Kemistry's Graham McCallum on 100 years of design changing technology and technology changing design

By Graham McCallum | co-founder

February 13, 2015 | 5 min read

Most of you will have heard by now about the Doves typeface, which was thrown into the Thames at the beginning of the last century and, amazingly, recovered by Robert Green this year. Now of course a digital version of what was once an exclusive typeface can be downloaded by anyone at any size, no longer restricted to the 16pt original.

I suppose that story is as good a measure of the huge change that has swept through the graphic design business in the last century as any other. The revolution from analogue to digital has completely altered the method of work. The old craft skills on which graphic design depended are gone along with the tools of the trade.

I recently went to see the Abram Games exhibition at The Jewish Museum. One exhibit reconstructed his working environment with the easel, pens, brushes, sketch and reference books he used to design his wonderful posters. For one of today’s designers, the exhibit would simply consist of a screen and keyboard – not quite so evocative and romantic an image.

There have been other changes to the way we designers work. Quarto, a paper size that was introduced by Gutenberg and a product of the last great revolution – the invention of the printing press – has joined foolscap, antiquarian and the wonderfully named Double Elephant in the dustbin, to be replaced by a very logical German IOS system.

The transition from analogue to digital hasn’t always been easy. In 1984, Rupert Murdoch moved all his titles to a new site in Wapping. The days of the hot metal typesetting and labour-intensive Linotype machine were over. Now, journalists could not only write their copy but also compose the page and send it direct to print.

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The print unions weren’t happy to say the least. They massed at Wapping in an ultimately futile bid to stop the inevitable change. Angry scenes followed, police lines were stretched and Samantha Fox, the erstwhile Page 3 model, was sent across the picket line atop a tank, just to drive Murdoch’s point home.

In my industry, television, similar changes were happening although not quite so violently opposed. At the time I was a graphic designer at the BBC and one day a memo went round to say a new bit of equipment was being demonstrated. Only a couple of us turned up to what turned out to be a genuinely jaw-dropping moment.

Before us was a TV monitor with a large ceramic tablet connected to a computer. The young inventor, Nick Tanton, proceeded to draw on the tablet with a stylus, the marks appearing on screen. It was something that never occurred to us could happen. In a moment, the world quite simply changed.

I was fortunate to work for three months alongside Nick and others to try to make the newly named ‘Flair’ into a useful graphic tool. Type was a special problem due to the screen resolution. We pored over tapestries and samplers to see how they had solved the ‘jaggy edge’ problem with their simpler matrix. Clever people eventually came up with anti-aliasing that fooled the eye into thinking edges were smooth.

This has always been the relationship between graphic designers and technology. I think it was Engels who said: “The hand changes nature and nature changes the hand”. In our case it’s design changes technology and technology changes design. It’s always been a symbiotic relationship. Designers pushing for the next thing and technology answering the new need and suggesting further possibilities.

The digital revolution was remarkably swift. The 80s ushered in the new era. During that decade many businesses failed to adapt. Casualties such as phototypesetting companies and film optical houses failed to survive. Artworkers, typesetters, cel animators and other craft skills were no longer needed as the now ubiquitous Macs sucked everything into their sleek grey boxes.

Graphic design is now truly democratised. Once a rather arcane profession, today anyone can have a go and they frequently do with decidedly mixed results. Designers’ work rate is now turbo-charged. Where once logo design went from sketchbook to finished artwork to printer-ready artwork at a leisurely pace, today’s designers are expected to produce ten or more versions a day. The knock on effect is that the expectation from clients is greater.

Fortunately one thing that hasn’t changed is the desire to communicate through original thought. No amount of technology will help with that. The organisation of type, colour and picture to express a powerful idea will always be the defining role of graphic design and where the real value lies.

Graham McCallum is the co-founder of Kemistry Gallery, the UK’s only gallery dedicated to graphic design. Kemistry hosts its pop-up exhibition ‘100 Years of Graphic Design’ from 7-15 March at Protein Studios. You can find more info on the gallery's website.

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