It was the only Times job listing I ever got. A real “ground floor” opportunity in the graphic arts industry.

I was fresh out of art school and had just started working nights at a Mexican Restaurant. The best part was the huge meal they would give you after the kitchen closed. I devoured rice and beans after my shift. The summer night hung humid around me, as laughing people passed by on MacDougal. It was rich, but it wasn’t my scene.

The next morning at 8 AM I received a call from the owner of a PrePress shop. The company with the ground floor opportunity.

He had hired someone else after our interview. But I was the alternate choice. “Oh, well thanks anyways… ” I started. “I’m not finished. The other candidate turned down the job. He does not want to work nights. He’s too afraid to take the subway (small laugh) after midnight. Are you interested?”

subway

© m01229

I thought of my 2:47 Am commute the night before.

“Of course.”

So in I went to the world of prepress. My mother hated the fact that she could not explain what her daughter did. “Something with computers,” was the standard response.

But I took to this profession.

Now instead of trying to balance enchiladas on a tray, I was lugging large bolts of paper and film. Draining processors from a variety of toxic chemicals. Downloading files from the BBS. Spinning up Syquest 44 mb discs. Pushing the SE30 to its limit (which it did not seem to have. Still one of my favorites).

mac

© Tim Patterson

But it was a true ground floor opportunity. I was a graphic designer learning from the other side.

We had a drawer of fonts on floppy disks. The company owned the entire Adobe® library, and it was presented one font per disk. I began to memorize which font was which as soon as a job came in. “That looks like Eurostyle,” I would think while heading for the drawer.

We became masters of software. Quark XPress, Adobe Illustrator, and everyone’s favorite program to hate: Aldus Pagemaker. I still remember the etched portrait on the program’s splash page, and the skiddly sound of an SE30 hard drive processing while the, oh, 3 minutes passed.

I learned a language all its own. Registration. CMYK. Spot color. Overrun. Courier Default (my fave). DPI. LPI. Resolution. Spooler. Gigabyte! That was a big day. No pun.

pant

© Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

What prepress demands is that a worker has a head for math and engineering, and also an aesthetic for good design. There’s your STEAM.

If something looks wrong, it needs to jump out at him/her. If the colors are running too deep, the worker needs to figure out why. If a font defaults to something incorrect, the worker must see that red flag, knowing that that is not a good piece.

Prepress is more about troubleshooting than getting a job done. Anyone who loves problem solving would appreciate the work that goes in to a seemingly simple project.

For example, one project may demand:

  • Scrutinizing several pages of hard copy to comprehend the proposed finished product
  • Brainstorming ways to to approach the steps
  • Preparing for the possible pitfalls
  • Addressing the client’s concerns along the way (hand holding at times. Dodging thrown potted plants other times. But that’s a story for another day.)
  • Knowing your limitations when it comes to materials and machinery
  • Knowing your limitations when it comes to time
  • Establishing checkpoints throughout the process
  • Color checks along the way
  • Trim size accommodation
  • Holding of breath and pounding back of caffeine in order to facilitate the process

Years later I taught Production/Prepress to a Community College. It was invigorating. And the students LOVED it. We toured a local facility as well. They never knew how much went into this work! They thought they would just drop off a project – and – poof! It would be done.

If you have an opportunity to tour a facility, I encourage it.