The vanishing master

A week ago I spent an enjoyable Sunday evening and Monday at the Printing and e-Publishing conference (PePcon) in San Francisco, where I made a one-hour presentation to 100 or so attentive listeners, met long-time readers (I love you!), made new friends and reconnected with old ones from the earliest days of desktop publishing. Wonderful people, all. Gracious hosts (thank you David and Anne-Marie), excellent accommodations, delicious food, fun time.

At day’s end I got visiting with Valerie Brewster, a veteran book designer and self-described dinosaur, about the decline of paper books, fine typography, and the loss of practitioners, who, with the rise of ebooks, glass pages, and our fantastically evolving technology, have jumped ship, often late in their careers, to other fields (which, paradoxically, has opened up more work for her). I commiserated with her on the displacement and difficulty of this: You spend a career mastering a craft, over decades becoming so deep, so knowing, so capable, that you are now the wise old man or woman to whom even teachers of teachers come for guidance. And then the craft vanishes, leaving what?

After hardly a moment’s reflection, Valerie said (I paraphrase), “That’s what’s going missing! We’re not making masters. The changes are coming so fast that everyone is always beginning.”

Which I hadn’t thought about in that way, but which is so perceptive.

No masters. Skills, entire professions, especially in tech, now run a 100-year life cycle in a decade or less. No one gains the wisdom of years. That’s the void I’ve felt but couldn’t articulate.

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117 Responses to The vanishing master

  1. Jim says:

    I think this is why Before & After is such a popular site. For the most part it transcends the technology and concentrates on the principles of design. The master’s skills are still valuable whether they are applied to letterpress or InDesign.

    It is easy to feel like a beginner when you constantly have to learn new technologies from scratch, but those years of experience of creating good design still hold.

  2. Wendy says:

    I both agree and disagree with you (grin). I started my working life as an electrical engineer that has taken the following path over the past 30 years: circuit designer -> firmware programmer -> technical writer -> illustrator/designer -> UI/UX (user interface/user experience) designer. “Art” was always an avocation for me – it just took 20+ years for me to work it into my livelihood.

    What has had to happen for me to continue to make a living is that I’ve become a master at acquiring skills, rather than a master at a particular trade; a master at navigating the corporate jungle; a master at finding employment. A master at adaptation, if you will.

    There are still niches for so-called “obsolete” arts and crafts – look at the historical re-enactors and fantasy “role players”, for example. They are keeping a small army of corset-makers, armorers, and leatherworkers busy.

    I don’t believe that the rate of change will continue to increase exponentially. I think that at some point, humans will simply not be able to maintain that pace and it will settle out into a steady rate of change, or even possibly some stability.

  3. JR says:
      First off, I am a huge fan of B&A. I love the videos and the articles. Anyway, I’m starting design school this fall, and this has made me wonder how much of what I learn over the course of my time there will be relevant when I’m done. When a new technology or device will come along and change everything all over again. We saw it with the iPad and eBook readers. Will print be obsolete by the time I graduate? Who knows?

      I think a lack of masters is a serious issue. People like me look to those who are better, who are more experienced, for guidance and information. Let’s say I’m confused about designing for some new techno gadget, and I ask a more experienced designer. It’s scary to think that they might not know much more than I! Technology has levelled the playing field in that strange way.

      I somewhat agree with Wendy — I don’t think the hectic pace can last forever, but it’s still going strong. All we can do is keep learning and improving.

    • Johanna says:

      JR, as you are a young designer who appreciates the lessons provided by B&A, all I can say is good for you — you’ve come to the right place. Been with B&A since the first issue! While I agree that the pace will have to plateau (there are only so many hours in a day, and so many hands on a human body), what I really lament is the disappearance of designers who are craftspersons rather than techies. I encounter many young designers who don’t know an em dash from an en dash, have no idea what old style figures are, use prime marks where apostrophes are called for, and lack attention to detail because their focus is on web design, not print design. So their mistakes are easily corrected at little or no cost. And the lessons we older designers recall from the now-lost craft of typesetting are completely foreign to them. Typography is not an art to the young designer, it’s just a tool. I suspect that younger designers simply do not care about the differences between hyphens and en and em dashes, for instance — and I fear that it doesn’t even matter to anyone anymore. Does anyone out there care about knowing the difference between old style figures and tabular and how to use them? Or is it that the small amount of time it takes to get these things right is not worth it because one has to rush off to the next technological advance? So much quiet elegance in design is in danger of being lost. Signed, grumpy old me.

      • JR says:

        A valid, interesting point. Before I read “Thou Shalt Not Use Comic Sans,” I hadn’t even heard of en dashes or em dashes. Now they’re mentioned again. I will make it a point to learn things like that.

      • Yes, many of us do care even to the point of it being detrimental to our health. Have you noticed the current crop of McDonalds ads that are using tick marks in their type for their Cherry Berry Chillers? Shudder . . . and they have more money than God to buy the best video title people, so they either don’t know how unskilled these folks are, or they don’t care. I can’t imagine that a misuse of apostrophes and quote marks is a design choice.

        • Johanna says:

          Oh goodness, now you’re going to force me to look for these ads, and I’ll lose sleep!

      • Carmel says:

        How true, Johanna. Maybe only the old guard cares. Certainly few of my self-publishing customers do. But then, many don’t care much about well-crafted writing either.

        Then we have the mass migration to ebooks. The Kindle and ePub formats have me tearing my hair out. Can anyone refer me to a good example of a Kindle/ePub book?

        • Johanna says:

          I still like my books the old fashioned way, on paper, though I have read several iBooks on my iPad. Don’t know about Kindle or eBooks, but I do know my iPad allows me to change the font to Georgia . . . which has lovely, old-style figures!

      • Christine says:

        Yes, Johanna,

        I, too, am very interested, particularly in the nuances of typography. I have internet searched for dozens and dozens of hours, read textbooks, etc., trying to find artists who would share their craft. It’s been very difficult to find anyone willing to do so, which is one of the reasons I value B&A so highly.

        It grieves me that, as you say, “much quiet elegance in design . . . is being lost.”

        Signed, One who also values en and em dashes, and even semi-colons.

        • Johanna says:

          Aaah, the poor little semi-colon, so notoriously misused and abused. Or should I say, “misused; and abused”? Ha. No, I should not. If I were not under deadline at 10 p.m. EST, I’d go right to my bookshelves and try to locate the best resource for typography. I wonder if John is moderating, perhaps he can recommend to all of us a good reference? Or perhaps Valerie Brewster can advise? I know that I acquired a lot of my knowledge of typography through, 1) working for a publisher and, 2) reading B&A since its inception. Good luck with your research!

        • Alison Smith says:

          Go to YouTube, enter “typography,” and be prepared to be amazed. I love “xperpetualmotion” — she’s clever, smart, fun, and devoted.

          • JR says:

            I found some articles on em dashes and semicolons on I feel sorry for the poor, abused semicolon.

            • Wendy says:

              My last editor made me change all my em dashes to en dashes because they didn’t “look right” to her. Sigh.

              Part of the punctuation problem in modern society can be blamed on the lack of these marks on computer keyboards and the general laziness of people to look up the special character codes for them.

              • JR says:

                I didn’t even know they existed until a few weeks ago — thanks Johanna, for prompting me to learn about them! I looked for the dashes on the keyboard, but, alas! They were not there. Then I looked at my InDesign keyboard shortcut poster, and there they were!

                How ironic! While we’re here bemoaning the lost em dash in design and in general, some say writers overuse it!

              • JR says:

                I never remember even learning about them in English class, either in grade school or high school! Maybe the dashes have been discontinued, in a way. Many people (myself included) sometimes don’t know when to use what, so we use something else (for example, using hyphens insteads of em dashes) or leave it out. Then, slowly, it’s not taught because it’s not widely used, and the cycle repeats itself until the term is basically extinct. I think that’s how whom slowly died.

