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Graphic Means: Film Project Explores Pre-Digital Design Production

Posted by Rebecca Blake on March 18, 2016

Graphic Means film promotional artworkA film trailer released in early March has received a lot of attention, particularly among designers of a certain age (and with the Xacto knife scars to show). The trailer is for a film currently in production: Graphic Means: A History of Graphic Design Production. The film is the labor of love of designer and educator Briar Lovit, and explores the pre-digital era of graphic design, when design tools included T-squares, Letraset, amberlith, and a good relationship with a typesetting studio. Recently, Lovit talked with us about how the project came about.  

Lovit never intended to produce a film. Her background is in book design, and she came of age as a designer in the mid-1990s, well after design schools had migrated their programs to be primarily digital. However, as she collected old design manuals from the 1970s and 80s – Lovit is an avid thrift shopper – she became fascinated by the step-by-step processes described in the books. Doug Wilson’s film Linotype gave her the inspiration to pursue a film about pre-digital design production. (Wilson is more than just a role model; he’s been actively mentoring her on the Graphic Means film.)

The timing is perfect for such a film. The revolution from manual production to digital design is fairly recent, and many of the people who made the transition are still around. She’s pulled together an impressive list of interviewees for the film, luminaries such as Steven Heller, Ellen Lupton, Tobias Frere-Jones, Ken Garland (creator of the iconic peace sign), and James Craig (author of Designing with Type). But what will give the film texture and weight are the unsung production heros she dug up: Gene Gable, who for many years ran the pre-press trade show Seybold Seminars; Frank Romano, the design historian and former editor of International Paper Pocket Pro (an indispensible resource for designers preparing print files); and a group of former cold typesetters in New York City, among others.

While young designers will be amused by the unrecognizable artifacts of a bygone era, Lovit feels there’s a larger story about how the creative process has been altered, and not necessarily for the good. She by no means rejects the ease that digital tools bring to design. However, as she put it, there has been a loss in contemplation, and inexperienced designers skip steps to rush to a final product. In her design classes (Lovit is Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Portland State), she asks her students to ideate on paper before proceeding to the computer. The skill and labor that the manual techniques required, from creating comps on board to preparing color separations with amberlith film, meant that designers had to make much more deliberate, well-considered choices – something she hopes to impart to her students.

The film got its initial funding through a successful Kickstarter campaign, which raised one quarter of the total budget required for completion. Currently the film is in post-production, and Lovit is enjoying the collaborative process with Dawn Jones Redstone, her director of photography, and editor Emily VonW. Gilbert. She’s also been getting a lot of positive press, and was invited to run a session at the Portland Design Week on April 20th. Participants will be able to view “live paste-up demos” (mechanical artists would roll their eyes), rub their own Letraset letters, and view the Graphic Means trailer. Lovit is also actively fundraising, in part by selling calendars, buttons, and a pre-order for the film’s DVD off the film’s online shop.

 

Graphic Means (Official Trailer) from Briar Levit on Vimeo.

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