22 January 2013

From manuscripts to markdown

The first machine I ever used was a postal franking machine in the office where my father worked. While attending National (junior) school I gained access to a Gestetner spirit duplicator, revelling in the trail of red ink and chemical odours.

Cover of a book of vintage postcards from the Plantin Moretus museum

Holidays from Secondary (senior) school were often spent in the Reprographics room of my mother’s workplace, the local Technical College, operating huge Xerox photocopiers and being taught, cagily, how to use binders and guillotines.1 A brief stint as an admittedly awful sign writer2 was followed by total immersion in graphic design and reproduction after leaving school.

No college, simply straight into self-employment relying on the unforgettable guidance of old hands who indulged me along the way. How they tolerated my ignorance is beyond me. I learned paste-up, turned the air blue while handling Letraset and watched in nervous awe as a big old Agfa repro-camera3 was manhandled up the stairs to a makeshift darkroom in our first studio.

I cut Rubylith4 to make litho plates, made separations by hand for silk-screen printing, saw hot-metal in use, commissioned galleys from an IBM “golf ball” composer, with its whiffletree linkages5, and stared enviously at the new Compugraphic photo-typesetters.

My mother rang one evening. There was something on the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World programme: I should watch it. There it was, the Macintosh, complete with LaserWriter and scanner. My parents found a 512k Mac and upgraded it to a Macintosh Plus with a 20MB external drive for what was a shocking amount of money. The printer that came with it, a dot-matrix Apple ImageWriter, was useless for reproduction but I wasn’t complaining.

One of the local newspapers bought a PostScript RIP and a 9600dpi photosetter. They wouldn’t let me bring my disks in for output. It was their machine and nobody else’s. Dublin boasted a typesetting bureau. I got a 300-baud modem and learned enough AT commands to send files to Dublin over the telephone wires and get typesetting back in the post. I still have client proofs on file that show B/W photocopies where colour images should be. Process separations for colour plates would come from Dublin, to be married to paste-ups at plate time, Chromalin6 proofs a thing of wonder.

The modem allowed me to log on to this thing called the internet. I had to pay long-distance charges to London to get on a node. And I did, almost to the point of bankruptcy. All text, no graphics, blinking-green [Y/N] options in the terminal, exchanging messages with Clifford Stoll7, author of the classic hacking detective story The Cuckoo’s Egg, on CompuServe.

My father bought me Tschichold’s A Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering8 as a gift. I experimented with an airbrush, found a copy of the Thames and Hudson Manual of Typography9 by Ruari McLean, and got serious. The office-supply shop downstairs had french curves, ellipse sets, old drafting tools, huge pads of perspective grids—all gathering dust. Another brush with bankruptcy.

I learned how to make pens from bamboo and cannibalised nib parts. I found out that I leaned more towards the American approach to graphic design than the Dutch, while respecting both. Applying myself to illustration, I studied how to make a clean line and cut away a mistake. I saw beauty in Bézier10 curves, opening PostScript files in a text editor to see if could find sense in the hidden code. (I couldn’t.) I learned, by pestering friends and shadowing professionals, how to use a camera and lens.

Photoshop was attacked sporadically, long nights spent finding out what every command and filter did. I learned FreeHand, then Illustrator. (Illustrator ’88 is upstairs in a box, along with an original set of Apple’s System 7 install disks and many other relics.) Quark XPress had to be mastered, then InDesign. Floppies were backed up to mag-drives, mag-drives backed up to Zips, Zips to CDs, CDs to DVDs, just as folk begat roots, roots begat jazz, jazz begat soul and soul begat disco. It pays to study the originals, even in the age of dubstep.

Now I write text files in Markdown11 and store them in a cloud, I know not where. Markdown is a simple syntax that makes formatting HTML easy, or trivial as our programmer friends would say. I spent weeks, almost non-stop, getting to grips with CSS. I’m exploring LaTeX12, and MultiMarkdown, and the wheel has turned insofar as I’m back on the command line using Mutt13, for email, a simple and powerful application that was written for UNIX in 1995.

I visited the Book of Kells exhibition yesterday. I witnessed the glory of Celtic, Coptic and Ethiopian scripts written on vellum in the 6th century. The process of combining words and images for others to see is constantly changing, but the need to do it never goes away. Perhaps the best way to stop learning is to get really good at the things we already know how to do. So I hope I keep pushing myself, trying new approaches.

My dues, the debt to my parents, the men and women who came before me, and the people I have worked with, will never be paid. I try to honour them by learning my trade. And it’s fun!


This is an essay that I wrote for Icelandic calligrapher and lettering wunderkind Gunnlauger SE Briem’s Letterforms Report. You can download a free copy at Operina.com. (You could also learn how to improve your handwriting on his site.) I am surprised and grateful to be included among such a talented bunch.


  1. Thank you, Mel Flaherty. 

  2. Thank you, Joe Heskin. 

  3. Seriously, these things were big. Our one was an upright model which still occupied a third of a small room. Older models had a longer focus that ran horizontally and took up even more space. Eoin Foyle had one set up in a dilapidated warehouse near the train station and the Galway Advertiser had a monster. (Thank you, Eamonn Lynch.) 

  4. Rubylith was a sandwich of a red film on a clear backing. The translucent red, which could be cut out to mask off areas on a plate, showed up as solid when exposed in the darkroom. Interestingly “The physical layouts of the first generations of Intel microprocessors (at least the Intel 4004, 4040, 8008, 8080, 8085, and 8086) were designed by physically cutting sheets of Rubylith to create the different required artwork for production of the integrated circuits.” 

  5. As used on windscreen wipers, and horse trains. I kid you not! Whippletree or whiffletree on Wikipedia.com 

  6. Chromalins were made from the process colour separations after the seps were output. So they weren’t so much a proof as a final damning indictment of any errors that had occurred. 

  7. Funny story: I had signed up for Eircom’s short-lived EirTrade online commerce system. They issued me a password that was within one letter of a mythical creature described by Cliff in his book, which was a pretty mad coincidence. I had a good laugh at that. 

  8. A Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering by Jan Tschichold on Amazon.com 

  9. Thames and Hudson Manual of Typography by Ruari McLean on Amazon.com 

  10. There are probably some Bézier curves in your logo. And most of the type that you read every day is defined by them. They are mathematically fascinating. 

  11. Markdown on daringfireball.net 

  12. LaTeX “is a document markup language and document preparation system for the TeX typesetting program.” Widely used for academic papers. 

  13. “All mail clients suck. This one just sucks less.” I love Mutt