                Teachers, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. You’re on the front lines of this change.


      • Marion says:

        Johanna, I thoroughly agree with you. When I started out as a typesetter (totally by accident), I heard the older people refer to “muttons” and “nuts” and wondered what on earth I had stumbled into. Of course they were referring to ems and ens! I love the look of elegant typesetting and don’t see it much these days — and forget kerning; it doesn’t seem to exist.

      • Tormod says:

        I too have grown up using only the QWERTY keyboard and the standard marks available there for text production to office documents and for the web. I’m now halfway through Robert Bringhust’s The Elements of Typographic Style, where he devotes around six pages to discussing the hyphen and other dashes. The book made me extremely humble and also very aware of how much I didn’t know before (and I fully expect to re-read it a couple of times and practice its lessons for several years to get closer to becoming a “master” ;-)

        However, trying to implement some of my newfound knowledge in the digital world has proven to be a bit dangerous. For instance, the availability of typefaces across computers and devices is never something you can depend on. Using ligatures in a typeface as widely deployed as Georgia gives unpredictable results, even within major products such as Microsoft Office. Which brings us back, by necessity, to using the lowest common denominators and avoiding much of what gives us that subtle elegance of well-set type.

        Currently, there are at least three major factors that make life difficult in the digital world:
        • availability of typefaces on the target devices
        • inconsistent rendering across file formats and character-set encodings
        • lack of typographic tools in common applications for document creation

        For any serious task, I turn to my trusty InDesign, but I really would like to see more advances in mainstream tools as well.

        • Johanna says:

          Thank you for the recommendation — just ordered a copy online. This will only be about the twelfth book on my shelf regarding typography. But I can’t get enough.

  4. Lucinda says:

    This has been a huge frustration for me. I loved having mentors to help guide me through my career. This all changed 10 years ago. Now, the ones with the most knowledge tend to be a generation younger and not yet equipped to be a proper mentor. It leaves me on my own, searching the web for answers. I have a small network of designers who meet regularly, which is typically great, but there was an instance when I laughed hysterically at a youngster (22-ish?) who left the group because we were “old and lame.” (I’m 38.) I told him that I hoped his future would be as bright as his attitude and as big as his heart.

  5. Ty Speaker says:

    Jim’s choice of the word “transcendent” is, I think, exactly to the point. Mastery encompasses not only facility with a set of tools but also with principles that underlie the effective use of the tools. I think of martial arts, in which freehand techniques may be derived from sword movements but are utterly effective with no sword in hand. While the beginner achieves “mastery” through the repeated use of specific tools, the tools may be, in reality, merely conduits for expression of the underlying art, and also in the reverse sense for the beginner to access the art itself. What I find so powerful about the B&A materials (and other “master” sources like Edward Tufte, Albers, and others) is that the principles are no less applicable to street signs, warning labels and technical documents then to glossy magazine spreads, business cards, and fine art. That’s mastery, and you are helping us to navigate the flurry of new tools by providing this excellent bedrock of style. Thanks again for continually opening our eyes.

  6. Diane Hokans says:

    One must become a Master Adapter these days. It is exhausting sometimes.

    • Bev says:

      Amen! I thought I was the only one who was exhausted from all the “adaptation” I’m required to do now.

      • Maria says:

        “Master Adapter” — I love this! I, too, am exhausted with trying to keep up. This topic has really made me think.

        I started my career at the tail end of marker comps/typesetting/paste-up design and was in the right place at the right time to learn the Mac from the ground up while on the job. I took to computer design immediately, I fell in love with the ability to really control my type (and who cannot be in love with “command z”?). I had a great advantage because I had a (very) “old school” background that I learned from my art director who was a true typography master. Among other things (like em and en dashes), she explained the history of typography — the meaning of “upper case” and “lower case” and why it’s called leading. This knowledge base helped me to become a better designer. Over the course of my career, I have taken on a huge variety of design projects, but at the core I am a book designer. It makes me sad to think that I am a master of a dying art. I don’t resent technology — in fact, my career has flourished because of it (I wasn’t a very good marker comp artist, and I was happy to give up rubber cement to make PDFs). For the most part I have been able to keep up, but it seems that the past five years or so, with the web going from computer screen to mobile to iPad, there is no way anyone can stay ahead. It’s nice to see this thread and that I’m not the only one feeling like a “dinosaur” (at 46!).

        • Jean Van Ausdall says:

          I just knew you were the same age as I am! I, too, learned graphic design skills at the end of the Paste-up Age and beginning of the Computer Age. After 25 years of sitting in front of a computer, I finally got fed up with the lack of human contact and now design a different way: landscaping. Color, scale, texture, it’s all still there, and I get to play in the dirt!

        • Bev says:

          I can relate to the dinosaur feeling. Wish I had your experience. I was thrown into this field 12 years ago (I’m 56 now) and was given a PC because Macs were too expensive for my boss. Now they’ve decided I need a Mac. So my favorite word right now is “HELP!” I’m totally self-taught with the help of this webpage. Before & After has been a major life-saver for me. Don’t know what I’d do without this page! I’ve learned so many techniques from everyone here, and I want to say a resounding thank you!

  7. James Hinshaw says:

    The trouble I have is keeping up with multiple software applications. To me, it seems like specialization is the answer, but that’s not necessarily what the market desires. I once had a prospective employer hand me a list of technologies that they wanted the person they hired to know and use. I looked at the person interviewing me and told her good luck. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. But you know what? There are other things I want to do with my life than spend all my free hours keeping up with the latest W3C standards when I rarely work on web pages, etc.

    • Tamara Smith says:

      Hear, hear!

      • EXACTLY! Starting in the infant web-design industry eons ago (15-20 years ago), all I had to learn was HTML. I agree with James — it seemed like I could either spend my time learning the newest technologies or work on web sites. I chose to code websites.

        Geez, I’d love to be a mentor . . . if anyone wants to learn static HTML. Sigh.

  8. I have to say I think Valerie’s comment and observation is brilliant. To be a master at anything takes time, and that is one thing current technological advancements are not allowing for. Being a master also means leaving space for innovation and surprise — not just being driven to the project finish. To be a master you need to take the time it takes to do something that is well thought out and well executed — to look beyond an immediate solution to something deeper, to synthesize a solution down to its essence. That takes time, patience, commitment, and wisdom.

    I am all for slowing down and taking some time with things — it’s how I have reshaped my world in the past couple of years, and I can tell you that it has changed everything for me. I am happier and more productive. The quality and thoughtfulness of my work is deeper — other people say so. So, let’s all slow down a bit and have some fun — what do you think?

  9. John Driscoll says:

    This is exactly why I’m considering leaving graphic design. Unlike Wendy, I have no interest in becoming a master at acquiring skills — a master at adaptation.

    I know that change is always happening, and you have to adapt to new technology, etc., but, in general, I want to learn my craft and be able to work at my craft. I want to be a master at my craft someday, not just a perpetual student.

    That’s just my personality, and I’m realizing I’m probably in the wrong industry for that — unfortunately.

    • JR says:

      Even masters keep learning. To quote one of my karate teachers, “Perfection is a direction, not a destination.” Keep your chin up!

  10. You can’t hold back change. When desktop publishing started, a friend of mine bemoaned the fact that all the pasteup jobs were going away. He refused to change, hoping to find publishers that still needed pasteup. He would have been better off learning desktop publishing.

    Ebooks in their infancy don’t look great. It’s more about getting the knowledge out there. But now with iAuthor, Quark, and Adobe’s new digital platforms, designers can be even more creative than they could before. I don’t think book design is dying. I think it is more vibrant than ever, and we’ll see amazing things from those who embrace the new technology.

