Category Archives: style sheets

Due Diligence

rail crossing

Rail crossing, San Joaquin Valley, Dec 2010

Over the years at various jobs, I had downtime. Sometimes for several minutes, occasionally for days, even a week or two. Reading the papers got old. So I began to practice working on problems.

In the paste-up days, I’d xerox and make assemblages. It kept me nimble. Later when the agency I worked at went digital, I’d set up problems and situations for myself in Quark. Yes Quark, the Error 39 Dark Star of my firmament. While the guys next door were sitting in their office with their fantasy baseball leagues, I was skulling out the business of how this goddamned program worked.

Sooner rather than later, I began to encounter actual old-school typographers who’d washed up into ad agencies. They worked with the invisibles on, frames and all. I was hooked. They willingly taught me about style-sheets. Often times I’d outrun the then-feeble processing capacity of the machines I was working on.

As a freelancer I always had to stay ahead of the full-timers. They had a certain security, while I could be more obviously bounced. That is an unfortunate trade-off, one less and less certain as each new day passes in these grim times.

I too became complacent. Until one day I realized I need to know a whole lot more about Photoshop. So off to night-school I went, and discovered that for over fifteen years I was a mouse gnawing my way around a very large cheese. I’d never cored into the program.

Now I was scared. I went to school for the next 2-1/2 years. Always night, on my own dime. That way I didn’t owe shit to anybody. I’d hear from guys I’d worked with over the years the following statements. You might know them too:

  • I’d go to class if somebody paid for it
  • I’ve been meaning to do this
  • It’s too expensive
  • This shit’s too hard

When I started into Photoshop night school, it was about 18 months before the economy went straight into the shitter. I had several classes, one of which was blighted by a perfect storm of self-centered overtalkers, in over-their-head clueless, and some people who just didn’t take it seriously. One night, I’d had enough, and opened up a can of whoop-ass.

“For those in this class who haven’t noticed, the economy is about to go into the toilet. There are some of us in here who would like to live in a better quality of cardboard box than at present. If you don’t have anything positive to contribute, I’m going to ask you to [shut the fuck up], because your talking disrespects the professor, your classmates, and mainly yourselves…”

Dead silence.

The situation improved slightly. The instructor’s hands are tied, because they can’t tell these idiots to shut the fuck up, because then said idiots would cry that their rights had somehow been violated, and so on. For the record, I’m a stone-cold liberal, but this manner of disrespect I will not abide.

Time took care of them. By 2009 the poseurs and clueless were gone, replaced by a full class sitting stock still, eyes forward, terrified by the economic apocalypse unfolding daily. However the “Special Olympics” mentality is deeply entrenched. Too many expect somehow that just showing up gets them a finisher medal, and a victory lap around the track.

And that’s when getting into a community college was easy. Now that education funding has cratered,  just try getting into those classes. They are probably twice as expensive, and half as long as they were before.

What are your choices? Maybe its what you have to do.

But back to my working life. I make war on bad layouts inside the InDesign Creative Suite, currently 5. I taught myself the mysteries of tables, because where I work, they live and die by them. And I was fed up with working on weird-ass legacy documents where the previous operators had glued all kinds of random shit together with drawn rules, color boxes, tab-delimited text boxes, floating in an ambiguous space, with no definite margins.

Which you’ll never see if you work with the invisibles off.

Here’s the bottom line, ducklings: if you think your skills are the end-all and be-all, you are sorely mistaken. Because they probably aren’t. So if you aren’t going to school, and you go home and drink, watch whatever’s on TV, maybe you ought to slice off an hour and begin to study a problem. Put it on a flash drive, and take it to work, and when shit ain’t happening, study it there too.

All this is out on the webs. Ask the question. And here’s the hook: When you’re sitting at work, surfing, you’re slack. You’re not engaged. Eventually people notice.

But this requires a spark of intellectual curiosity.

So. What are you going to do about it?

Design and Production: Two Agendas That Eventually Meet

cali fires11-2003

So…Whaddya Know?

