Typography Learned Through The Trade

Mechanicals
Mechanicals

To me, Southern California was a typographically-starved land. I thought for years that if I had more of the work, I could help make my environment look better. Like a one-man band, tooting my own horn for years, I'd been trying to do it all on my own.

In the early 2000s, I started designing annual reports. Annual report design was a lucrative segment of the graphic design industry in which I really learned a lot. There was good annual report design being done in New York, Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco. There were only a few firms specializing in this industry in L.A. and at the time I was working for a couple of smaller ones. I didn't think we were quite up to the quality level of the firms in other cities, but I was up for the task.

Annual report design firms were charging up to 75 thousand dollars for one glorified brochure, which was the pinnacle in marketing for many public companies for the year. This type of design was highly lucrative, and competitive.

Knowing which design firm was being retained for a company's “book” was valuable intel. We pitched against each other often. Relationships and design strategies were kept secretive. It felt like being in the ad agency game. It was cutthroat. Printers were also competing fiercely for a piece of the pie by courting clients with luxury lounges, hotel rooms and more. I'm not sure if this is true or not, but I had heard that annual report printer George Rice & Sons was flying clients for ski excursions to Mammoth during press checks.

Designers came up through the ranks after years of mentorship. Working in an annual report firm was not a formal apprenticeship, but it seemed like it. I was trained how to finesse large amounts of type over multiple pages. Working with photography, illustrations, reading copy, callouts, graphs, charts, financials, folios—there was many types of content that needed to be considered when designing annual reports.

I learned how to specify type and send them out for galleys. Design was truly a hands-on practice when we were photo-setting type, and then the computer came with digital type and the workflow become more complex. Our industry was certainly changing.

The average project length was six to eight months, and most reports were typically due in the spring. That depended on a company's financial year end, but most of my reports had to be finished in March. I endured long nights of press checks but after the books came back from the bindery, I was happy with what came back. Or at least happy that one was just finished.

Sometimes I was designing up to eight books at one time. I figured the more the better, so, I quickly learned how to set up production processes for myself to be able to design and produce multiple projects and design directions simultaneously. And get them all to the printer in time. The process was rough, but enjoyable.

When you did good work, your competitors knew your name. Some designers weren't known was because they were left out of the award annuals. In those days, there were juried annuals solely for annual report design; Mead, BlackBook, Graphis, Potlatch, etc. Spring was the season to submit entries, just after the books had been printed. It was an emotional day when I didn't get a piece included.

There was definitely an elite society divided by ability in visual design, conceptual skills and most importantly, typography. At the awards ceremonies, there was this weird vibe. Designers were adversaries and admirers of each other; each firm stayed with their own, respecting each other's work from afar, but envious of the recognition.

Those annual report firms of my heyday have since shifted their focus to either designing Corporate Sustainability Reports, gotten into branding, or have disappeared completely. And sadly, the same has happened with the annual report printers.

Nowadays bad design is just as accessible as good design. The award annuals aren't the only channels of design influence, so our industry, like most things now, have fewer heroes and more rock stars. Standards in typography are not as high as they used to be. There's so many designers who didn't get the conventional design training that I benefitted from. Having transitioned from tissue overlays and color keys to years of QuarkXPress shortcuts and PostScript errors taught me a great deal.

That's why I co-founded TypeEd. Through our educational program I’ve helped designers from local ad agencies, in house departments, entertainment companies, and universities really understand the fundamentals of typography. I'm proud to see the few hundred people we've taught take interest in improving their skills for school, speeding up their efficiency for their career, and moreso, elevating the quality of design for their agencies.

In my formative years, I kept design secrets and production ideas hidden from other firms, and I am now happy to share them. I spend my days supporting my competition, giving them my trade secrets and anticipating that they take some marketshare from us.

And because of it, I hope Los Angeles overflows with beautiful typography.