  11. Atheneum Graphics says:

    Oh yes I am wise
    But it’s wisdom born of pain
    Yes, I’ve paid the price
    But look how much I gained
    If I have to, I can do anything
    I am strong (strong)
    I am invincible (invincible)
    I am woman
    –Helen Reddy

  12. Steve Ruis says:

    I think you are missing something regarding “no masters.” It used to take a lifetime to master a topic. Now we learn at a faster rate thanks to, well, organs like B&A magazine. I mastered DOS, Windows 1.0 (still have a copy), then Windows 286, Windows 3.0/3.1, XP, and Vista, also Mac OS 5 through 10.5, plus quite a few other software programs.

    The people who master Photoshop, though, never get to rest on their laurels, as a new Photoshop version comes out quickly, but that didn’t mean they didn’t master the older version. (I never came close, as I had no need.)

    Instead of bemoaning not creating masters, check out some of the youths in our colleges who are graduating with a level of knowledge that will get them “entry-level” positions in high-tech firms that dwarf what masters of 50 years ago know. It is like comparing a smartphone with an ENIAC.

    If I may steal slightly from Adobe, instead of Masters we now have “MultiMasters.”

    Thanks for all you do for us!

    • GiGi Go says:

      Multiple Master typefaces? Long dead and gone, killed by constantly evolving technology! Adobe eats its young.

  13. Kelley says:

    I’ve been an avid reader of Before & After for years . . . you are so appreciated! You cannot know how helpful you have been to a person whose career in design has evolved from an economy that was unable to embrace my art-school skill set. Thank you!

    Whilst reading your post, I felt a loss — contemplating the possiblity that our current lifestyles no longer support mastery — until I read Wendy’s comment. Could it be that the ability to adapt* may yet give birth to a new age of mastery? I keep faith that all of this artistic knowledge that I immerse myself in will help me to not only become very good at what I am doing today, but that perhaps I may may yet become a master of some unknown endeavor in the future — some ability that I might never have discovered had I not been in a near-constant state of flux in my career.

    *Residential Design – Interior Design – Production Artist – Graphic Designer – Senior Graphic Artist + Social Marketing – Photography

  14. Tamara Smith says:

    That is a profoundly true statement. As a recent design program graduate, I felt the need to “hit the ground running” and an intense pressure to keep up the pace with no time for practice, reflection and mastery. It isn’t what I envisioned when embarking on a new career later in life, but that was my own near-sightedness. I learned that I, personally, wasn’t able to assimilate and learn to design for every new technology that emerged, and it was killing my joy to try. Since then, I’ve adjusted my vision to focus on mastering the technologies that will keep my services marketable to my particular client base.

  15. Orysia says:

    I have to say I agree and disagree with this article. Sadly, our beloved print design has dropped from the spotlight with the emergence of new technologies. While that is a disadvantage to those who have been designing for print for decades, it does open the door for the future of art and design.

    I guess to me, the principles of design remain the same — just the medium changes. To say that a person must have X years in one occupation to be considered a master seems a little “old school” in mentality. I have met individuals with a mastery of design who are only five-year veterans, if that. I have also met 20-30 year designers who are far from what I would consider a master.

    Masters are created daily by designers mastering the high-level concepts and principles of design. The medium is not the end all and be all. It is simply the means of expression.

  16. Skip Savage says:

    I don’t know where I stand on this topic.

    I see (and hear) steady technological change in other fields, like music, and I must say I positively rejoice at the flowering of talent and ingenuity that’s taken place in music over the past 50 years. Not all of it is successful, and not all of it I like, but new masters keep arriving on the scene.

    Contrast that with the situation in a large organization that I was part of for several years. One of my co-workers had spent 20 years acquiring detailed knowledge of the firm’s inner workings and could answer any “who, what, where, when and why” question off the top of her head. A new honcho rode in and laid her off, along with the rest of the department, because he wanted to bring in his own people. It was like burning a library.

  17. Linda S. says:

    I beg to differ with the notion that “we’re not making masters.” While fields of endeavor and entire careers seem to change in nanoseconds with the advancement of technology, the basic principles guiding the production of quality work remain constant. Good writing is still good writing; good design is good design. The methods of production may differ; the medium may be electronic rather than print, or “virtual” rather than tangible. But human beings continue to recognize and respond to good work, regardless of the latest technological tricks that were used to create it.

    While it’s true that we have to keep relearning how to produce work in the latest version of whatever software we use, there are, nevertheless, masters. Call them teachers, historians, mentors, skilled professionals — they are not only adept at the latest gadgets and gizmos but have a depth of knowledge encompassing technologies that have now become obsolete, and life lessons that will never be obsolete. Who remembers hot-lead type, the composing stick, and the California Job Case? “Cold type” and waxers? Those tools have fallen by the wayside, but they continue to inform what we now accomplish with the click of a mouse. And perhaps those of us who are experienced in those now-antiquated technologies are in some way the “masters” who provide the perspective that rapidly changing technologies can so easily obscure.

    • mary ramirez says:

      I know all the terms you mentioned . . . and I still have some of them in my personal “museum.” I actually had to use my proportion scale the other day!

  18. Ty Cahill says:

    Another problem, especially in the field of web design, is not being able to clearly distinguish the masters from the noobs. Anyone can find a free WordPress theme that’s pretty, get a cheap hosting account, and hack their way through setting up a website. Then they call themselves web designers or developers. I see it frequently when frustrated business owners don’t understand why their website takes forever to load and doesn’t appear in search results — and the previous “web designer” won’t return phone calls or email.

    • Rufus Dogg says:

      Love your logo. BTW, Syndey barks about you in comments on blogs all the time. You should keep an eye on her :-)

      When we used to design web sites, we’d get called all the time to design a site. We’d submit a bid, and inevitably the potential client went somewhere cheaper. About 3 – 6 months after they blew us off, we’d get a call to help them “fix” their site. So, we went into the business of website repair! And it costs them a whole lot more than if they had done it right the first time.

      There are no up or down economies, just opportunities. Sometimes, being a master craftsman means you’ll be applying your skills in ways you did not anticipate. But if you have a deep understanding of your craft, you will always be able to adapt and shape it instead of it shaping you.

      • Ty Cahill says:

        You are right-on about opportunities. It’s a waste of energy to fight change. Your last sentence clearly points out the value of putting in the time to become a master. :-)

  19. Mark says:

    I agree . . . to a point. Ebooks and ePubs are not designerly, because of reflow content and user control over the interface (font, color, background.) All that is required is an understanding of style sheets and formatting.

    However, true digital publishing requires the same design skills as print, the only exception being that the final product is viewed onscreen as opposed to on paper. Add in the skills of interactivity, and new masters will be needed: Digital publishing requires fresh thought, not old paradigms of print carried into a new form factor.

    There is hope, after all!

  20. Jeff Farmer says:

    Many years ago I mastered the very satisfying craft of hand-lettered sign painting. I was there when we got the first vinyl cutters, and in no time, the field was full of people making signs who had never felt the grace of a long-bristled quill in their hands. “Brothers of the Brush” we still call ourselves, but most of us have moved on to other careers. I have gone through graphic designer, graphic arts teacher, photographer, 3D modeling . . . but I still miss the pleasure of a well-executed brush stroke, a flourish with a feeling that bonds you to the craft and the craftsmanship. To have mastered a dying art comes with a sad feeling of being alone with no one left to talk shop with, and so much craftsmanship that never comes to life.

