My journey to becoming a graphic designer

When I began my career in graphic design (about 25 years ago), I started as a part-time typesetter, having come from a secretarial background and with minimal word-processing experience let alone graphics skills.

At first, I worked on typesetting machines (Compugraphic—if my memory serves me) using a keyboard to set type for the classified section of a weekly motorcycle news magazine, local TV advertiser and editorial for monthly magazines.

Most of the time, we used only one typeface (Helvetica) in a few styles and all the text was typeset using a set of rules. This was back in the day when, as typesetters, we used predefined function keys that added the code for the different fonts being used (<ft145> through to <ft149> being the ones I remember most).

I worked alongside other typesetters—all keying at around 80-90 words per minute—typesetting reams and reams of text, but not seeing how it actually looked until it was printed. (It was actually printed with such a small font—less than 4 pt—a magnifying glass was needed to read it—which I’m sure would be a big NO-NO now!)

After setting the type, image-setters were used to layout blocks of text and graphics ready for printing (I never got involved in this process back then). Older (or should I say, more experienced) typesetters at the company had started in the industry much earlier than me (10-20 years earlier) and talked constantly about how much harder it used to be as they had to manually set type using metal blocks—a much more laborious process, I’m sure.

One typesetter also used to tell funny stories about how they’d change the wording in horoscopes after they had been edited, so that the actual horoscope was totally different and therefore rendered meaningless to the reader! But I digress.

Two days a week, I also had to “compose” black and white boxed ads for the classified sections in a couple of weekly publications. These were created/written completely in code on different Compugraphic and I never actually got to see the results till they were sent to the proofing machine.

This meant I had to quickly learn how to code/create boxes (or frames) with different border widths and margins using precise measurements in picas and points (I had to learn my 12 times tables all over again). I also learned how to add text in different point sizes and line heights (or line sizes) ensuring everything was aligned horizontally and vertically within the box.

Back then, creating these boxed ads really showcased my design skills when I added a thick border, used Gill Sans instead of Helvetica or added white (text) on black, WOB as we called it! [Add in some sarcasm!] What it did do, however, was instill in me the need for precisely aligned text and graphic elements—still to this day I curse myself if I ever send something to print that’s not perfectly aligned!

Shortly after learning to code on the Compugraphics, I began composing display ads using “Integrators,” horrendously large computers by today’s standards, on which you still had to code, but you got to see roughly how the ad would look on one half of a split screen. Ads were still pretty basic, and if an image needed to be included, we would leave space for it, and it would be added by the imaging department later.

A year or so after I started (or perhaps sooner but I may not have noticed), the owner bought an Apple Mac and I’d see him every Saturday laying out pages and paginating one of our publications ready for pre-press.

Once the boss had learned the ropes, more Apple Macs arrived, installed with QuarkXpress, Freehand and Photoshop, and the full-timers began using them on a daily basis. As time went by, we moved to a larger location, and more and more Macs arrived. New database software was installed on some of them so that the typesetters could typeset the classified listings and the Compugraphics and Integrators gradually all left the building.

Three days a week, I used a Mac to design ads in QuarkXpress, learning how to design on screen using a drag and drop, WYSWYG method. I no longer needed to code in fonts, alignments, border widths and margins, and with a few clicks of the mouse, I was able to import photos and clip art into my designs.

As I learned new skills on a Mac, being able to see my work as I created it and having access to a variety of typefaces, instead of using just boring old Helvetica, Times and Gills Sans, I also learned the art of typography (learning terms such as display type and headlines, tracking and kerning, ascenders and descenders, line height and spacing), and began creating more visually appealing ads.

I also began learning Photoshop skills—re-sizing and cropping photos, image adjustments, and close cropping motorbikes—as well as learning about different file types so that photos were ready for importing into ad designs at the correct size and in the correct format. On quiet days, or when we typeset the classifieds or editorials quicker than they came in, I also got to practice my design skills in Freehand, which was similar to Illustrator.

As the years passed and my skills grew, I gained a variety of graphic design and page layout skills in a number of design programs (including PageMaker, Illustrator and InDesign) which enabled me to progress from a typesetter to compositor to Mac Operator, to page layout specialist, graphic designer and finally production manager.

After emigrating to Canada in January 1999 and wanting a way of showing my family back in the UK what was happening here in the land of snow, I began creating websites, learning HTML code and later CSS. I eventually learned to use Dreamweaver, making the website design process much quicker.

I enjoyed what I was doing in my career so much, that I decided to start my own graphic and website design business 8 years ago. Since then my skills and creativity have grown more than they did during my first 17 years in the industry, due in part to the diversity of my clients and the projects they’ve given me, but also because of the rapid development of technology and software available to me and the amount of time I can now spend practicing.

Most of what I know in this industry is self-taught, learned through trial and error, watching or reading online tutorials or through studying other people’s work. I’ve never studied graphic design formally or read a graphic design terminology book, and often take it for granted that my clients know what I’m talking about. However, that is not always the case. Sometimes the terminology I use can be confusing to my clients who are generally non-designers and I know from experience that it can be confusing for newcomers to the graphic design field as well.

So starting on January 2nd, every other day for 104 days, I will define and/or compare two graphic design terms that are sometimes confused with each other—52 posts, each defining and/or comparing two graphic design terms. (I was going to write one comparison a week, but thought you’d get tired waiting for the next installment, so it’ll be every other day.)

I will start with terms relating to text, followed by design & layout, colour, images, branding, printing and whatever else I can think of. So if you found any of the terms used above confusing or want to know what they mean, or the difference between various graphic design terms, check back tomorrow and every other day for the next 104 days.

I will try to keep them short and sweet, but as you can tell from my website, I do tend to get carried away with my writing and my posts can get a little long! But hey, it brings a lot of web traffic!

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2 Responses to “My journey to becoming a graphic designer”

  1. Graphic Design Terms 1-2: Typesetting vs Typography | Kaz Talk Says:

    […] Kaz Talk  »  for your evolving small business « My journey to becoming a graphic designer […]

  2. Graphic Design Terms 15-16: Point Size vs Pixel Size | Kaz Talk Says:

    […] are 12 picas to an inch. Thus, when I was coding ads in the early days of my career (see my post on My journey to becoming a graphic designer), I learned how to accurately measure both the height and width of ads and position individual […]