back in my day: cut & paste VS paste up

Grumpy Old Man

Rapidograph, steel rule, xacto knife, blue pencils, t-square, vemco, rub-off type, kroy machine, triangle, french curve.

They sound like the name of cheesy garage bands, but they were the tools of my trade. They were primitive and crude design tools, and to quote Dana Carvey’s grumpy old man, “We liked it that way!”

Nowadays clients will bring us copy they scribbled down in their car on the way to our office. When they hand it to me, it’s hard to tell what language it even is. After clarifying about every other word on the paper, they will often say, “that’s just a draft, we’ll clean it up after you get the proof ready.” After the proof is delivered, they will inevitably schedule a meeting for an edit session, which consists of them sitting behind me editing copy while looking over my shoulder. With a marked up copy of the brochure in their hand, they start directing me like a human Wi. Barking orders like a little league coach, “Move that there, add this here.” “Change the font, make the logo bigger….”

Fifteen or twenty minutes later it’s close to going to print.

Back in my day…


You'd run your strips of type through this waxer and it would coat the back with a thin layer of sticky wax.

Twenty years ago that wasn’t very feasible. Getting what we called a “paste-up” or “mechanical ” ready was quite an ordeal. On the copy given to us- we would have to call out font size, leading, column width, fonts, etc. for our typesetter. A typesetting machine was a monstrous machine and the person that operated it was akin to the wizard of OZ. It wasn’t like a computer though. I don’t think it even had a screen, certainly no preview. However you called out the directions was how it came out… like magic. A day later you could pick up your “galleys”. Big rolls of type all to your specifications. Then you’d cut these up with an Xacto knife and run them through a waxer. Then you laid out a grid on your art board using blue pencils (because they were invisible to the graphic cameras that made the printing plates). Once that was done you started sticking down the type. Graphic artists? More like graphic surgeons.

Paste up example

Pretty crude, huh? The boxes you see are for photos that the printer will add later.

After you got everything down you’d tape a piece of tissue paper over the art and call out colors and other instructions for the printer to do. At this point, the client would review a photo copy. Any changes meant another trip to the typesetter. Luckily my typesetter was just down the street. Kaye Tyree was her name, and she still does that type of work, albeit in a more modern way, for Hall Lettershop in Bakersfield… last I heard anyway. So, another day later- you’d start the process over. That is why clients usually handed us edited, reviewed and approved copy. Changes were time consuming and expensive!

Paste up example

Nice "color comp" huh? No color print outs or anything fancy like that. Back then the customer had to use their imagination, and trust us... a lot.

Printed piece.

Printed piece.

With the help of good printers that knew what they were doing, results were as good as anything you’d see today with all of the fancy technology. So has all of this “new” technology made our job easier? “Yes and no” would be my answer. We still face challenges as designers. One of the biggest challenges is restraint. We now have millions of fonts, stock photography up the wazoo, photo retouching software where we can make an 80 year old into a teenager again. We are now the typesetters, paste-up artists and art directors, account executives AND designers… all wrapped into one. This gives us enormous flexibility and creative control. However, it gives the customer more chances to make changes, that although not time consuming, can often be counter productive. That said, I don’t think I’d want to return to the “old” ways of doing things. This old dog likes learning new tricks!

Don - July 12, 2011 - 4:26 pm

I remember all of that. The big rolls of random type set that you had to cut up and paste on. It was a more romantic and civil time.

mari gonzo garcia - July 12, 2011 - 5:08 pm

that’s crazy land there. people just wouldn’t do that stuff anymore.

beth - July 12, 2011 - 5:27 pm

ahhhhh, the smell of rubber cement and Bestine in the morning…

Don Mason - July 12, 2011 - 5:51 pm

Let’s also not forget all the highly skilled film strippers at the print shop that made all that paste up art come together for plate making.

Or the unsung hero on the process camera that could shoot a good halftone neg from a less than stellar photo.

Now where did I leave that 133 line magenta contact screen?? : )

Don Ambriz - July 12, 2011 - 6:32 pm

Wow, bringing back cherished memories, Mike….that was a time-consuming complex production era … But the late 1960s and 70s, prior to you coming on-board – most everything was created “by hand” – hand illustrations & all hand lettering, paste-ups and the regular use of white-out to clean up the edges of those early hand-drawn Handbills and Flyers before trekking them over to Brad @ PIP or Andy Merchants Printing or Hal @ Pronto Printing for a quick print…FYI, I just ran across an old PROCOTE 2000 Hand-Waxer at a Garage Sale (still works)- you want it? By the way, not all of us had a waxer – some of us used the lung clogging Spray Adhesives! And the Design Markers that contain XYLENE! Whoa, it’s a wonder we’re still among the living…… I love your description of “graphic surgeons” in reference to X-acto knife technique … And do you remember the “hand-cut” lacquer film silk screen stencils? Offering minimal degree for error….Yeh, Mike, thanks for the memories! Alan & Jen, have no idea what they missed!

Ryan Northway - July 12, 2011 - 7:27 pm

Thankfully this was all way before i found an interest in graphic design. BUT theres a few people still out there kickin ass and takin names when it comes to being hands on…

Back to the Basics


2012 Audi A7

Jimmy Phillips - July 12, 2011 - 8:16 pm

Hey, man, I never do that to you! I even tell you what panels to put the text on (or at least I give advice on it :).

willisdesign - July 13, 2011 - 1:57 pm

Thanks for sharin’ Ryan. Awesome videos, the freehand work in the one painting was amazing.

willisdesign - July 13, 2011 - 1:59 pm

Smells like… victory-Beth.

willisdesign - July 13, 2011 - 2:09 pm

Don, you were the king of the hand lettering. Learned everything I know from you man!

willisdesign - July 13, 2011 - 2:10 pm

Guilty conscious Jimmy?

willisdesign - July 13, 2011 - 2:13 pm

Ha! Calling paste up “romantic” might be a stretch.

Don Ambriz - July 13, 2011 - 9:26 pm

Ryan … very cool videos showcasing hand skills – which is fast becoming a dying art… Thanks for sharing…
I just created this video showing the Art of Handlettering:

Chris - August 13, 2011 - 5:48 pm

Oh, my. You do bring back the memories.

I’m envious that you had one of those way cool big waxers. We only had the little hand held kind.

One of the most dreaded accidents in wax pasteup is when a little tiny scrap of trimmed-off white background from the type goes astray and lands atop a paragraph of text. If it didn’t get spotted and removed quickly, you’d have a “hole” in your text. I have printed examples where no one saw this till it came back from the printer…

I’m An Artist, Leave Me Alone – NEWS - July 13, 2017 - 10:54 pm

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