    • Alison Smith says:

      You know, we’re out here.
      And some of us are young.
      The Chinese are afraid of losing calligraphy, an integral part of the culture, but hundreds of young Chinese are mastering the craft so that part of their history won’t die.
      I love that young designers who love type are discovering letterpress, that craftspeople still pursue beautiful handwriting and calligraphy.
      Vermont is worth a pilgrimage for the magnificence of their signage ordinance.

      • Karen Floyd says:

        How poetically put, Jeff! You can always call us — my husband and I are both old-school sign painters who haven’t palleted a brush for far too long. I think of some special sign painters when I think of “True Masters” — the time and talent that it takes for seamless and expressive design in signs, the beauty of knowing how letterforms are created so that they can be executed flawlessly or altered purposefully to create one-of-a-kind logos for their clients. Their ability to embellish a sign with a painting or original graphic, all hand done — I wouldn’t trade my experiences and old friendships from “The Letterheads” days for anything, yet it seems really far in the past.

        Thank God for John McWade and the Torch of Mastery that he provides for those of us looking to create and become something better. There is True Mastery there, as well. Perhaps, John, it is hard to find masters when you are one. I wonder if Michelangelo found himself longing for other masters as well.

        Something to think about . . .

        • Jeff Farmer says:

          Thanks Alison and Karen. For some old-style sign writer’s craftsmanship and inspiration, I love looking at the galleries on It reminds me of the good old Letterheads days and Sign Craft magazine. Sometimes I feel like I should retire to a touristy town or someplace where I can break out the One-Shot and my lettering quills and enjoy myself!

    • Richard Springsteed says:

      Rocky the squirrel would disagree!

  21. Donna says:

    What a fantastic observation, John. I have noticed a small fraction of business being lost to new “artists” (a term that now must be applied loosely), but I’ve also noticed an uptick in clients appreciating quality. Sometimes they don’t know how to quantify why they might like one piece over another, but I can usually attribute it to good design.

  22. Tim Bowman says:

    Not only missing the Masters, but the appreciation and respect for those who have put in the time to become a Master. With the rise of technology and the speed at which the new becomes the old, anyone has access to the tools to create, and no one has the time to immerse themselves so fully that they can become a Master. Everyone is a perpetually an apprentice.

    • Alison Smith says:

      Every time I make art or take and manipulate a (digital) photo, I use the skills I’ve honed and mastered from art school through my career as a designer and through my mastery (through unrelenting practice) of sewing and calligraphy. All of it becomes distilled in every piece, and it’s astonishing to understand that at the moment of creation. And, of course, you’re right – relying on mastery is still the path of the apprentice.

  23. Fred Showker says:

    When I saw the title it struck a chord I have thought about and written about many times — “Vanishing masters.” Another angle to that headline: Regardless of skill sets of today vs. skill sets of yesterday, we are, indeed, losing masters. As those who in some ways formed the basis for our design axioms today begin to pass away, we lose a huge repository of insights, experiences, and wisdom from which all graphic designers can benefit.

    I learned that lesson the hard way. I passed up an invitation to see and meet Herb Lubalin so I could go to the beach with friends. He passed away shortly after that.

    So, if you were born after 1970, then take advantage of any opportunity to see any of the masters who may be speaking, lecturing or appearing. When they’re gone, they’re gone…


  24. Hmm. Can’t say I agree totally with the statement that there are no masters. The world is changing in many ways — in ALL industries. Doctors require different skills today than they did years ago. Same for contractors — even salespeople.

    One thing I’ve seen is a focus on specialization. For example, there may not be as many “general practitioners” in the medical field, but there are certainly masters in very specific areas of medicine. Likewise in design, we’ve seen people who have become masters in very specific areas of design. More than “web design,” you now have experts in experience design and interaction design.

    Oh, and one more thing. The masters are indeed out there. But doing a search on YouTube or Google won’t necessarily reveal their identities. Masters in the art of design exist where they’ve always been found: design schools and institutions. Seek them out.

    • Carmel says:

      Hmm. Mordy, I think you might have hit upon a key issue here. Medicine has suffered greatly, I believe, with the move to specialisation. There are few master general practitioners these days, and specialists tend to have a blinkered approach.

      In the digital design field there are technical masters who create spectacularly clever websites but who appear to have no knowledge of the broader principles of function.

  25. Bob Severn says:

    As I get older, the expert skills that I have acquired over years become less and less relevant. It will be like being a master buggy-whip maker . . .

  26. At the same conference (PePcon), there was a terrific speaker named Michael Murphy who spoke on Tuesday morning, and he made a comment that I think is really pertinent and stayed with me.

    He said that in the late 80s and early 90s with the use of computers in desktop publishing, beautiful typography — the art of typography — went out the window. Because designers were using a tool that couldn’t handle the subtle art of type, many things like ligatures, kerning, and special spacing disappeared. With them gone for so long, many of us new designers never really learned it; many like me are discovering the beauty and are hungry to learn. The tried and true “old masters” are at the forefront of teaching style and their use once again.

    Perhaps we are heading into yet another change due to technology. Perhaps no one is a master of the tech yet, but as you’ve beautifully illustrated time and again in your wonderful issues, beautiful design is timeless. When the dust settles, the art will be there and we will once again turn to masters to help us apply the beautiful rules of design to make our work better and timeless. At least that’s my hope and personal goal.

    Thank you for attending PePcon, John. It was a true pleasure meeting you and your lovely wife :-)

    • JR says:

      It’s a shame that you don’t learn about those kinds of things in school. Maybe we’re sacrificing too much on the altar of “technological progress.” If I’m typing on the computer too long (for days), when I go to write something by hand and I make a mistake, I instinctively look for the undo button and genuinely wish it was there. They probably already have the technology to do it, at this rate.

  27. Bob Welsh says:

    Perhaps we’re now becoming “masters” at changing quickly? One could argue that in the age of robotics, artificial intelligence, and automation in general, “jack of all trades” is the best set of skills to have, since highly specialized skill sets will be amongst the first to be automated, and general practitioners will be the last, since it’s so hard to automate a broad skill set.

    In rapidly changing times, the skills necessary for success aren’t clearly predictable, so a broad and general skill set might provide the most likelihood of success.

    I don’t have the link handy, but I recently read an article from a very specialized surgeon who indicated how at risk his entire career was since robots are about to overtake his specialty. A general practitioner medical doctor, though, will always be in demand.

    • I agree, Bob. Perhaps the masters are simply developing in disguise, rather than vanishing altogether.

      I know for myself, I started in childhood as a photographer taking pictures as soon as I was old enough to hold a camera. In high school and college I studied drawing and painting. In professional life, I’ve worked in marketing, print design and newspaper page layout and editing. As an Air Force spouse moving frequently and living overseas the past six years, I’ve been a homemaker/interior designer, a chef, a world traveler, a fashionista and a volunteer leader and event coordinator.

      Today, when I pick up a pencil to sketch — something I never thought I was good at and certainly haven’t practiced vigorously — I find that I am surprisingly better than I was even when I was actively in art school. I can be dressed and serving cocktails and appetizers to guests with an hour’s notice or less, or be on a last-minute international flight in not much more time — a whole different kind of design, and surely improved by the newspaper deadlines I once worked with! I haven’t had the luxury to focus on one thing at a time as traditional students/masters do, but I feel that I am developing greater command of my skills and talents and quality of all my work nonetheless.

      Because when you are a designer, or an artist, I believe it is the looking and listening and living that provides the bulk of your learning. I may get rusty with some of the transient tools and rules, but the ones that matter are the ones that I know without thinking, and they grow more deeply ingrained daily. The other ones I relearn on the fly as required.

      So keep your eyes and ears and minds open, and know that everything you do, every challenge you accept, and every change you adapt to just brought you once step closer to mastery. Of your craft(s) yes, but more importantly of Life!

