August 5th, 2008

First Jobs: A Brief Career In Printing

By James Ellis

Everyone loves a good first-job story.

Young people, being knee deep in their own first-jobs and formative years, are particularly interested in the tales of their predecessors. A good first-job story can be inspiring, illuminating. And any experience – even second-hand – is worth consuming.

I tend to look back fondly to my brief career in printing as a bona-fide production worker. It’s my best first-job tale, and like most good ones, a good bit removed from my current workaday.

For about two years, around age 18, I worked at a small printing company in Conyers, GA, a town just outside Atlanta. It was a small operation – only about 5 employees – and independently owned. I’ve found there are generally two types of printing companies: serious concerns with multi-million dollar facilities, a few dozen employees, billings in the millions — or dirty little print shops. My experience, thankfully, was with the latter.

At the time I had an interest in design. I had interned at a graphic design firm all through high school, and I enjoyed poking around the then-emerging web, but I wasn’t sure what direction suited me best. Print design? Web design? Web development? I couldn’t be sure.

My only real concern at the time was a desperate need of money, and the owner of this print shop was offering me more than anyone else.

I was originally hired to do all of the company’s design work: business cards, logos, letterheads, invoices, flyers, newsletters, signage, etc. Boring stuff. But what made it somewhat amusing was that it was all an exercise in speed-design; the only thing that mattered was how fast you could jam it out. We were serving clients that treated design as an afterthought, and “good” design certainly wasn’t a consideration. It wasn’t unusual to output a few logos and 3-4 business card designs before lunch.

A typical design-related client interaction:

You run a trucking company? Big T’s Trucking? Cool name. Everyone calls you Big T? Cool nickname. You want your logo to be a truck, with your name in a bold font? You like the color red? Cool, give me 15 minutes…

As you can imagine, the people-study was more interesting than the design work. But that was ok, because ultimately I didn’t take the job to find fulfillment as a designer. My real interest was in the production work going on in the next room…

The production room was a mess — just one big room with way too much stuff jammed inside. Gnarly presses were stationed throughout. Paper of all sizes was stacked on every surface. Ink smudges were everywhere. Years of dirt and filth were crushed into the floor. And due to the press cleaning chemicals we used, the room always smelled of citrus. Citrus and paper. It was a weird combination.

The equipment was relatively basic:

  • Various pre-press equipment for shooting film, burning plates, etc.
  • A couple of one-color AB Dick presses (one of these, and a larger 385 that could press 17″x22″ sheets.)
  • A 2-color Ryobi press (similar to this one.)
  • A big scary Baumfolder folding machine (an example of a modern Baumfolder, and an old-school model similar to what I used.)
  • Two really old letterpresses.
  • Various post-press equipment (paper cutter, drill, saddle-stitch, etc.)

Previously, the extent of my experience ended the moment final artwork left the computer. (Once the Jaz drive was off to the service bureau, it was all a mystery to me.) So first thing, I was in pre-press learning how art was RIP’d to film, and how film was burned to plate. I found this process relatively straightforward; once you memorized the formula, pre-press was usually a breeze.

Once comfortable with pre-press, I started prepping press runs (cleaning the press, setting up ink, loading plates, prepping the paper). I progressed to running simple one-color jobs, and eventually the complex stuff: weird gang-runs, multiple colors, tight registration, challenging floods, feeding fussy stocks (envelopes, heavy cover stock, really thin paper, etc.)

Half of the job was understanding paper. All stocks performed differently, from the way they accepted ink, they way ink dried, the way sheets fed into the press and the way the stock accepted folding.

Coated and uncoated stocks were two entirely different animals. Coated stock is paper coated in a compound that gives sheets a surface gloss and smoothness, and it accepts ink in a very different way than uncoated. With uncoated the ink is absorbed into the paper itself, where with coated the ink sits up on top of the coating.

Most commercial printing involves coated stock. Coated stock is popular because it looks nice and shiny, and because it accepts printing so well: colors appear more vibrant, higher resolution line screens can be used, and due to the way ink sits up on top of the coating (instead of being absorbed into the paper), less ink is required per impression.

But uncoated certainly has its place, and is preferred in many situations. Envelopes and letterheads, for example, are almost always uncoated stock. Uncoated feels more homespun, more organic, more human. And in many situations it can appear more blockbuster than coated stock (think wedding invitations, business cards, etc.) Uncoated also does very well with the letterpress. You can jam an impression into uncoated stock and it will hold together, whereas coated just gets destroyed. (That’s why all the crafty letterpress work you see is always on uncoated stock.)

