The Edsel of Desktop Publishing

December 6, 2010

Not so bad part, slightly safer to read.

The first story actually goes back before the story of Maria and Kip in my life. At one time, my wife and I foolishly started a pre-press graphics business. We had two motivations:

1. We wanted to make more money than we were making in our fairly dead end jobs.

2. We were tired of working for domineering and arbitrary bosses.

There were several problems with our choice.

1. We knew nothing about the “typesetting business” as the enterprise was known in those pre-personal computer/ pre-desktop publishing days. We actually became fairly competent at running our business (as far as the quality of work we produced), but the education process was wasteful and time consuming.

2. It was a business that was seldom profitable for the participants unless they worked in special niches, mostly doing work for advertising agencies, a niche we knew nothing about and had no access to.

3. The equipment needed was expensive. We had no capital and put ourselves ruinously in debt leasing borderline, marginal quality equipment we barely knew how to operate.

4. The business was eventually doomed entirely as personal computers and desktop publishing software developed. We had no clue this was going to happen. Most people in the business, even the successful ones, had no clue we were going to become a “buggy whip” business.

The business came close to ruining our lives, our relationship with our daughter, and our marriage. (As our marriage is currently in trouble, some of the roots of our present problems no doubt link to this disastrous business venture, though it’s quite possible the marriage was doomed from the outset, though it’s also possible it can be saved even now. But that’s another story.)

One of the differences between then and now is fonts. At that time, getting a variety of type styles and type sizes was enormously expensive. We spent thousands of dollars on the few score fonts we had and always tried to talk our customers into settling for what we had in our library. However, from time to time we had to go to a competitor and ask them to set a few lines of type for us and then we would provide it to our customer at a tiny mark up.

Our business was located in Beaverton, a suburb to the West of Portland, Oregon. The successful typesetters, who mostly dealt with advertising agencies, were located in downtown Portland. One day I went downtown to buy a line of type for a business card and letterhead and met Tammy.

Tammy was tall, elegant, blonde, attractive, and very intelligent and assertive. In looks she reminded me a bit of Jean Harlow, the “blonde bombshell” movie star of the 1930s. Tammy grew up in a very religious evangelical Christian family. As far as I could tell, her relationship with her parents was positive and friendly, but for whatever reason, she had married fairly young, given birth to a daughter right away, and was abandoned by her husband within a year or two of the marriage.

[I suspect he was weak and good-looking, and when he married a woman who was not only good-looking and fertile, but also very smart and very tough he fled in terror.]

Tammy and I hit it off well when I met her at her shop. She lived in Beaverton, so sometimes on her way home from downtown Portland, she stopped in our shop and purchased some type from us if we had a font her shop did not; or more often the case, dropped off something we had ordered from her employer.

Although Tammy had no formal academic graphics and business training, her intelligence and drive meant that she rose quickly to executive positions in graphic design and pre-press businesses in the Portland market of the time (mid-1970s). She obviously spotted very quickly that the business my wife and I owned was doomed, but she was too kind and polite to say this to us.

Tammy was well aware that she was a “bomb shell,” as looks go, and cynical enough to regard it as a business asset. As we became friends, she sometimes laughed about how she would participate in a high level business meeting (perhaps the only woman, or if not, but by far the most attractive one) and how men would be so distracted by leering at her that she could gain better deals and terms. She was not quite this crude in how she expressed herself ( though she came surprisingly close) but I will take the liberty of summarizing what she told me as If they are so befuddled by imagining it would be like to screw me when we are negotiating a deal that I can screw them in the deal itself, that’s fine with me).

Eventually, our business collapsed, leaving my wife and I with huge debts and a need to get jobs quickly just to survive. Through a friendly competitor named Ken, who owned a similar doomed business with his wife (who left him with the collapse of their business) I came into contact with a start-up business that was trying to invent “desktop publishing.”