      That’s why I read Before & After. And Dwell. Martha Stewart, Real Simple, Wine Spectator. And fantasy fiction. And yes, Facebook, too. There is art and design in all of it — and more importantly, communication. For that is truly what we are here to do, no?

      You are all masters in the making! A new Renaissance is here.

  28. In part is the problem that attention spans have shrunk, and there’s so much more demanding our attention at every turn!

    There was a time when one could devote an afternoon to a good book, a journal, or even a magazine. Those days are long gone. If we’re not busy tweeting, posting, or chatting, our email box is filling and sounding a “ding!” with every missive that arrives.

    Finances are only one reason that newspapers across the country have reformatted to a smaller size. Among others is the idea that we want our information in niblet sizes. We don’t dedicate time or personal energy to big stuff any longer.

    As a result of the fragmented attention and all the rest that plays, pulls, and tugs on us, we care so much less about the quality of the look and feel of what we’re taking in.

    I know a professor who teaches business writing at our local college. One of the biggest hurdles the college juniors have is abandoning informal conventions: LOL, CUL8R, wtf, and on and on. Because they can communicate with each other, the are under the misconception that those cute letter collections serve as effective communication with everyone! Put in their vernacular — FAIL!

    I hope there will always be a place for quality work, even at the expense of speed. The tools, techniques, and devices we have today should make us BETTER designers, better writers, and better — all around. Instead, I fear that they make us lazier — all around.

    I’ve had my rant. Let me close by saying “thank you!” to B&A for continuing to do all that they do for all of us.

    • Johanna says:

      Laughing out loud (I will not insult you by abbreviating) at this tale of the professor and college juniors. Oh, too true!

    • Nancy Jones says:

      I just wanted to say I totally agree about the young generation’s “language”, lol :-), as a mother with a hoard of college kids around. Your comment reminded me of one of my favorite lines from National Treasure when Nicholas Cage says “… people don’t talk like that anymore” after reading from the Declaration of Independence. I’ve often wondered if the children growing up today will know how to spell in the future. The world’s changing and I’m not sure for the better.

      • JR says:

        It shouldn’t get too bad as long as we know that there is a time and place for slang. I see slang as a language within a language; it’s been around for a long time, only that the words keep changing. There is even slang in the design industry — mutton was slang for an em dash (though whether people still say it now, I don’t know).

  29. Christine Anderson says:

    Mastery is not as much about years of experience as an ability to use what is gained in those years to remain current and vital. Mastering technical skills is a job never done. I started reading Before & After when John McWade was working in PageMaker and so was I. I kept up with him through the years as best I could because I really need the help, and what that taught me was that design skills are in your eye, heart, and mind, and in knowing the psychology and theory behind what people like and why they like it. Design skills are not in a computer.

    Steve Jobs is not someone I quote often but I liked the following:

    “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” ~ Wired, February, 1996…Steve jobs

    • Kevin Cullis says:

      I’m reading the book Steve Jobs, and one thing I’ve learned is that he admired Edwin Land, because he was able to mix or blend both technology and the arts. Maybe it’s this morphing of both that will create new Masters. Do you think Jobs was onto something?

      • Alison Smith says:

        You mean Jobs’ technology and art mash-up?
        It’s happening at every level.
        This is The Revolution – connectedness.
        We’re forming a new brain, a new “cosmic unconscious.”
        This mash-up is Jung and Marshall McLuhan

  30. While the move from print to digital has been discouraging, great design principles still prevail. Designers hated the move from letterpress to offset, but good design remained. There is some amazing work going on in video and the web. And print isn’t nearly dead yet — remember, we’re all paperless by 2010, right?

    Keep the faith, everyone, and John, you’ve been making fans and creating masters since Publish! and Aldus PageMaker 1.0. Thanks for guiding the next generation, however short it is.

  31. My degree is in fashion design. My work history involves 25 years experience in the Miami garment industry. My fashion background includes a fashion design degree, seven years as a Missy designer, illustrator of fashion catalogs, technical design, pattern making, sewing, purchasing, quality control and production management. I’ve worked in most every textile ranging from spandex to ultra suede. From story boards to tech packs, I am very well rounded.

    Guess what? The garment industry has largely departed for Asia.

    The U.S. government has paid for a year of my retraining in a new “approved career.” I picked Printing & Graphic Design from a list. In 2008 I graduated.

    Has the printing industry been departing for Asia?

    With all my skills, why am I unemployed for the last five years?

    • Kevin Cullis says:


      Sorry to hear, but I don’t trust a government forecaster for jobs at all. In fact, as I was writing my first book How to Start a Business: Mac Version, I found out that schools are failing their students. Why? Because they teach you the craft of your business, but NOT the business of your craft. They’ll teach graphic art, design, real estate, law, medicine, but they fail at teaching how to do something profitably, how to see changes that are occurring, about contract law, the laws of economics and supply and demand, etc.

      When I began learning about book design (leading, etc.), I was so moved by what I had learned that I wanted to learn more. By no means am I an expert, and you’d probably find many mistakes made in my book, but you know what, I’m learning. And probably one of the few authors who wants to learn more about this stuff.

      So for you, Janet, start learning about the business of graphic art and see how you can translate your skills into something that you can make a living at.

    • Richard Springsteed says:

      Two words: Income Tax. So far as book design, my printing goes to China. Also a licensed architect, my work (the construction project, that is) goes to China. I bought my new 27″ Mac, and you know where that was made. One has the choice of being the international designer, or finding work here. I have a photographer friend from Denmark who shoots and teaches in a different country almost every week. You probably would find Chinese designers in utter awe of you and your skills, should you choose to travel to their fashion design centers.

  32. Jeff says:

    I agree that the principles of good design are constant; however, I do find myself in a constant battle to keep up with the latest in technology. So, what ultimately happens is that I spend 75% of my time attempting to learn the latest whatever and 25% of my time on the actual design process.

    • Alison Smith says:

      That’s always a problem, Jeff.

      I’ve found that until I really, really must have a new computer/system I stick with my same programs, refusing to update until I absolutely need to. There’s always a lot of lag time for adopting new tech, and publishers of all types make allowances for everyone to catch up. Practice with what you have so that your skills come up to speed a lot faster.

  33. Hernando Conwi says:

    The field of marketing is suffering from a similar issue: technology and so-called social networking make “marketing” so easy and inexpensive that people are just throwing stuff up on the marketing wall to see what sticks. Now, I am all for the idea of rapid prototyping, but I feel that people are overlooking the timeless importance of building marketing programs on a strong foundation of research, strategy and planning/measurement. The basics are the key to the success of an effective marketing program.

    With respect to this discussion, the basics of design are timeless, and anyone who is a master of such will always be sought after, especially when new fields develop.

  34. Fascinating topic.

    There are still opportunities for masters. Technology is just a tool. It won’t make you a great designer. That still takes the development of feeling, intuition and gut. The he(art) of it.

    The rapid advance of technology makes differentiation all the more important. If you have a digital camera and take your photo facing the sun, it’s going to be washed out. You need to learn to have the sun behind you.

    We don’t have to take on every new technology that comes down the pike. That’s a myth. Pick what you love to do best and concentrate in that area.

    Humans need low tech to balance high tech. There are folks doing all kinds of “old fashioned” things. And that will grow in demand as technology spirals almost out of control.

    There’s always a choice to say “enough” to the technology Simon-says-ness out there.

    thanks! G.

  35. Cat says:

    Masters. When I think of masters, it conjures up an ancient word, as in the history of art, or the skills of the trade. Masters are created from years of working and living in a certain field. The masters of ancient history most likely thought and felt the same way that we do today. They saw their experienced ways of painting or chiseling change with new, modern tools and modern thinking. Time changes the way things are done, and we can’t stop that. Life is designed to evolve. Each era has its own Masters. If something is not useful, it will disappear.

