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Recently I came across a copy of a list of rules for the compositor, as issued by an advertising agency. A noteworthy muster roll of first principles it was. The surprising factor, of course, was why such a compilation was necessary, since it represented items which used to be considered as articles of faith in any well-constituted composing room.

Perhaps the agency or director or type director compiled the guide from an old printer’s manual and then passed it around to his own staff to acquaint them with typographical style. Certainly many of the rules mentioned are of long and dignified standing it should be an integral part of the craft knowledge which every comp should acquire at least by the middle of his apprenticeship.

For example the printer was requested to space display caps optically and, even if it meant shaving, undercutting, or notching letters! He was also expected to keep his word-spacing snug and to place a thinner space next to words ending with a period or comma. He was further cautioned to keep ellipses tight and use italic parens with italic type. And the parens were expected to match the type with which they were used, as were fractions, dollar signs, etc.

Back to Fundamentals

Possibly the nature of the business of advertising typography, subject as it is from time to time to tricks and stunts governed by fads, lends itself to a lack of respect for fundamentals. It is also to be expected that the poor typesetters become so confused that he can’t remember which customer wants the heads spaced out and which one expects them to be spaced in.

The agency type director can no doubt excuse specialized demands upon the grounds that most compositors are trained in procedures more applicable to book typography than to the setting of ads. This is partially true, since the composition of body matter springs from deeper roots than display typesetting, which has a much shorter history.

The literature on the subject of advertising layout is of much greater volume than that of book typography, but most of it is applied to demonstration of trends. The constant search for innovation which characterizes as the typography makes it difficult to build up a reasonable body of traditional concepts.

All of which raises the question: Are compositors more, or less, competent than they used to be? There is no completely satisfactory answer to this query. I would venture to suggest that they are just as efficient as their counterparts of 30 to 40 years ago, but they are definitely not as imaginative.

Comps Were Versatile

And with good reason. As most old-timers know, comps were a pretty versatile group of printers. They were very sure of their ability to think at the level of the composing stick, and there were few jobs brought into the composing room which could not have been assigned to any comp at any frame.

Naturally there were specialists around who were particularly good with, say, a Monotype price list or the makeup cannot of publication pages with the bleed cuts, but the average compositor could handle a wide variety of jobs. He was also expected of him that he could produce a complete layout on the back of an envelope. He had fewer type styles to work with, but his design skill was continually being honed by the frequency of opportunities to put it into practice.

Printing trade periodicals were eagerly scanned for ideas and comparisons. They, in turn, sponsored typographical design contests dealing with business cards, letterhead, bloggers, small heads, and the like, which attracted entries from all over the land.

The composing room was thus the training ground for some of the finest typographers of our times, such as Carl Purington Rollins, Oz Cooper, T.M. Cleland and Peter Beilenson, to name but a few. But while it may arouse nostalgic yearnings to look back even a relatively short period of time, it doesn’t do very much good in attempting to arrive at the correct answer to our basic question.

Influence of Economics

The first reason for the changed circumstances is economic. As the hourly earnings of the compositor rose, didn’t make much sense for him to do let the frame, assembling his ideas before producing a complete job. It was less wasteful to employ designer plan the layout of a piece of printing.

The fact that the designer’s our rate was a good deal less than that of the comp made the concept even more agreeable to employing printers. The foreseeable result was that the comp was no longer considered to be a creative person, but just another production worker.

There is nothing remarkable about this transmutation. In him what is notable is that many printers refuse to recognize it and choose to consider it as just another item in the long list of reasons why the business is going to hell in the proverbial hand-basket.

So now it appears to be necessary for printers’ customers to inform the printers themselves about how to turn out a job—in very exact detail. Could it be that the customers are merely anxious to limit the cost of the Author’s Alterations?

Place for Motivation

While the modern, may have very little opportunity to be creative and as a result is a lackadaisical about his work, he can be appeased in several ways and can perhaps learn to be as excited about his typesetting as he is about his bowling average. India had shops the compositor sees in most instances only the small takes to which he is assigned and therefore is denied the opportunity to see the whole picture. Knowledgeable employers make a point to secure finished jobs, in whatever form they may take, and post them on bulletin boards or distribute them to the people responsible for their original production.

More important, with the complicated automated equipment now being introduced into composing rooms, the comp may have a unique opportunity presented to him. There will be an obvious need for him to adapt to the creative use of machines.

This may very well be his last chance to reign the lord of the printing office, which he was at one time. Certainly there will be a continuing need for craft skills, as such, and the final metamorphosis of the comp may be in the role of computer specialist. This is his big opportunity.

All the more reason to believe that the future of the compositor will not be anarchy, but just adaptability to changing circumstances.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the January 1968 issue of Printing Impressions.


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