Vintage In-Design: How magazines and books were designed before computers

By Orana Velarde 2 years ago


If you use a program like inDesign to format your e-books, brochures, magazines or any other print material, you will have noticed how easy it is to put together a great looking piece print ready artwork. If you are a new or relatively young designer then a program like in-Design is all you need to format your work.




On the other hand if you are a bit older, particularly over 50, then you know that before the apple computer and design programs showed up, everything had to be done by hand!

Every basic tool inside the in-Design software was designed to mimic real hands-on techniques used by experienced designers that constantly cut themselves with X-acto knives and were usually high on fumes from the glue and solvent used to “cut and paste” the bits and pieces of their design.

What was the handmade process like before computers?

The basic tools for a graphic designer back in the day were quite different than the now computer, mouse and Wacom pad. Graphic Designers were a rare breed of artists that needed to have a specific set of skills not available to everybody, in the way that internet offers resources at light speed.

The tools:

  1. An angled drawing table, sometimes with a T Ruler on a swivel if it was a fancy version.
  2. 2H pencils to trace
  3. Blue light blue 2H pencils to draw the actual size of the piece. (blue will not show on the films for pre-print)
  4. Rulers; One T Ruler, a set of different sizes of angle triangles rules, and curved templates
  5. Very sharp X-acto knives
  6. Tweezers
  7. Rapidograph pens, cartridges, and ink
  8. Rubber Cement and Solvent
  9. Rubber Cement collector
  10. Hot wax machine
  11. Cleaning Brush
  12. Card, paper
  13. Typeset
  14. Letraset
  15. Band-Aids

In the same way that we design on the computer with the basic elements of type, shapes, photography, iconography and colors; I will go through the same steps the craft was done but with the tools that designers had before computers took over the market and annihilated all the machinery and letraset sheets (some people still hold onto their old tools for memory’s sake like the old linotype workers.)


The Canvas (setup: approx. 1 hour per page )

The first step to creating a design to be printed was to lay out a blank piece of card onto the work table and measure the exact size that the design would be printed in with a 4H pencil that hardly show on the paper, later I would retrace the already drawn box with the blue pencil.  The corners would be marked with dashes (just like you see cutting marks on InDesign). If the layout had columns or rows then those had to be measured exactly so that all the elements would fit in their respective areas. The permanent measurement dashes on the edges of the design were done with the T- Ruler and triangles, then the radiograph with a fresh ink cartridge was used to draw the lines. Rapidograph pens had ceramic tips of different thicknesses, to be able to make different kinds of lines (think “stroke” on the computer). These pens were very temperamental and a designer’s fingers would always be stained with ink.




The Type (designer’s time approx. 3 to 4 hours with no changes)

Back in the day before computers, all the written elements were done by special technicians called typesetters. The original printing presses were huge machines with metal trays that had to be filled by hand, letter by letter to complete a sentence or a paragraph. After the letters (type) was set, it was put through the press with black ink and the printed paper was sent to the designer to place (glue) into the layout.

But what about fonts and sizes? Can you imagine not being able to change the font or the size as easy as we can now? The designers had limited choices but since they had to wait usually overnight to receive the type, they would ask the typesetters for 2 or 3 choices in size and maybe two or three fonts like Helvetica, Garamond or Times. When the linotype machine was introduced, typesetting and printing were much faster; because it had a typewriter keyboard that would connect with the metal type bits and print entire lines.

Back to the designer’s table, The Canvas was measured and it was time to place the type, which had to be cut with the exact knife right to the edge of the printed area to maximize space in the layout. The pieces of type were placed with the help of either rubber cement or hot wax (!!!). Any designer that has worked with wax will tell you to keep the machine away from their arms! The other alternative, rubber cement needed a solvent to re-rubberize after too much exposure and the fumes from the solvent were really strong! Both techniques had the similarity that the pieces could be unpasted easily to be moved to a different position, sometimes only millimeters away. Does this sound to you like “cut and paste”? That’s because that is exactly what it is.

What if the client or the creative director didn’t like the type in the title and they had no time to ask for more typesetting? There were these rub-on sheets of type called Letraset that came in sheets by font and with different sizes. Can you imagine rubbing on a whole title and then not having an extra “e” for the end? Or if you hadn’t measured the straight line properly? Back to the beginning with you…




The Images

All photographs and images are also cut to the edge with the x-acto knife measured to the millimeter, then the backside is covered in rubber cement  or hot wax and placed in its place. If the placement was incorrect, the tweezers were used to peel it off and place in the correct place. Layouts were not created with original photos, but usually black and white photocopies.

Remember how I told you the table was angled? If the designer didn’t have a T-ruler on a swivel, it meant they had a little cubby on the side to put the pens and knifes but once in awhile, the knife was placed on the table off-handedly. This meant that the knife would roll of the table and either land on the floor or on their leg or in the palm of their hand if they tried to catch it. The stories designers tell of rolling x-acto knives are endless, and the wounds are plenty. A lot of the times, the designs not only had ink stains but also blood stains!

The Printing

Once the layout page were ready, the extra rubber cement or wax had been rubbed off, the stains had been erased or covered up with white tempera and all the elements were in place, the whole art was covered with glassine paper as an “overlay” where the designer clearly marked the Pantone numbers for the colors of the elements. The type that would go in color was painted with colored pencils specifying the exact PMS (Pantone Matching System) color to be used, the images where marked on the overlay as a 4 or 2 color print, the background was marked as a specific PMS color or white or black…  

The art was taken to be photographed and made into negative proofs and also a print black and white photographic paper. That was the only way to see how the final piece would look before printing, all the previous work was just imagination. The negative film proofs were very important to check every detail, editors would check with a magnifying glass over a light box. If there were any mistakes, the designers would sigh and grunt, smoke a cigarette and get back to work on the original layouts with the x-acto knives and tweezers to fix typos and mistakes to send the layouts back to proofing. Once it was all checked, again the negatives were turned to positives and the pages printed.

By Orana Velarde