X-acto Mundo


The young man pictured here comes to us courtesy of the Mary Degnan Archives. (Mary was inspired to re-examine a box of old photos after seeing her work on this particular subject matter here at Tonsil a month ago.) This picture was taken in the spring of 1987, when I was 18 and a freshman at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Don’t be afraid of the dilated stare and the sharp knife — it’s just another Wednesday production night at the offices of the Maroon. I was good with an X-acto.

I miss layout. It was probably the only crafty, tactile skill I ever mastered — starting in the journalism room in high school. I miss the waxer, the long strips of freshly developed type set in column inches, the bordertape, the pica poles, the photo reduction-ratio wheels, mitering my corners, the Zip-o-Tone Zip-a-Tone [thanks, Nancy], the 20-percent gray screen half-tones, the light-tables; writing headlines from count orders (“they need a 3-36-1 in 19-pica column width, and don’t forget that flitj only counts for half a character”). I miss the monstrous and cantankerous photostat machine. I miss light blue Copy-Not pens. I miss being able to fix a typo with a knife instead of a reset.

I miss the satisfaction of moving the page flats over to the “finished” side of the boards, where we would burnish them silly and would then hold them up to the light and put masking tape behind the stray X-acto nicks. I miss piling into Tim Watson’s car to drive the flats down to Dixie-Web press off Tchoupitoulas Street at 3 a.m. (Or 4 a.m. Five a.m., on really bad weeks.) I even miss the heartbreak of seeing the paper 24 hours later and noticing all the bad nicks and crooked lines.

All of those skills are now completely obsolete.

I think I derived the same joy from laying out a newspaper that quilters derive from quilting bees. It required concentration, measurement, technique, artistry — but it never distracted you from conversations and gossip and laughs with your collaborators. No matter what sort of worries I had in life (it seems unthinkable to me that I had any worries in 1987, but of course I did), there was nothing more gratifying than a long, hard night of layout, with WTUL on the radio (or a mix tape). The paper came out Friday mornings. We’d close (or try to close) the features and op-ed pages on Tuesday nights, and then the news and editorial pages on Wednesdays — as late as it took, but our printer deadline was technically midnight. We’d usually get the flats there by 3 a.m.

(These pictures, from somebody else’s newsroom backshop, sort of dial the time machine a little too far in reverse, but you’ll get the idea.)

The beginning of the end.

Around the same time Mary took that knife-in-mouth picture of me, we started converting from Compugraphic typesetting machines to the newfangled Apple Macintosh Plus computers (with 80 MB hard drives!). Although Loyola’s Apple team insisted we’d be able to entirely paginate the paper, no sweat, it was something of a disaster for many semesters. We had to cobble together a system on a flimsy “Apple-Talk” network, by which we “typeset” our stories into columns using a “laser” printer. As production manager that semester, I started tentatively experimenting with building boxes, column sigs, and folios on the screen, using Aldus PageMaker or MacDraw.

Laying out a page (or a poster or a book jacket or a brochure) on the screen also has its pleasures — as millions of present-day graphic designers in all forms of media will attest. But it’s hard to match the feeling of laying something out by hand. I guess this is really just more nostalgia for the idea of slowness, craft, the physicality of media.


Not just a bit phallic, eh?

I wish I could start a Layout Club, for people of a certain age who used to love doing this. We could be like those people who rebuild old video game consoles and whatever else. We would banish all forms of desktop publishing technology prior to 1985. We could hunt down and restore an actual typesetting terminal and developer. We could cobble together some waxers, X-acto knives, other supplies; find or build light-tables and boards. We could meet in someone’s garage. We could put music on and just run out type and lay out a newspaper that would never even have to get to printed. We would miter corners and do color-separation flips. Mostly we would just trade stories and laugh and go home and discover stray strands of “Harvard-rule” border tape in our hair.

Does that sound like a fun time or what? I’ll bet hipsters would love it, just for the retro feel.


  1. jcburns on June 21, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    I would work overnights doing layout/production decades ago at the OU Post (with your buddy Nance) and collapse around 4 or 5 am. Most likely, I’d then rise, having slept through morning classes, and stare in the mirror at the border tape and miscellaneous Letraset punctuation stuck to my face, mixed with day old donut crumbs (they’d throw them out right around the corner from our paper’s office.)

    I was really awful at layout (when it comes to straightness and precision I’m the kind of person PageMaker was delivered on Earth to help), but I loved it.

    Thanks for helping me smell the waxer again.

  2. Teresa Nielsen Hayden on June 21, 2010 at 11:59 pm

    Oh, man. When I read your paragraph that begins “I miss layout,” I could suddenly smell the Compugraphic photodeveloping solution. I let out a small whimper.

    Patrick, who’d sent me the link, happened to be passing by at just that moment. “I made the same noise when I read that paragraph,” he said.

    Patrick had real chops. He could correct a typo in 10-pt. Times Roman by cutting out individual letters and pasting them down to form a missing word, and they’d come out straight and correctly spaced. His Letraset was always straight too.

    My pasteup was awful, because I couldn’t see straight lines. Instead, I played keyboards.

    And then there was mimeography…

    Good times, good times.