Finally, it’s hard to describe, but due to the way ink is absorbed into uncoated stock, the final product simply feels special. Big floods look amazing because you can really see the ink. When you feel the paper in your hands, it feels raw and organic whereas as coated tends to feel a bit artificial.

Feeding different stocks into the press is a skill all its own. The challenge is always the same: loading a single sheet into the press at an exact position, over and over again, and at the highest speed possible.

Feeding systems involve a few different components. First, there is the giant pile of paper. As the press feeds sheets a simple height gauge slowly and smoothly raises the pile and maintains a consistent level. With each impression, the press reaches down to the pile with a bunch of little suction cups and picks up a sheet. To do this successfully you need to adjust the feed vacuum to be strong enough to lift one sheet, but no more. To help separate the sheets, you adjust a number of blowers that fire air in between the sheets before the top sheet is lifted.

As you can imagine, feeding flimsy 20# stock required an entirely different setup than a heavy cover stock. Everything had to be adjusted — pile height, vacuum, blower. Some paper was always a nightmare to feed. Anything really heavy or light was a challenge. Envelopes were always a pain. And sometimes the weather could throw things off: If it was a really hot, muggy day sheets would start sticking together. You’d have to re-jog the pile, adjust the blower, slow the press down, do whatever to keep sheets feeding.

Of all the shop equipment, the letterpress was easily the most challenging to operate. The machine itself was fascinating. It was an ancient job that had been upgraded many times over the years. A decent vacuum and sheet feeder had been added at some point, and the diesel motor had been replaced with an electric one back in the 50’s. But this new motor never worked very well. Every time you engaged the drive you had to kick a giant wheel to get the press to turn over. To turn the machine off you had to hold the off button and jiggle a pile of wires — it was comedy.

We did some interesting projects with the letterpress, but we mostly used the machine for sequential numbering of carbonless forms. (This was before everyone used Quickbooks; for most businesses, numbered carbonless forms were the standard for invoices, packing slips, purchase orders, etc.) To make things more complicated, we were often numbering in gang-runs, so instead of setting up just one numbering machine, you had to do the math to offset the number machines correctly, with each machine starting at a different number. When you finished the run you would cut down the forms and stack them all in order, and if you did your math correctly, there would be no duplicate numbers.

The job was a lot of fun. I was working with my buddies, learning a real skill (important for someone with no formal education), and making decent money. At 18 it was a great gig.

The owner was kind enough to let me hijack the equipment for various projects. Sometimes on the weekends I’d stay all night and press ridiculously elaborate record packages and weird personal projects. It was a great opportunity to attempt more adventurous production processes, and generate a heap of punk rock ephemera.

By the end of my brief printing career, I could go from computer to film, film to plate, operate the press, cut the paper down, perform any scoring or folding, and box up the final product.

Later, for a variety of reasons, I ended up moving to New York and returned to design.

I soon realized how valuable my printing experience had been. After having worked in production, the abstraction of the computer seemed to feel more natural. Now terms like CMYK, trapping, overprinting, bleed, creep, Pantone, etc. all made sense. Perhaps most notably, my fear factor in delivering final art to a printer/service bureau was considerably reduced.

Compared to my peers, I found that my on-the-job education was a somewhat unusual entry into the design profession. Instead of pursuing a design degree, I had gone straight into the workplace. And though I was thin on a lot of things (I had a severe deficiency in design history, my taste wasn’t terribly sophisticated or evolved) I did have a hands-on understanding of production. And unlike most of the designers I was working with, my knowledge extended beyond the computer all the way to the finished product.

As time went on I found myself increasingly interested in the web, and nowadays I rarely do much print design (though our studio certainly does). I suppose it’s only fitting that I was drawn to development and the mechanics of the web considering my interest in understanding the how of things — how things work, how they’re made.

Yet, I’m still very pleased to have my dirty-print-shop experience. It’s a good bit removed from my current area of expertise, but I still consider it an essential part of my design education. Like any good, comprehensive education, I was able to explore and study all aspects of the craft, and gain a better understanding of the whole.

By trying my hand at a little everything, I was able to find where I fit in, which is, I think, the whole point.

James Ellis is a designer and developer in Brooklyn, NY. He is a founding member of Athletics, an art and design collective comprised of some of today’s best and brightest.