketing communications print materials for them for the next six months and soon realized that I was making far more doing that than I was drawing screws badly. So I hung out my shingle, starting a small graphic design studio in downtown Mount Pleasant. As I added clients, I upgraded my equipment and software: an Apple LaserWriter and a 20MB hard drive (which cost $900 used – I’d done my early work swapping 1.4 MB disks between the built-in and external floppy drives on the Mac!).

But the most important upgrades were new software tools: Aldus PageMaker, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe Photoshop. PageMaker (happily) replaced MacDraw as my page layout program. It allowed entire pages to be composed on the screen for the first time, including imported images. Illustrator allowed me to create logos, graphics, and technical illustrations. Photoshop gave me the power to do photo editing that had previously only been possible in a well-equipped darkroom. All from the (relative) comfort of my desk.

Once I was happy with a layout, I could print proofs or finished pages on the LaserWriter or send the files (via 56K modem) to my provider in East Lansing, who produced high-resolution pages for delivery to the commercial printer.

Before “desktop publishing,” print design and layout were largely manual processes. Some type was still set using hot metal slugs by typesetting machines, but most type was created by specialized (and expensive!) phototypesetting equipment. Phototype output was then separated and laid out manually, along with any accompanying illustrations or photos. (These graphics were known as “cuts” because the photo negative that would produce the finished printing plate needed to be cut with an X-Acto knife to allow those images to be inserted.)

In short, the whole process was labor- and time-intensive and could be expensive. Laying out a magazine or catalog could take several days to even weeks.

Then Apple launched the Macintosh in 1984. While there were many notable aspects of this new direction in personal computing, including using a mouse as an input device, from a designer’s point of view, the Mac’s higher resolution display (compared to what you could do on a PC running MS-DOS or, later, early versions of Microsoft Windows) allowed the creation of images that, when printed, actually looked like what had been created on the computer. This meant that What You See Is What You Get (“WYSIWYG,” pronounced “whizzy-wig”), and this was revolutionary.

Initially, there weren’t many options for getting WYSIWYG output, though. Apple’s ImageWriter, while able to print at a somewhat higher resolution than existing printers, was still a dot-matrix printer. And the available software to create images was initially limited to MacPaint for bitmap (photo-like) images and MacDraw for early vector-based illustrations.

Two things happened that turned the Macintosh from a cute toy that could make better pictures than a PC into the catalyst for the desktop publishing movement.

First, Apple introduced the LaserWriter, the first mass-market laser printer that could easily be connected to a personal computer, in this case, their own Macintosh. The LaserWriter included a printing-specific computer language called PostScript that could translate the images created on a Macintosh into printer code that would allow high-resolution output on a laser printer. (High-end electronic typesetting equipment from Linotype and other manufacturers also used PostScript, which meant even higher-quality output for full-color print materials was also available.)

Second, professional-quality software was developed and released to the general public. The company that had developed PostScript, Adobe Systems, released its first software program, Illustrator, in 1987, followed by Photoshop in 1989. Aldus released version 4.0 of PageMaker in 1990, which included built-in word processing tools, advanced typography, and improved handling of longer documents, making it the de facto standard in desktop publishing. Adobe Systems bought Aldus in 1995, and PageMaker became part of the Adobe family.

Finished pages from LaserWriter printers or Linotype devices still had to be photographed and turned into printing plates at the commercial printer’s facility, but the ability to create printed works had moved from the hands of a few to the hands of many.

This also meant that many folks with little graphic design training or experience could enter the field. (Check Wikipedia for the “Ransom note effect” to see one of the downsides of this.) While my education was in cartography, and I’d done some work in newspaper and publication design, I’ll honestly admit that I was among the inexperienced at that time. I took my newfound access seriously, though, and using these new tools created work as good as that created by traditional layout processes but also broke new ground, creating print work that couldn’t have been economically produced just a few years earlier.

So here I am, 35 years later, one of the early “desktop publishers.” I’m proud to have been a pioneer in digital print production and been on the leading edge of the next step as paper has been gradually supplanted by online publishing via websites and digital distribution via PDF (another Adobe invention). It’s hard to imagine it’s been that long ago because the web still feels new to me (though many younger people have never lived in a world where digital communication wasn’t completely pervasive). I wonder what the next 35 years will bring!