  3. Frank on June 22, 2010 at 2:27 am

    I still have a waxer in the footlocker at the bottom of my storage

    Went from working on all three college publications (newspaper,
    yearbook, literary magazine) to actual, professional graphic artist
    in a four-color printshop, back when color separations were still
    shot on a process camera using colored screens and a lot of artistry.

    Quit the biz to go to graduate school at the U of Oregon, where my
    grad assistantship involved producing the departmental magazine on
    the beta-test version of PageMaker 1.5. Could tell right away that
    it had been created by actual paste-up artists, and loved it dearly.

    These days I’ve given up the graphics business entirely for something
    even more retro than Xactos and Lectrostick: functional pottery.

  4. Fletcher on June 22, 2010 at 6:13 am

    I studied graphic design for several years around mid-decade. Many of my tutors were of the same generation as you, and had similar biases about doing things the old fashioned way … and then marked us accordingly. Wilful obsolesence is surely some kind of sin in teaching, but some of them could spot something glued on a millimeter out of true. It was harrowing.

    The library was full of books written in the late 80s and early 90s by typographers angry and indignant that the world had changed, bemoaning the Vandal hordes at the gates of Rome. It grew tedious after a while … and I still hate Helvetica.

  5. Hank Stuever on June 22, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Someone named JULIE — I think your comment got accidentally eaten
    by the spam filter! Apologies! Please resubmit?

  6. Ravenmn on June 22, 2010 at 11:59 am

    JCBurns, if you’re talking about the Ohio University Post, then I’m a fellow veteran Postie (1974-76). We worked on IBM Selectric typewriters with 1″ metal tape drives for storage and justification. We used clay-backed paper as a base. I can still remember the smell.

    I’m nostalgic, but I certainly don’t miss trying to draw a line with a rapidograph or laying down a 1-point rule tape.

    Gene Gable wrote a great article (http://www.creativepro.com/article/heavy-metal-madness-waxing-nostalgic-over-paste-up) at Creative Pro with pictures of waxing machines, Bestine, Formaline. Enjoy!

  7. Hank Stuever on June 22, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Sincere apologies to a couple of you who posted great
    comments here and now they are gone. The spam has been relentless,
    and my attempts to get rid of it resulted in an unwanted casualty
    or two. Feel free to re-post. Once I’ve approved you, you should be
    good to go, without the delay. –Hank

  8. Karen on June 22, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    You are in for a treat if you’ve never visited The Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies: http://drawger.com/show.php?show_id=32. I blogged about it a couple of years ago: http://verbatim.blogs.com/verbatim/2008/07/i-remember-rubylith.html

  9. Mark Simonson on June 22, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    I’m another veteran of the pre-desktop publishing days. I don’t miss the laboriousness of it, but I do miss the low-tech magic of sticking stuff on paper, by whatever means, and then seeing it neatly reproduced a zillion times. It invited invention and resourcefulness. If you were good, no one could tell you set all your headlines with rub-down type. I even made my own “formatt” type from old type specimen books so I wasn’t stuck with whatever Letraset or Chartpak happened to offer.

    It’s hard for me to imagine anyone really doing a “Layout Club”, but who knows. I’m sure there are old letterpress guys who never thought anyone would do that for a hobby.

  10. Eric Tolladay on June 27, 2010 at 1:58 am

    Paste-up? I remember fondly the day I got to call my mother and tell her I was officially an Apprentice Stripper.
    (No not THAT kind of stripper, it was a paste-up job using negative film, and rubilith tape) However, I do not miss paste-up. Page layout is not as tactile, but far more flexible.

    If you miss the “crafty” side of the job, pick up a crafty hobby. I build model airplanes, and find it every bit as satisifying, and you still get to use X-acto knives, which is always a plus. That is, until you stick one in your finger.

    Now raise your hand if you ever ordered a chromatek?

  11. Ben Montgomery on June 30, 2010 at 11:06 am

    Two things:

    1.) The Slick (Okla.) Avenger will be 100-percent paste-up.

    2.) There’s a layout legend at the San Angelo Standard Times, circa long before I was there. The newsroom was on the first floor; paste-up and re-write happened in the basement. The floors were connected by a series of vaccuum tubes, to send stories downstairs, and an intercom. One night, deadline was approaching and the pressure was on. One of the ladies downstairs, frantic, gets on the intercom and calls up the newsroom: “I’ve got a big hairy hole and I need about nine inches to fill it.”

  12. CJH / esper on July 8, 2010 at 1:29 am

    We would banish all forms of desktop publishing technology
    prior to 1985.

    I guess troff, nroff and predecessors
    would be acceptable by those guidelines. In which case:  
    , man. Sign me up!

  13. nonelvis on July 21, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    Man, now I miss layout, too: the cranky old CG machines, the mystical language of ATEX, waxing stuff to the walls for fun … it’s just not the same with InDesign.

  14. There's a Pea In My Fruit Cup on August 17, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    … that’s among the mystic phrases Veloxed to the 34th Street mini-fridge in 1991. Back when making Big Bird and Snuffaluphagus smoke Camels was as easy as X-acto and wax. I miss the Daily Pennsylvanian, before pagination. Thanks, Hank, for reminding me of the smell of the backshop at 3 a.m.

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