The Mac as a Tool

By Greg Raven

As a member of the press I sometimes attend press functions. Not too long ago I attended one such function in San Diego, the purpose of which was to see and drive a newly introduced automobile.

After the speeches and test drive came the cocktail hour. While standing next to a table of snacks I became aware of the conversation taking place next to me. The three gentlemen and one lady were talking about desktop publishing, and as no conversation about desktop publishing is complete without at least mentioning the Macintosh, I eagerly joined in.

The man who was doing most of the talking (we’ll call him Dick) seemed to be able to talk for quite a while without coming up for air. The woman, we’ll call her Jane, was overmatched, as she was barely able to get a question in edgewise. It was probably for the better, however, as each question was treated in a very condescending manner by Dick. The two other gentlemen attending this conversation seemed content to listen.

Dick presented himself as one who had done a great deal of research in the field of desktop publishing and graphics design. One could have been excused for coming away with the impression that Dick had been researching desktop publishing since the late forties and early fifties, on the basis of his impressive pronouncements.

Although all Dick’s points were couched in nonspecific language, the overall impression he made was that there will be formed an elite of graphics designers who use computers. The rest of us are just pretenders, not fit to put out so much as a newsletter. It was only a matter of time and education before we resigned ourselves to the fact that we are simply going to have to make a pilgrimage to one of these designers (I got the feeling that Dick considers himself one) anytime we wanted something done right. On the face of it, Dick’s proposition seems ludicrous. Yet, when I asked him pointed questions designed to puncture his balloon, Jane and the others leaped to defend his position, even when it meant belittling themselves and their own talents and potentials (some of them apparently had had some experience using a Mac). Upon seeing that I was fighting an uphill battle, I retired. I couldn’t get out of my mind, however, the way Dick’s sycophants had not only put up with his insults, but had actually agreed with them. Although frightening in and of itself, when projected outward it indicates that there are thousands (millions?) of others who might also agree with people like Dick.

Upon returning to my room at the hotel, I jotted down Dick’s main propositions:

  • Desktop publishing wasn’t really going to help anybody … at least, not anybody important;
  • You are either a designer or you aren’t. There is no middle ground and no crossing to the are side from the are not side;
  • Only one designer in a million is going to be able to utilize computer-aided graphics design because of the difficulty of designing something that looks good on paper based on what is seen on a computer screen; and finally,
  • All this current computer-aided graphics design stuff (hardware and software, apparently) were soon to be replaced by something entirely different and better, although Dick couldn’t speculate on what form it might take. He was emphatic, however. Different and better, he said.

I would like to address these issues one at a time.

First, desktop publishing is helping and will continue to help countless millions of people, whether or not they own a computer or are involved in desktop publishing. When the beneficiaries of desktop publishing are mentioned, most people jump to the conclusion that this group includes only the chosen few who have access to a computer, page layout software, and a high quality printer.

But there is a vast body of people who do not fit this description, and many of them also realize very real benefits. For example, nearly every day a home grown newsletter or magazine crosses my desk. At the very worst they convey the information they are supposed to. Usually this is information that I enjoy receiving, and it is information that I would not receive were it not for the ease with which information can be disseminated using desktop publishing.

At best they have been designed to the hilt. Their very appearance knocks me out, regardless of the content. Desktop publishing may have made it easier for people to churn out poorly put together periodicals, but from my vantage point it seems as if there is an informal competition to see who can come up with the cleanest looking newsletter. I and others like me benefit because we are getting more and better information in a timely manner, and it is attractively presented.

Of course, not all the material I get is produced with a Mac and a LaserWriter. But even the typeset materials I get are receiving far more thought than they have in the past. The pressure being placed on the so-called traditional type houses by the popularity of desktop publishing is incredible. For the much higher cost of producing a piece using traditional methods, companies are now starting to demand a concomitant improvement in the appearance of that material. Competition is improving the breed. Therefore, purchasers of desktop publishing are very real beneficiaries, but so are purchasers of traditional printing services.

