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I, Quarksmith

Sure, give the creative geniuses their due. But don't forget the production people—the humble tradesmen who execute those bold designs.

By Chris Gage - September 3, 2003

Graphic designers like to think they're Frank Gehry, designing their voluptuously gorgeous page layouts. And they might well be. But amid all the Gehry greatness the museum-going public forgets about Cousin Nick, the guy who had to bend all those metallic sheets into surrealistic shapes that look more like an overhead shot of L.A.'s freeways than the pulsing organic forms intended. And we production editors are Cousin Nick, toiling away in obscurity to make sure the damned thing gets done and looks good and doesn't fall on the kind people who paid $12 to get in.

No, we don't bend metal—at least not since the days of hot type—but we're still plenty busy, laboring nearly manually over our Quark documents. We're the ones who have to make sure the pull quotes doesn't obscure Demi Moore's dwindling sense of pride [shift+command+open bracket, to adjust the tracking of highlighted text] or Tara Reid's waning sense of purpose [command+shift+R, to right justify]. We have to flow type [option+command in dialogue box, to reflow text in a document] like it was, well, the roof of a Gehry building. We have to whine, cajole, and bend over backward to ensure the copy editor stays late enough to proof the proofer's copy. We have to soldier on through Friday nights to make sure production sticks to a schedule that makes my dad's over-intineraried family car trips (old Quebec, sweet home Chicago, Six Flags) look like an Amish joy ride through a lush meadow.

It's not that I don't love and admire graphic designers. Not at all; I have the utmost respect for them. Quick, a quiz: Who is the author and designer of Cheese Monkeys who, according to Graphic Design: America Two, "helped spawn a revolution in the art of American book packaging in the last ten years"? Who is the legend behind such looks as Foreign Affairs, Advertising Age, and Esquire who has been known to comment, "I've designed more magazines than you'll ever read"? And whose style did IBM cop for its 2000 annual report? Answers: Chip Kidd, Roger Black, Dave Eggers. See? I know a thing or two about their world, those Star-Belly Sneetches.

But what do they know about mine, and why doesn't the world at large value me more? The Quark production artist is the nuts and bolts of any art-side operation (though if he wasn't so nuts he would have bolted long before he saw the cleaning crew go home for the night). We're the tradesmen who get the job done, even if don't have a union that tells us to work just a little slower to demonstrate our collective bargaining power—because of course we have none of that, either.

In truth, though, I don't really care that we don't get the attention we deserve. It's enough to be able to take pride in a real job well done. I painted houses for a few summers in college, and occasionally we'd get someone who wanted "just something different," like a special finish in the kitchen. Of course we'd agree to it (we weren't allowed not to). We'd tell our foreman we didn't know how to do it and he'd shrug and say, "Figure it out," and we'd go ask the guys at the local paint store for guidance. I was reminded of this one morning, when a book I was working on required an index, a simple one of just a few easily found terms. I could have outsourced it and waited a week for it to come back and then gotten someone to proof it and then entered the corrections and then had someone proof that, but if I did that I just knew that somewhere my foreman would be hanging his head. There were some confusing instructions in the woefully inadequate Quark manual, but I managed to muddle through by trial-and-error and after a few hours my index was as pretty as a sun-dappled east-facing breakfast nook. And not everyone can figure out how to create a pretty breakfast nook, unless they think about it for ten minutes or so.

I haven't seen a blacksmith since I went to Old Sturbridge Village with my sixth-grade class and wondered why my handful of quarters didn't buy the whole general store. (Authentic, my ass.) But there's something nice about having a new-fashioned skilled trade—and being a Quark production artist is the closest a white-collar schmuck like me can come. (If I had my druthers, though, I'd be a noble warrior with a trade to boot, much like Conan's father, a blacksmith, in the epic saga Conan the Barbarian. To quote: "And the secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline.") Of course there are some traditional trades still around: electrician, elevator repairman, mechanic. But you have to go to school for those, and I always felt that if I was going to give someone my money it'd be so they'd put me in some place with air conditioning and an Aeron chair. (Despite my medieval-times daydreams, I'm from lower Connecticut; I don't manage well without pampering.) Doing production work affords me some of the same feelings I imagine a tradesman is honored with—concrete, tangible evidence of a job accomplished; pride of ownership—without requiring me to get sweaty.

There's a comforting sense of absoluteness in this work. I started out as a copy editor, but there are vagaries therein. Take the diminutive comma, for instance. That thing has more uses than a painter's 5-in-1. I can't be bothered to juggle author intentions and pundits' policies and procedures. Besides, everyone thinks they can write. Which reminds me of a joke: What kind of writer thinks they need an editor? Answer: The good ones. But there are far too few of them, and too much time spent in the gray areas for me.

As a production editor, there's right and there's wrong. Sure, I love a good Zen koan as much as the next person, but the challenges presented in my day-to-day have answers. I always know a few parameters before I start anything: there's a certain amount of space, a certain number of colors [an easy one: F12 to show/hide colors], a certain amount of tracking that's allowed, and so on. It's defined for me by the designer, and now I just have to make this 1,500-word article fit on one page. With an author's head shot. And an 18-point hed [command+option+shift+: to decrease leading 1/10 point].

And there's predictability. When I left work today, on my desk for tomorrow were a collage of photos that need to be scanned, some blues I'm requesting last-minute changes to, and, somewhere on the Byzantine office network, two chapters of my next project, with text imported [command+E] and art waiting to be placed [shift+option+command+F, to fit to box and maintain proportions]. Assembling those two chapters is about as ethereal as my job ever gets. It's not bricklaying, and I could never lunch on a fifty-story scaffolding alongside a steel monkey, but it's a job that shows results. And I don't mean results like "Hey, I strategized a winning best practice today." I mean results like, "Hey ma, look what I made. Stick it on the fridge."

Of course, with real, concrete work, it's much easier to tell when I've screwed up. I forgot to send the printer the logo for the spine. But that's not really my fault—there's no keyboard command for Collect for Output.

Chris Gage is a whiz at Quark, a dynamo at file conversion, and always reads the manual before he calls the help line.

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