An Apple a day for 35 years
Updated: Apr 21, 2022
My special relationship with one brand of technology.
My wife Paulina and I are completely in sync with most things, but one point at which we diverge is in our relationship to computers. As a leadership coach, her strength is working one-on-one with fellow humans, and she excels at that. But for the past three-and-a-half decades, I’ve been a graphic designer, filmmaker and storyteller—and might not have lasted this long without more than a little digital assistance.
My first real job was as assistant art director at Dr. Dobb’s Journal of Software Tools. This legendary Silicon Valley periodical was launched at the dawn of microcomputers. When I joined the team in 1986, a substantial part of the magazine involved printing pages of computer code — that readers would copy by hand into their own, un-networked, stand-alone devices.
The staff was an eclectic bunch, including Brad, nattily dressed refugee from GQ magazine who was slumming at this trade publisher in order to be closer to his boyfriend in SF. Tina was an art school dropout who would have rather been throwing pots into a kiln, and whose outlandishly colorful dashikis did her talking for her. Larry was our snarky production manager who smiled like a used-car salesman and trusted no one to do their jobs properly. Michael was a farm boy from Wisconsin (“ ’Sconsin”) who loved to laugh, but had a hard time smiling through editorial meetings about “386 Development Tools” and “Multitasking in Turbo Pascal.”
My chief responsibility each month involved pasting up the hundreds of lines of computer code. Before desktop publishing, all type in magazines was output as separate columns of paper, which were sliced into strips, run through a hot wax roller and pressed into place on blank boards. Those boards would be photographed and turned into printing plates. I have the razor scars and burn marks to prove it.
Now, I have never been a particularly neat craftsman. The business of laying down micro-thin pinstripes to create ruled boxes, and consistently align 20 pages of type with my sticky fingers was a challenge. I would return to the boards at my desk to see sticky notes from my boss that simply said “Make It Straight.” (I’d like to get him some leadership coaching.)
Anyway, it was a big concern — I’d waited a long time to break into the biz and didn’t want to screw things up. But I’d reached the limit of my physical dexterity. Until Ron, one of the staff writers, dropped by and said, “Did you see we got a Macintosh? It’s not much, but you’re an artist, I bet you’d like it.”
Boy, did I ever. I’d seen that cool ad on the Super Bowl, promising that “1984 wouldn’t be like 1984” and bought it hook, line and keyboard. That “toaster,” as the editors liked to call it, wasn’t like the IBM machines everywhere else in the office. Instead of cold green letters on a black screen, with a cursor blinking impatiently for its first command, the Mac smiled at me and asked “what would you like to do?”
I’d like to save my job, please. And in short order, I did.
Using a primitive graphics app called “Cricket Draw,” I figured out how to print boxes that could replace the Letraset ruling tape. After a day or two to learn the basics, figure out how to get the Mac to talk with the laser printer, and experiment with paper stocks, I managed to improve my efficiency by 200%.
Turns out there were more things this little beige box could do. The art department had to schedule monthly field trips to a local “stat house” where we’d rephotograph ink drawings to specific sizes to fit our layouts. Kind of like a high-end xerox, with film. We rented the facility and everyone had to be ready on the same day. Post Macintosh, we were cranking out new and better graphs, charts and diagrams whenever we wanted. For free.
There were plenty of things that a computer couldn’t solve. We still had to order most of our type via FAX machines. This involved doing real math to calculate the size and spread of words so they could fit in the designated space on the page. Then we would transmit the specs to a remote typesetter and cross our fingers for the results. And when each issue was done, I had to drive like a maniac to the new Fed Ex office in Palo Alto, to get our files to the mid-west printing plant on time.
But I became the company “Macspert”, and ascended the ranks of the art department. When the Loma Prieta quake hit, and everyone else dove under their desks to avoid falling ceiling tiles, I selflessly hung onto our new Macintosh II — which was about to take a long walk off of a short table. I had just made an elaborate pitch to management for this piece of hardware (which cost the equivalent of two months’s salary!) and I wasn’t going to lose it to some random geological disturbance.
Becoming computer literate at age 30 put me on the other side of a generational divide. I remember meeting more than one freelance artist in their 40s who looked at the machines with dread—or resignation. Sylvia was a veteran of two decades in the business and a talented artist, but she couldn’t get her head around this emerging technology. It was sad to see her working the perfume counter at Macy’s a couple of years later.
I did okay. Within three years I became Group Art Director, overseeing four magazines in the publishing house. My technical edge helped me get my next couple of jobs. Even after a very unwelcome layoff, I was able to thrive as a freelancer — because I knew my way around a computer. The first time that I single-handedly produced an entire glossy magazine from a pile of manuscripts, I couldn’t believe it. What used to take 3 or 4 people a month to create, I did alone in a week. It brought tears to my eyes.
As a result, I have a special relationship with my computer. I don’t love it because of its personality, or lack thereof. I’m simply grateful for what it makes possible. I can work around my clumsiness with traditional art tools and still express myself. So when I hear Paulina cussing in frustration at her computer in the other room because something isn’t working as it should, I rush to her side.
Of course I want to help her! But I wouldn’t want the Mac to feel inadequate. It’s only a machine, after all.
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