A prominent senior designer once asked me what I knew about Quark. There was amusement in his query. He was designing the 1998 Pac Bell annual report. I was an unknown freelancer. What did I know?

I asked to sit down in front of his keyboard, and began to analyze his comp by asking questions in a walk-through manner as I looked through each part of the layout

It went something like this:

“Page layout? It looks like a spread, with a cluster of pulled guides, and what looks like a 2 column grid. Let’s go to page masters. Create master page A, set up a 2-column grid, apply said Master page to spread. Nudge and tug the master page columns a bit. Now the text starts looking a little more secure.”

“Common text box tops? Go to baseline grid. Set first line to strike at 1.5” (18p). Now all the text boxes can be moved and parked accordingly if that’s the plan. We’ll adjust the line leading later, but we’ll leave it at the default 12pt.”

“Well lookie-here. All the text boxes have a default inset of 1 point. Eliminate that, then the text boxes can slam up against the guides without fuss.”

“Formatting type? Hmmm…no evident style for anything. Body text looks like Centaur Book, 10/12.5. There was a gummed in initial cap in its own box with whack runaround. Not good. Let’s set up a style sheet for the main body text, and pull a dupe style sheet to accommodate the init cap (3 down, 1 over) paragraph, and use a character style sheet for color, etc. Now define a style sheet for alternate first, middle and last paragraphs. And forget the part about hitting returns on the end of the ‘graph. Specify the space after each paragraph. Ditto subheads, pull quotes and sidebar info”

“Colors? How many is this project going to use? 4+3 spots and a varnish? Nice. Go to color palette. Lose or convert all RGB colors to CMYK, unless the RGB green is being used as a die-line FPO indicator. Otherwise kill it.”

“The folios in the bottom look improvised. Go back to master spread. Create folios using automated page characters. I can think of more fun things to be doing rather than chasing improperly formatted folios and where they are placed.”

“Text rules? Inline text ital/bold/? Character styles!”

“And that is what I know about Quark”.

His grin had frozen in place. Which leads to the next idea.

Style Sheets Are Your Best Friend

Design and production have two separate agendas: The designer is creating multiple variants to sell one. The print-production expert has to take that one idea and make it jump multiple times. This is where a solid command of style sheets will make your waking working life considerably happier.

In 2002 I was contracted to produce the 355-page Hancock & Moore catalog through Dan Lennon’s design office.

On arrival, I was handed a sample spread containing text blocks with grouped AI eps files. It looked a lot like this:


Behold the famed Quark “Duct-Tape Xtension! The delightful things one sees when you turn on Invisibles and Guides. Whoa!

I then asked the designer if this was it. He said it was. I told him that I would use this design to set up typographic solutions for this set up. He was skeptical.

This highlights the difference between a one-off idea and a production-line execution. If I used this exact setup I would be in deep trouble. Why?

  • it was a collage, subject to unintentional ungrouping
  • the rule combination was a different enlargement for each text box
  • it was unmodifiable on a production set up.
  • Hard returns after every line, tabbed everywhere (indicated by arrows), spacing (indicated by dots). All of these can (and eventually will be altered by unwary edits)

Clients will change their minds. Count on it.

This is an example of what the finished style sheet looked like for a main copy block. Everything is handled through the style sheets. The rule combo, distance from main head to descriptor body. The subsidiary listing is described by another style sheet.


(top line is highlighted, showing relevant style sheet, with Invisibles turned on)

Remember what I said about the Client changing their mind?

Three chapters into the book they decided they didn’t like the look. I was idled for a long weekend while the designers went back to the boards. What you see here was the final-final round. Converting the previous style sheets only took several hours. Imagine what it might have been like had I not set up the original style sheets in the first place. Not a pretty picture.

HM Sample spread

One final note: While I was putting this project together I thought the type was a bit fussy and small given that the target audience was likely to be 50+ and a bit farsighted. Secondly, furniture galleries have subdued lighting, unlike Ikea or Target. The following year the catalog had an insert that used chunky 12pt bold type…