    So let us apply the meaning to a master in our present world: A master is created from years of experience in a specific field, one who has acquired a vast amount of knowledge, to be able to teach, manage, and supervise the younger or inexperienced newcomers (mentor) — to teach and share the how-tos of the field no matter what application it is in the present day; knowing how to avoid errors, how to fix the problems, and knowing why things do what they do.

    Being a Master means knowing what works best in one’s field, applying it, and teaching it. And not by simply having used or known the original techniques and methods that may have been great in the day, but have become obsolete.

    • Alison Smith says:

      I like your idea of mentoring, of encouraging mastery through teaching. I’ve felt for a long time that graphic design has become more of a young person’s game, but the lack of mastery in basic knowledge about type and its history is appalling. Mastery is always built on what came before . . . if only to steal from!

  36. Kevin Cullis says:

    Reading the book Steve Jobs and found an interesting argument between him and his graphic artist over his name:

    Steven P. Jobs

    They argued over whether the placement of the “.” was going alongside the “P” (old school, as in lead type) versus under the “P” (new school, as in typesetting in Postscript).

    Just look at letterpress, which went away and is coming back.

    I think there will be fewer Masters in certain fields, but different ones coming into being as new things progress, or the old school actually was better than the new school.

  37. Alison Smith says:

    My career began with waxed hard copy and Letraset headlines, ruling pens and X-actos, parallel rules, triangles, t-squares, and hand-rendered mockups. There was a necessary mastery of craft and pride invested in beautiful, clean layouts carefully covered by vellum. I made friends with the printing companies’ strippers (the photolab guys), because they were the gods of the job.

    I remember the first rumors of how the personal computer would revolutionize the industry, how changing type would come at the touch of a button, how photographs would be manipulated on the screen.

    I changed because I wanted that kind of control. Steep learning curve, but look what’s happened: revolution — in the mastery of skills, certainly, but also in the way of thinking about design.

    And thinking about art. Since I just do stuff for myself now, I get to call it art, but design and gratitude for mastery inform every piece.

  38. Nancy Jones says:

    To compare graphic design to music — how many of you have heard a new song in the last few years that will stick in your head? I picked up some random brochures from a stand the other day, and they looked like they all came from the same designer, same printer. Only one stood out in a sea of process color on shiny gloss paper. It was the brochure that one of my customers had insisted on printing in black ink on peach 60# vellum when I suggested color for the same price. I didn’t understand his choice at the time, but I do now. Sometimes more is not better, it’s just more.

    Everyone’s a designer these days, but just like music, none of it catches your attention. Seems like there’s no beauty in it. Good typography holds your attention. A craftsman will make a page of type, artwork and colors harmonize, like music. Don’t give up on it; there are still people who notice the beauty of it all. I keep waiting; surely the music industry will do the same someday.

    • Kevin Cullis says:


      While the tools have made design easier, it still takes a Master to notice the “errors” produced by the Grasshopper.

      Here’s where I think things are going.

      I was told by a number of experts that I had to produce my book in InDesign or Quark. But I did not have the money to pay someone, nor could I afford to buy the application myself. In fact, I wanted to see how good I could get with something easier to use, yet still produce a “good enough” product that would sway a professional’s opinion.

      At some point, Nancy, yes, they will see the art that is there. They just have to see enough bad stuff to appreciate the good stuff. I think the one aspect that comes to mind is this: Middle of the road. Not McDonald’s hamburger, not quite Iron Chef, but somewhere in the middle is “better stuff” in the “good, better, and best” continuum. That’s what I need help with.

      • Cat says:

        Just a thought, Nancy,

        As you point out, it isn’t the application that makes good design. But I think the purpose of the company requesting something created in a specific application is because that is what they have on hand. If they need to manipulate it, make adjustments, etc., then they would need the same software to do that. That is what we do when we hire out to a freelancer.

        But in your favor, having a different software application protects your work from being manipulated, or maybe even stolen.

  39. Nancy Cutler says:

    I teach is a small graphic design program in San Francisco at UC Berkeley Extension. Upon realizing that the weakest element of our program is typography, we are working to fix that. In fact, we added a new course, Typography Fundamentals, beginning this summer. It sold out fast. I hope that continues. It gives me hope that we know we have this shortcoming and can do better in this craft.

    • Johanna says:

      Nancy, that is really such good news. I am not a book designer, but I fell in love with the history and craft of printing and typography back in the wee years of my career — which began as graphic design was making the transition from cut-and-paste to digital (Mac SE, Mac Plus, Illustrator 88, and Aldus PageMaker!). Some design publication back then, which I have to assume was Before & After, turned me on to really studying type, which soon became a benevolent obsession. It sounds like this is still a popular subject, even with young designers, which is good news to me.

  40. leonie says:

    When printing was invented, I wonder if there was discussion about the loss of those beautiful, hand-illuminated books created with such care and love. Perhaps not when it meant that reading and writing could be shared with a wider audience to the benefit of all.

    There is a certain “sameness” when we think of the advent of technology for the publishing of information across the internet. I love having access to such a wide range of materials to draw from for learning and fun. Having said that, the same technology is changing everything, including design, at an almost exponential rate. We’re now designing web sites very differently from how we did just ten years ago — because people have changed the way they read things. Left to right, top to bottom is no longer a standard — there is no beginning at page one with a progression through to the end. We look for groups of information, headings, images. We scan pages looking for relevant items, and we skim read. Speed is the relevant criterion. That leads to loss of details and the care that goes into producing it. Even our language is being reduced to almost prehistoric images and blocks of sound (:-D lol!) Strangely, just today I came across this chart that shows the “dumbing down” of Congressional speeches over the years.

    Beautiful design and craftsmanship takes time, care and love. It comes from a place of quietude and reflection. Whether it is skilled writing, artwork and design, hand crafted wood or iron work, artisan cheese and bread or hand-tailored clothing, the quality and design will always shine through. But is our modern culture moving just too fast to stop and admire the handiwork?

  41. It’s important to differentiate the changing tools we use from the craft of design itself. The in-your-face fact that technology and the ways content is delivered are changing at a mad rate can blind one to the other, more important fact that the craft of design is at least 40,000 years old, with thoroughly mature fundamentals that don’t change. Typography is another mature discipline: even if you ignore the scribes on whose craft typography is based, it is still 500 years old.

    The fundamentals of our craft don’t change. They will never become obsolete. From time to time they will be obscured by the dazzle of new technology, only to be rediscovered with awe and enthusiasm a little later. The fact that the Xacto knife has been replaced by Edit & Cut and Edit & Paste doesn’t alter the fact that things have to line up on a page, or that white space matters.

    New tools always have their influence. The sewing machine revolutionized women’s fashion, the invention of steel gave us soaring bridges and skyscrapers, lithography gave us new styles of design and led directly to the offset press, which in turn made photographic reproduction possible in print. None of these changed the fundamentals of their crafts. They simply provided new ways to express them.

    Advances in metal technology and precision tooling gave us the whole Didone family of typefaces. The limitations of the Linotype spawned new typeface designs that worked around them. The old scribes would justify text by varying letter spacing and character width — all but impossible with metal type — and by varying character shapes — very hard to do in the early days of desktop publishing. Modern software and font technology make it possible to use these typographic techniques that have been all but lost since the machine age began, and so we come full circle.

    I don’t believe we should feel lost. There is a void, to be sure, but it is only because the basics get lost in the glare of technology. Teachers and schools get hypnotized by the new stuff and forget to teach the fundamentals, perhaps because they themselves never really understood them, and partly because high tech is sexy and looks good in the school’s marketing materials.

    That’s where you come in. :-)

    • Skip Savage says:


      All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.