The business was begun by a would-be entrepreneur named Paul, and his father Paul, Sr. Paul considered himself a brilliant entrepreneut and business man. To my eye, Paul was bright, arrogant, moderately slimy and while largely unethical, I did notice times when he was hampered by a few scruples.

His dad, Paul, Sr. was a hard-driving salesman freak, something like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, but much less attractive and interesting than Willy Loman. Paul Sr’s main schtick was hiring pretty saleswomen and then sleeping with them.

Paul and dad started a company they named Accucom, bought some very early IBM personal computers, early Apple computers, and early laser printers and started trying to develop technology that would let people set type themselves.

Even to this day, decades later, the Oedipal and Freudian implications of their relationship, with son as boss of the company, and dad under his direction, are monumental.

Their main aid to management decisions was to drink copious amounts of alcohol. A typical day would run like this. In the morning, Paul would gather the management team (of which I was the most junior member, but not quite the stupidest, try as hard a I could to function down at their level) and make a management decision or two that might be diluted by about 25% good sense, and perhaps little or no alcohol. In the evening, the top management team (although I on occasion got dragged along) would meet at a close-by tavern and hold another management meeting, this time enhanced by copious amounts of alcohol). It was my observation (which being very foolish I sometimes shared) that the evening revisions of the management reduced the 25% good sense to as close to zero as could be achieved by human beings.

I still remember with great fondness a special treat that Paul once provided. The typesetting machine owned by the newspaper could advanced type fairly quickly, perhaps a foot a minute (.3 meter). The Pauls decided that they could sell “rush jobs” for large projects by advertising these impressive specifications. However, a few seconds of consideration revealed the “fine print.” The specification was only how fast the machine could advance blank paper. As it as it actually was setting type, changing fonts, enlarging and reducing type, and so on. The speed went down to a half or a quarter.

When I tried to point this limitation to the Pauls, the blew it off as a minor detail. One day, Paul Sr. arrived at the business with a great air of triumph. He had bagged a stupendous job, a technical manual consisting of thousands of pages that had to be delivered in three days. Based the specs for blank pages he had promised the job could be delivered in that time period and been promised a huge bonus.

When I scanned over the job (which also presented many other complications and difficulties), I tried to explain to the Pauls there was no way the job could be delivered in that time period.

I was scolded for thinking negatively and told to get to work. I gathered my crew and we set to work. After working around the clock for about three weeks, we finally completed the job about 7 pm one night .

I thanked the crew who had worked energetically, skillfully, and cheerfully over the whole time period. As a special thanks I walked to a near by convenience store and bought enough six packs of beer so everyone could have one bottle to celebrate. I believe that I asked that at least one person who was driving (they had come in several groups) no open his bottle until he was home.

Just as we were packaging up the completed job to be air express to the company, Paul Jr. walked in. Instead of apologizing for inflicting an impossible job on us, or even thanking us for doing a job that properly would have been a six week job in three weeks, Paul went into a tirade that I was providing employees with alcohol on company property and putting everyone in danger of a lawsuit. He grabbed the bottles of beer (none open) from me and the employees and locked them into his office.

This was especially rich, as I had often seen him stagger out of a bar after one of his late night management meetings and drive off loaded and barely able to drive. I am not a violent person, but even so he is fortunate that I did not take one of the bottles and smash it over his head. I have observed many powerful examples of hypocrisy over my life (and probably inflected a few), but this had to rank as one of the all time truly great ones in my personal life.

(In the next part, I will get to the first evangelical feminist I am going to introduce to you.)

4 Responses to “The Edsel of Desktop Publishing”


  1. Okay … the thing about pitching speed of jobs based on how quickly the machine processed… blank paper … wow. Just WOW.

  2. modestypress Says:

    David, that was many, many years ago. You comment brings back to me with great a great vivid flashback how at the time I said “wow. Just WOW.” And how the Pauls stared at me with utter incomprehension and asked, “What’s your problem?”


  3. Well, I suppose it’s some small retroactive consolation to know that you’re not alone in your perception of their complete douchebaggery.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: