Are Compositors Losing Their Craft Standing?

At the Eastern spring conference of the International Typographic Composition Association, Frank Sherman, executive secretary, announced to the members that out of 119 applications in the ITCA Apprentice Design Contest, only 21 apprentices completed the project.

It must be borne in mind that all of these apprentices were from plants which specialize in composition and which produce a sizable portion of the country’s advertising typography. This situation points to a lack of interest in design basically foreign to the concepts of craftsmanship with which the printing industry has been associated for centuries under the oft-quoted phrase, “the art preservative of all the arts.”

Undoubtedly, present working conditions have conspired to reduce the importance of the compositor in the planning of the print job. During the last 30 years, the advertising agency and the art service have joined hands in reserving for themselves the prerogative of designing a good share of national advertising, direct mail advertising, and even a whole range of commercial printing.

Apprentices Soon Disillusioned

Most composing room apprentices who come bright-I’d into the craft soon learned that creative ability is not considered an essential prerequisite for admission to apprenticeship. Years ago, bright youngsters were often steered away from newspaper composing rooms and into commercial establishments by knowing old-timers who felt that greater creative opportunities lady in the broader range of work produced by the job shops. Today, the absence of and need for originality, and newspaper apprenticeships has spread to the larger commercial composing rooms. Therefore, almost inevitably the boy with creative ability will now be advised to enter another field or perhaps enroll in art school.

There are still output for talent in the design of printing in those small plants which produce a variety of short-run material. The standard practice in such offices is to have the form and layout their job roughly given to a compositor generally has a great deal of latitude the spacing and selection of Thai size. The compositor himself may often be given the chance to set up as for small publications or house organs. In such shops, when one, has the reputation as the “creative” man, apprentices with promise are usually assigned to his frame to learn the ropes. Fortunate indeed is the practice who finds himself indentured to such an organization.

I do not intend to suggest here at creative ability is a definite requisite for successful apprenticeship. Many compositors and useful and happy lives producing the standard line of work, such as page makeup, display composition, lockup, etc., And find an outlet for a fully developed sense of craftsmanship in their work. However, at one time almost all of the printers of note who earned reputations for themselves and their craft, spring from practical beginnings. The opportunity to do likewise appears to be diminishing. Thus the matter is of some concern to those printers interested in maintaining future standards of competence in the trade.

The art of printing was formally a creative process from start to finish, under which the printer produced his own types from which to make an impression, and follow through to the press were you examine the final result of his labors with some satisfaction. Frequently, he made his own ink and paper. He might even have constructed his own press. Since that time, except in private press operations, the steady pressure has been toward specialization, principally because of its economic advantages. As a result, we are now at the point where even composing rooms are becoming divorced from the operation of printing. To what lengths this exigency can go is difficult to foresee. It is possible that machine composition may eventually become independent of and composition. Certainly, the advent of photographic composing machines will bring about major changes during the next 20 years or so.

Is Progress So Wonderful?

Normally, those who favor industrial specialization claim that the changes represent an advance in every respect I wonder whether this can truthfully be said of the effort to make the compositor production-line man. Much of the satisfaction in the pursuit of a craft stems from the opportunity to create and to follow a job to completion. With each passing year this becomes increasingly more difficult. Printing is an integral part of the art of communication. It brings to that are over 500 years of painstakingly gained insight into the inherent rightness of arranging and presenting the printed word. The carefully trained compositor carries on this tradition with understanding and sympathy for the tools with which he works. The principal tool is type.

Today we are faced with “design” as the divine creation of the printed word. We must stand by and observe the tendency to consider “usual expression” as the gospel of the new creed. The printer now appears to be merely the mechanic who runs the creation along the road and holds it together until tomorrow, when a new idea will be launched.

The art schools, which have looked for years with some disdain upon the “commercial” artist, now realize that their graduates have been poorly equipped to earn a living. Hence they have come aware of the opportunity to create in a new medium. Students from dozens of layout courses now swarmed the agencies and art services, sure in their knowledge of methods of making usually exciting. Their understanding of the principal tool for this purpose, type, is usually quite meager. True, they do know the display types currently popular, and perhaps Bodoni or Garamond, the chances are that even these faces are grossly misused. Although these young artists will eventually settle down to reasonably successful careers, in most cases their basic understanding of their primary tool will be woefully inadequate.

Many artists allow their lack of sympathy for type to color their relations with printers. They have frustrated especially those unhappy man whose specialty is advertising composition. As long as the artist makes no attempt to come to terms with his work in this respect, it will be an inferior product, regardless of the particular style which he may adopt.

Beatrice Warde, staunch advocate of the craft precept, has for years pointed a finger to the decline of prestige suffered by printers under the constant attrition of the “drawing-board boys” who get in the way of the mission of the printed word—communication. Insert paragraph I have no intention, in these remarks, of making a blanket indictment of heart schools. Number of them are extremely careful to instruct their students in fundamentals and are constantly seeking common ground of understanding between printers and artists. Neither do I say that a back-shop training will guarantee the printer a ready grasp of the concepts of the careful arrangement of the printed word.

However, it appears that the immediate future holds little promise for the alleviation of the condition so critical that talent is being turned away from a fine old craft and directed into other channels. Even the employing printer who is much more interested in reducing our costs and hiring craftsmen is learning with dismay that he just can’t find the young people he wants to have in his plant. He may shrug it off with the old complaint, “The kids aren’t what they were when I broke into this business.” But that will not help him solve the basic problem.

We must combat the increasing tendency to consider the printers merely as a mechanic in the production of the printed word, and next month I will outline some ways in which every printer can help in his own community.

This article first appeared in “The Composing Room” column of the October 1954 issue of The Inland Printer.

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