Second point. Dick would like us to believe that graphics designers are born with an X-acto knife in one hand and a waxer in the other. Poppycock. Graphics design, like learning to roller-skate or play major league baseball, is an iterative process; you learn while doing. As any of you non-designers who have tried to lay out a newsletter know, it may at first seem that the elements of good design are so incomprehensible that it takes a lot of will power to keep from turning the whole project over to someone else. Trust me, though. The more you do it, the more you look around at what others are doing, and the more mental energy you invest in it, the better your efforts will appear.

People who do graphics design for a living have two advantages over those of us who don’t. First, they have more experience in what will work and what won’t. Second, they have better control over their tools. Watching a truly good designer do layouts can be as satisfying as watching a good ballet, but it is the result of hundreds of hours of practice. With better tools — tools such as the Macintosh and all the wonderful software that runs on it — novices can approximate the facility with tools that an expert has, with the price being an investment of a small fraction of the hours it would take to master the traditional tools. This is not to say that a beginner with a Mac can do anything a veteran artist can do. It means that with moderate skills and a Mac there are many tasks that can be executed just as well as they would have been had a real-live graphics designer done them, only the cost and the time spent will be far lower.

The third point, that being able to tell what the hard copy will look like judging by the appearance on the screen is sometimes difficult, is actually related to the point above. If design were not an iterative process, no doubt only one person in a million would be able to turn out decent product using desktop publishing.

But that’s not the way it works. All of us have gotten things looking just so on the screen only to have the print-out be different. It’s no big deal. You load up the paper tray, make your changes, and burn off another copy. In the early days with PageMaker 1.2 I couldn’t afford to get too sentimental about waste paper because there was so much of it. Now the tools are better, my experience level is higher, and the amount of waste paper has plummeted. The more accurate the correlation between the screen and the hard copy, the easier the job becomes. But as far as I am concerned, 100% correlation isn’t the be-all and end-all.

Dick’s last point is really the fourth side of the box he is attempting to construct around the minds of his gullible listeners. After telling them that desktop publishing won’t help them, that they won’t be able to master it even if it would help them, and that even if they do approach mastery the results will be poor, he smugly lets them know that it’s pointless to buy anything now, because the really great stuff is right around the corner. Presumably, the major corporations are withholding the Really Great Stuff until a week or so after Dick’s listeners cave in and buy an inferior present-day system. Might as well simply turn over your source material to the type house and let their designer take it the rest of the way.

What Dick has neglected to tell his listeners is that even if he were right it makes no difference.

Let’s look at a worst-case scenario. If tomorrow you bought a Mac, a LaserWriter Plus, and some software, and the day after tomorrow Apple released an all new line-up of hardware and software that put all previous efforts to shame, you would be justified in cursing your rotten timing.

But not your intelligence. You still have a system that is completely valid as a tool, and it will remain valid as a tool for the foreseeable future. For as long as your equipment does what you need it to do, it is not outdated and it is certainly not useless. And nothing that happens in the way of new hardware or software can change that.

None of this is news to those of us who have been at this game for a while, but that’s because the closer you get to the subject the more careful you have to be about maintaining your perspective. By that I mean that it is pretty difficult to remember what it used to be like battling MacWrite while you are eagerly awaiting Ready, Set, Go! 4 because it is rumored to have interactive facing pages.

Fortunately, reality is close at hand for all who care. Find someone who has never witnessed the incredible power contained in a 14 × 10 × 11 inch box and give him or her the Reader’s Digest tour. Paint programs are uniformly spectacular. Turn a spreadsheet into a graph. Paste the whole mess together on a page using a desktop publishing program. You won’t need to explain too much, because after a couple of minutes their eyes will glaze over just like yours did when you first realized that everything you knew was wrong.

And take pity on people such as Dick. The cognitive dissonance must be driving them crazy.