      So said Solomon. Life is a state of constant renewal, and what appears to be change is only rebirth.

    • Carmel says:

      I would say design is as old as the universe. The principles of design (unity, harmony, balance, contrast, rhythm etc.) are inherent in nature. Depending on the application, the elements used are different, as are the tools used to apply them, but the principles remain the same.

  42. Deb Smith says:

    You know, newsletters come and go all day long, and I almost never have the time to read them, but for some reason I was drawn to yours. Must’ve been the title. So profound! It honestly sums up what I’ve been feeling these last few years . . . especially these last few WEEKS.

    I started in web design in the 90s and professionally (in my 40s) in 2003. Business has always been brisk, even more so during the worst of the economic times. However, recently I’ve had numerous clients “jump ship” (as you put it), opting instead for a cookie-cutter, templated site promised to them “dirt-cheap” without any concerns as far as what it looks like. I’m all for new technology, but when new products, techniques and browser-support issues are coming out every day, keeping up with it is exhausting.

    As you can tell by my company name, I’m all about the “small details,” and it boggles my mind that businesses by the thousands are being represented by web sites that looks like their nephews built them in their spare time. I just don’t get it.

  43. mary ramirez says:

    I am a 40+ year veteran of the printing and publishing trade. I started my career in weekly newspaper composing, worked in and with print shops, ad agencies, composition houses, trade printers, etc., and now own my own digital print shop. I have seen the progression of the print industry from a personal standpoint. I knew cold type in 1976 and was hired by a major metropolitan newspaper to replace the outgoing hot-metal linotypers, but what an education to see that one phase go by the wayside. The advent of the personal computer made it possible to continue my craft — typesetting and what has come to be called graphic design — at home while my daughter was young.

    After reading the posts today, I wondered about the somewhat narrow focus of some of the responses. I think that John was applying the loss of master craftsmanship to the graphic industry, but it is so much larger than that. There is craftsmanship in many professions that has been lost or ignored in the rush to have it sooner rather than later. So many things are made to be disposable; it breaks, you throw it out and buy another one that has just as short a lifespan.

    The computer has changed us in ways that we are just beginning to fathom. Robots manufacture our every need or want — ever watch Unwrapped and seen the enormous machines that make candy bars or potato chips? It is mind-boggling. And computerized. Furniture is mass produced — do you have some antiques that grandma bequeathed? Aren’t they wonderful, with their hand-turned dowels, the dovetail joins, and the polished brass knobs? Food is mass produced and packaged already cooked or nearly so. The craft of preparing a meal is certainly lost on my daughter and her generation. Hot Pockets, anyone? Where has the elegance gone?

    In the end, it is design in and of itself that endures. I cringe when I receive a flyer produced in Publisher with no margins and 10 to 12 different typefaces in a six-inch area. In some cases I am able to convince my client that a more professional look will attract a more professional response. But not always and then I just ask for a pdf.

    Print is not going away. People still like to hold things in their hands, feel the paper, distribute their business cards, save the newspaper clipping about little Bobby’s achievements. Look at the grocery store — every package there has been printed! The challenge is to discover how to make a living at the personal level. Mr. Cullis was spot on when he referenced the business of graphic arts. The most innovative, beautiful designs can be mismanaged into obscurity. To strive for the “master” within ourselves and in our work is the real job.

    And thank you, John, for subjects that tantalize and beg for introspection!

  44. I’m sure at some point one old monk turned to another old monk and said (and I paraphrase) “These kids today don’t spend the time learning how to sharpen their quills properly.”

    That being said, I think we are not learning to use the tools before we create, but rather, the tools are now using us. Think back to Photoshop 1.0. You learned to craft bezels and shadows and maps from multiple steps so you understood them — there was no do-over or undo, either. Now, “designers” today just click a button on a filter. They don’t understand principles of light, how the mark of a piece of charcoal against a piece of paper both affects the properties of the charcoal and the paper; and how a second mark using the same piece of charcoal will produce a slightly different effect on the same piece of paper, even if applied in the same way.

    We are all turning into assemblers of stuff. There are vast libraries of fonts and whoosits and photos and whatnots created by other people long ago and far away from which to “assemble” an ad or layout or website. Nobody at McDonalds creates burgers; they assemble them. Even sandwich “artists” at Subway assemble food. Almost every American restaurant assembles their “signature” burger from a mass-produced patty and bun created somewhere else. Mechanics don’t “repair” cars anymore, they just replace components — assemblers. Many don’t understand how all the parts work together, they just know that the computer says filter is bad, change filter. We are assembling everything from fashion to politics to literature to logos to customer service.

    We may have replaced the definition of “create” with that of “assembly” and think we’re still creating. We are not. The willingness, aptitude and skill of creating is what we are giving up with each cycle of change. We’re confusing the tools with the substrate. With each cycle, the depth of our understanding of the craft is become more and more shallow . . . and we don’t even know that it is. We are not only beginning anew each time, but we are doing it further away from the starting point. And we believe we have run the race each time from the starting gate when, in reality, we were carried the first mile.

    Or not. I dunno. During the time it took to drop in this comment, my reality has already shifted. Perhaps I should be grateful the Internet still works the same way as it did 17 minutes ago. :-)

    • Johanna says:

      This last bit . . . just what I needed after a 14-hour day of “Can you do this? I need it two minutes ago.” Thank you for the laugh.

  45. I’m a big fan. I love your videos, articles and anything else you can throw my way. I hear what you are saying and it frightens me. I spent years developing my skills as an artist only to discover that I, like Mr. Dickens, “want MORE”. Moving into graphics late in the game, type intrigues me more and more. I’m starting at 20% and forging ahead vigorously. No schools are interested in teaching this. They seem to only want to crank more of the same multi-media volcanic garbage. But, I find myself a fan of the newest and most creative font designers now that I never knew existed before I started reading B&A.

    We newbies with lifetime achievements in other fields are out there and listening; marching onward. We luvs ya baby!

  46. Roger says:


    Thanks for this post on print and skilled print masters. I was inspired to put my thoughts on print on my blog. You and your readers might enjoy.

  47. Scott Rosema says:

    Okay, folks, here’s something that defined a whole lifetime of thinking for me, starting very early in my career.

    Born in 1958, I technically became a professional illustrator in 1978, one year before graduation, with a paid — and limited — gig doing a local comic strip. I didn’t consider myself a seasoned pro by a long shot, but it fueled the desire in me to be become a great or quality illustrator. Anything less seemed like an ignoble cause. I struggled along in the first few years, freelancing side work along with the 8-to-5 agency jobs. Then one day, while working with a friend in our “dream studio” start-up (his basement and a handful of local accounts), he brought in some old paste-up boards from a previous ad campaign, which we were instructed by the client to spice up and modernize. These were from the late 60s. As I pulled out the studio envelope’s contents, the solid gator board and cold press illustration boards still had a spring to them. The slight musty aroma of rubber cement and crisp crackle of vellum overlay sheets sung out a siren’s tune to me. I had been instructed in the art of layout boards and ad comps in college, ’76 to ’79, but had not yet seen this kind of gem.

    As I sifted through the pile of ad material, the aura of master craftsmanship floated before me. Absolutely uniform-sized boards, all containing different-sized ad layouts but perfectly centered on each one. Each ad was bordered first in blue line, overlapping exactly one inch at the corners. The crop lines were inked precisely 1/2 inch out from the corner and stopping at 3/8 inch, leaving a 1/8-inch tail of unmarred blue pencil. The interior of the ad space had an equal border of white, again fenced in by blue pencil, and corners met with 90-degree accuracy. The faded films of type and halftoned photos were not only aligned with the same precision, but they were cut and trimmed on their edges with the same straight attention. These were edges that would never print, as they would shoot white through the stat camera anyway. (And besides, their sharp corners and edges had been dutifully white painted with the look of a master carpenter caulking glass panes into a window frame.) The layout and composition of the ad content was awesome in its simplicity and extremely powerful with its message conveyance.

