What’s A Computer? Part 1

In 2012 it is difficult to imagine a time when there was no internet, digital photography didn’t exist and graphic designers used scalpels & glue – not computers. When was this dark, primitive time you may ask – the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s? No! It was 1985, the year I began my degree.

The most high tech I got was to embrace what Saddam Hussein described as the greatest invention of the 20th Century

It is inconceivable today that a young student could complete a degree in graphic design without ever having switched a computer on, let alone used one. Computers did exist in 1985 of course, but in image manipulation terms, domestic models were useless having an average memory less than a retrograde amnesiac. As a young hopeful wannabe designer I used to marvel at the prospect of one day being able to use the famed Quantel Paintbox, the eighties forerunner to Mac based Photoshop, trouble was they cost around £150,000 (roughly £350,000 in todays money) and as a result were the exclusive preserve of the big design houses.

Quantel Paintbox

Obviously not being able to afford a piece of kit 3 times the price of an average house at the time meant my fellow students and I, not to mention the overwhelming number of professional graphic designers too for that matter, had to use tried and tested traditional methods of realising our visual creations. Now I am not about to sound like your grandad and go on a rant ‘Things were better when I were a lad, before them new fangled computer things came along’. I now use Apple computers every day of my working life and would be snookered without them, but I will illustrate in this piece how working practices have changed and how we, here at Microdot, still embrace some of the old techniques.

Original Microdot ‘hardware’ still in use today. Click to view full screen.

Right up until 1995, SEVEN years after graduating, the only ‘hardware’ I possessed was a cutting mat, a scalpel, a packet of spare blades a tin of glue and a metal type scale/ruler. This meant that all Oasis artwork up to that point and including the LP ‘Definitely Maybe’ was pasted up by hand onto boards in my bedroom in Wigan before being sent to the printers.

Definitely Maybe, original logo artwork. Click to enlarge.

More on the 1995 upgrgade to a ‘real’ computer later, but for now back to the 80’s. Whilst studying at Leeds Polytechnic the most high tech I got was to embrace what Saddam Hussein described as the greatest invention of the 20th Century, the humble photocopier. I had become a fan of the stark, contrasty imagery produced courtesy of the Xerox Corporation as far back as the late 70’s in my punk rock days, and the in house college copier became an indispensable tool. Regardless of what project I was working on the starting point would always be one of my battered sketch books, not that much sketching went on, I would compile collages from photocopied images and text, use rub down Letraset, glue in found objects, daub the pages with gouache and generally attempt to regurgitate what I could see in my head onto the pre printed graph paper pages of lab books bought from the science department. These volumes, which often took months to fill, would form the foundations for projects sometimes only fully completed once I had turned professional. They became an essential part of my creative process and the embryonic method of working I was developing at the time translated into a personal style that remains with me to this day.

Below are some example spreads from one of my ‘Lab books’ from 1988.

Cover to one of my ‘Lab books’ This one dates from 1988. Click to view full screen.

Photocopied image with added gouache detail and notes. Click to view full screen.

Razor blade, text photocopied onto tracing paper. Click to view full screen.

Letraset rub down lettering deconstructed by use of adhesive tape. Click to view full screen.

Upon graduating in 1988 I found myself totally unprepared for the ‘real design world’. College, whilst allowing me to develop a style and approach, had taught me nothing about how to prepare ‘camera ready artwork’ for a printer, or how to spec up a text sheet for a typesetter. Lazy tutors had presumed all students would start off at the bottom rung in an agency somewhere  and would be schooled in the finer points of production methods by their new employers. Wrong. I had taken the decision from day one, in my blind innocence, that I would go freelance and conquer the world on my own. Whilst in retrospect I made the right decision, (although I haven’t quite managed to conquer the world yet) what followed was nearly four years of rejection, little work and being totally skint.

Thankfully all that began to change after a chance meeting with Richard Ashcroft and I got the gig to produce sleeve artwork for The Verve (or simply ‘Verve’ as they were known then). Still computerless but with a self taught knowledge of the technical side of the production process I went to work. The image below of Verve’s ‘She’s A Superstar’ was completed without the aid of any digitization whatsoever in 1992.

Verve ‘She’s A Superstar’ 1992. Click to enlarge.

The neon sign really was in the river, powered out of shot by a generator, you can see the white electrical cables running off to the right. The blue colour of the river wasn’t achieved by post production use of Photoshop, but created by me standing a quarter of a mile upstream and pouring a dustbin full of blue food colouring into the water. The four silhouetted figures on the distant hillside were not added digitally, that is (The) Verve shivering up there for hours until we completed the shot.

Admittedly, this archaic, but fun way of working was borne out of necessity as I could not afford the requisite digital hardware to do it any other way. The latest computers from California, whilst considerably cheaper than the Quantel Paintbox I mentioned earlier, were still way out of my reach. But that was of no concern, I had never done anything digitally before and I thoroughly enjoyed staging the shoots ‘for real’ anyway.

The need to accelerate into the digital era was not brought about because I felt restricted creatively but because on the production end of things the process was simply far faster. By 1994 I had began working with Oasis and the workload I had was growing all the time, after their first album and associated singles I had established a solid working relationship not only with the band but their label, Creation Records. To be able to produce artwork for the band, not only in the form of record sleeves, but press ads, posters, merchandise etc. I simply had get a Mac. To my surprise I managed to convince Creation Records head honcho Alan McGee to front me ten thousand pounds in lieu of work to be done the following year for Oasis. This lump sum advance enabled me to buy an Apple Mac Power PC, an Apple monitor, a scanner and a black and white printer. I was then left with another problem, I didn’t have the faintest clue how to operate any of the kit!

Part 2 can be read by clicking HERE

To see the work of Microdot, done both with and without computers, go to – www.microdotcreative.co.uk

16 thoughts on “What’s A Computer? Part 1

  1. Brilliant article and insight into how designers worked and produced artwork. One of the main reasons I became a designer was because of Brian Cannon and the work produced by Microdot, especially the work in the 90’s. Although I use to love waiting for the next Oasis or Verve album part of that joy was seeing the album or single artwork, advertising and the various marketing materials.

    I definitely think that the history of the design process and production is something that should be taught so students can understand that graphic design didn’t just happen with the arrival of the computer.

    Its almost a lost part of the design process working in pencil first in your sketch book then developing ideas before even switching on your computer.

    We keep a healthy stack of hb pencils, paper, spray mount and a few cutting mats in our studio. You never know when the millennium bug might kick in and we really would be back to paste ups and hot metal.

    All the best.

  2. The first thing in ages that I have read and found really interesting. Really love your sleeve designs, especially Shakermaker. Looking forward to the next part.

  3. Nice one Brian. I remember you telling me you had to stop in on Saturday night above the home brew shop on Wigan Lane as Noel was going to bollock you if you didn’t have any design rough for Supersonic I think it was.

  4. Interesting topic. How the designers of our generation get into the computers world. I´m from Buenos Aires (sorry for my english, I´m good to read but not to write) and I had a 70% of my university career without monitors and keycaps, and then… the new world.
    I´ll be waiting for the next part of the article. Great job, and blog.

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  9. Fantastic article. Really interesting background. Be Here Now was the album that really got me into Oasis, and always wondered if the car was actually in the pool! Great to read about traditional methods, and have inspired me to look at going old school on some of my own projects. – Thanks a mill!

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