Graphic Means: A History of Graphic Design Production – documentary

Graphic Means documentary

Director: Briar Levit 

As someone who went to art college in the late nineties and had a purely digital education, I obviously always knew something came before the computer, but beyond letterpress, wasn’t quite sure what. The only introduction had been pictures of various bits of machinery in books i stumbled across in the library, but i only had the vaguest notion of what they all did, and how the process worked.  

This gap in knowledge has only become more glaring, as a university lecturer i’ve been unable to adequately explain what people did only a few years before I got into design. But Graphic Means resolves all this, through archive footage, and interviews with those designers and practitioners at the forefront of the various technologies. 

The film clearly articulates the various different stages of the process, making it accessible to all of us that didn’t experience it. It also manages to convey a sense of the sheer upheaval of it all. From the strikes of the International Typographical Union, through to the money wasted by investing in new technologies that quickly became obsolete (plus the sheer number of rival technologies, and exploding number of typefaces). 

A real strength of the film is that it discusses both the democratisation of the design process through the change in technologies—whether rub down lettering, or the personal computer—but also through its interviews. It doesn’t simply focus on the big name designers, but provides a balance of those immersed at varying stages of the process across different technologies.  

What’s refreshing is that this is technology we can neither fully fetishise (the chemistry and technology makes it impossible to resurrect)—as has been done with letterpress in many quarters over the last decade, or even romanticise it. I was lucky enough to attend a VIP screening at Adobe’s offices in Seattle the day before the premiere which included people that had worked in the world of paste up. While they all enjoyed seeing, hearing and discussing it again, they all expressed huge relief that they no longer had to work like that. 

Instead we are able to enjoy the film as the missing link between letterpress and the birth of desktop publishing, providing further context to the way in which we work now, while also a reminder that technology shifts, and working in the creative industries we need to constantly adapt to new ways of working and thinking.

The documentary had its premiere in Seattle at the Northwest Film Forum on April 15, and will shortly be screened across America, and beyond.  

Full disclosure, I did my postgraduate degree at Central Saint martins at the same time as Briar Levit, and have worked with her for the last few years on the similarly different student collaboration. Plus I’m currently her lodger in Portland while i’m teaching at Portland State University.