    Notes and instructions to the camera men were hand lettered, with ruled guidelines, as if a sign painter had been brought in. The small paragraphs were flush both sides and parallel to each other on both sides of the ad layout. Subtle artistic flourishes on pointing lines started with bullet circles near the instructional lettering and ended in Cupid arrowheads near the ad layout border. No overlap, no crossed-out elements. Each board was a work of art, from its production attitude to its printable ad content. (The story of how we confronted the client with our initial inability to imagine how to do “better” than these boards is another time’s tale.)

    The outlook-changer for me was the sheer volume of “care” that I saw on those boards. Care that was, no doubt, nurtured by someone over years of perfecting and honing not only their hand and tool skills, but their knowledge of the medium and craft that they felt they served. The work that I saw on those boards wasn’t just for the client, or the ad campaign, or even themselves. It was for the art they worked in, the art they believed they were in service to. And, in another sense, it was for me — and everyone else who experienced the timeless qualities of those boards. How do I know? Because I remember those boards to this day. And dozens of others over the years. Plus, I have vague memories of other production materials (or art of all sorts) that did not impact me; work that had “lazy” or “apathy” smeared all over it.

    So, over the years, the definition of “master” for me has become centered on one’s level of caring that is evident in the work. The undeniable amount of constructive passion that exists in the foundation and finish of one’s expression. The attention someone brings to all the details that they know will add depth and universal quality to someone’s experience with their creation. And the time they are happy to spend getting better.

    Anything less may still be someone doing good, but it’s not the pastime of a master.

  48. KJ says:

    It would be great if you had a share button for posts! I would have tweeted this one for sure!

  49. Tom Semmes says:

    This discussion was reminding me of a previous discussion where John used the example of a flier for a used car and asked whether a well-designed, clean, and uncluttered design — one that an experienced master of design and typography would have come up with — was more effective then a messy, loud and disorganized layout — with starbursts none the less! — that would have come from a newbie’s first try at desktop publishing. Turns out the second one was more effective at grabbing the appropriate buyer’s interest. It seems there are two types of masters: one that hones the craft of design, composition, color, and typography; and another that realizes these are all just tools to get a message across as effectively as possible.

    • Cat says:

      Yes, Tom, you have made a good point. A lot depends on what the goal is, the purpose of the piece, and most importantly, the audience. Perhaps a good analogy would be to consider a casual backyard birthday invitation versus a formal, black-tie wedding invitation.

  50. Sven says:

    Excellent post! This holds oh-so-true in the world of marketing as well — constant evolution at a whirlwind pace. Once must become a master of many things to keep up. But are we truly able to keep up?

  51. Diane Probst says:

    I worked as a production artist for an advertising agency and cut horizontal tracks in my sheet of waxed copy type pasted to illustration board so that I could kern by hand!!! We had to get the rag just right. I also cut many headlines that had to have the ligatures touched up with an ink pen. I was very good with ink and X-acto knives! I still carry this base knowledge with me today into the digital world. I do agree that I have to continually take courses to keep up. But I am not sure if I want to go back to drafting desks and knives — the toolbox is so much bigger on computers!

  52. Pam Simmons says:

    I didn’t know you started Before & After magazine!

    I am a dinosaur too — I’m an original graphic artist graduated as art major in 1977. I remember the early career days of wax machines (I miss that unmistakable smell!) — and press type — and Rapidograph pens and t-squares — and cutting color with Amberlith overlays for direct-mail brochures I designed and wrote and printed 100,000 at a time as the one-person, jack-of-all-trades marketing department. I remember how excited I was when flexible border tape was invented. Give me an X-acto blade, and I can do wonders!

    I used Aldus Freehand on my Mac until a very few years ago. Right now I’m stuck with Pages, and it can’t do all I want to do with that.

    Anyway, just wanted to write and say I appreciate you and what you do and what you write about. I’ve been educated by you too, and it keeps me more fresh about design. Thanks for all you do — even feeding us dinosaurs.


    • Scott Rosema says:

      Pam, keep this in mind about being a “dinosaur” . . . whenever I think of myself as one, it’s always an image of a roaring, powerful T-Rex, sword-sized teeth gleaming with blood from a fresh kill, and its deafening howl proceeds its earth-rumbling charge through the jungle, crushing foliage and sending all other creatures fleeing in fear before it! And it takes a life-ending strike from space to stop me!

      I think being a dinosaur is cool!

  53. John says:

    I’ve been in the printing industry for nearly 20 years, and it has changed dramatically over the years. My first exposure to printing was when I was on the high school and college newspaper. I’ve become tangled up in border tape and cut my fingers with an X-acto knife on many occasions. I’ve had to re-send out galleys because the word count and spacing weren’t calculated correctly, or I’ve had to get halftones re-shot because they weren’t the right size.

    But now, files are uploaded through the internet, proofed online, and then sent directly to plate. While the advances have been startling, they have also led to a somewhat lackadaisical approach to the craft. Files are sent in at the last minute, most of the time in need of further proofing or editing. Attention to detail has suffered, as files are not prepared properly. But all of these errors that were once “showstoppers” can now be corrected in just a few minutes, most of the time without causing a major delay (unless mistakes are caught after plating and onward).

    While techniques have changed over the years, and I’ve had to learn new software, or had to learn how to prepare files for printing and for a web site, ultimately, design itself hasn’t changed. The same principles of unity and rhythm and balance and color are still relevant.

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  55. Terri says:

    “Jack of all trades, master of none” is more appropriate for me.

    Came to printing late in life, so I have added dozens of trades to the already dizzying swirl in my gray matter.

    Thank goodness for B&A! Y’all inspire me to keep my designs clear and elegant. I come back over and over again to shore myself up for the onslaught of customers who want rainbow-colored titles in the Majestic font or to cram 100s of services on the front of a business card. If I have to explain bleed to one more “drive through” graphic artist, who knows what could happen. Probably yet another “trade”.

  56. Joan says:

    I am one of the dropouts! But, not so sad for me (I’m sort of an elf on the shelf). I am a cattle rancher now — one of the few constructive activities that stands on long tradition and moves at the pace of a cow. I can explore the bleeding edge (thank you B&A) when I have time, and only to accomplish what I need to in the interest of cows, farmers, and people who still eat beef — and a few non-profits on the side. I think it’s a nice way to go out to pasture!

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  58. Marty Bee says:

    I think the basic premise is only partly true. There are few masters. That part goes without saying, if the only basis for mastery is time in the craft. But if you are looking for mastery, it is important to decide a master of what.

    Let me clarify. There are techniques, processes, and ways of doing things that weren’t even thought of back in the early 80s when I graduated from design school. Seps were done by camera, we had computer typesetting (after a fashion; you had to be a programmer to get it all in!), and we did overlays with Amberlith and Rubylith for spot colors and mixing CMYK. Now all that is compacted in plastic box on my desk.

    Then there are principles — that is, what design principles guide your laying down of images and text on the page (or screen)? These essential principles are not being taught in schools today.

    Erik Spiekermann, founder of MetaDesign, said early on that their expertise in print typography informed their web work.

    In any case, I don’t think it is dead, maybe just sleeping until the technology catches up. I’m contradicting myself in a way here.

    Part of the other problem with gaining “mastery” in typography with new media is that the tools just aren’t there yet for real control of typography on a screen. With the advent of mobile and tablet screens, the situation even gets worse!

    What we need is some sort of synthesis between technology and typographic principles.

    (As for me, I will still teach typography one semester a year.)

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