Half-size manila blank paper notebooks with "makeready" covers by Trip Print Press, Toronto
I was on a press check recently, deliriously inhaling the pervasive aroma of ink (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it) whereupon, feeling very virtuous and non-digital, I asked my pressman if there were any makeready sheets lying around for me to bring back to the studio? (Makereadies, for the uninitiated, are sheets of paper, re-fed into a press to get the ink balances up to speed, leaving a series of often random, palimpsest-like, multiple impressions on a single surface.)
He glanced over at me with a combination of bewilderment and pity, like I was some Rip Van Winkle holdout from, say, the days when you could fill your tank and still afford to buy a sandwich. Makereadies, he explained, were essentially unnecessary given the accuracy of digital presses. Plus, they messed up the plates and beds and rollers on the machines with, well, ink.
While I remain deeply appreciative that the modern age has virtually eliminated the immediate need for wax and glue, I confess to a certain amount of personal mourning for the death of the makeready, and what it stood for.
Several years ago, an exhibit of the work of Ladislav Sutnar featured an assortment of his mechanicals — layer upon layer of word and image, tissue and overlay, amberlith, rubylith, handwritten instructions to the printer, and more. Each layer, viewed separately, served to illuminate one aspect of the work; read collectively, these elements assumed a more cohesive identity, yet more than anything there was an uncanny sense of time and space reflected in the physicality, the depth of the machette.
Like the mechanical, the makeready represents a certain time-based activity (getting up to speed on press) and a dimensionality (layers of ink, superimposed images, double and triple impressions, surprinted letterforms) that bespeak a kind of whimsical, unexpected beauty. Its loss is the printer’s gain — time being money, after all — but it also represents efficiency at the expense of artistry.
You can simulate a makeready on a computer in a fraction of the time, and print it with astonishing accuracy in an instant — but will such digital re-enactments ever quite capture the magical moment when the press spits out that giant, unpredictable, ink-covered sheet? I suspect not.
Chart-Pak Graphic Chart Kit, Model K-20, 1956
True, while nostalgia is unlikely to slow anything's inevitable demise, it bears saying that where design is concerned, the past is past, and references to history tend to be perceived as tired and stale and decidedly un-hip. The word “vintage,” for example, no longer describes an ancient era as much as it qualifies a recent decade (vintage '60s!), or even more bizarrely, a year (vintage 1985!). From Letraset display press type to information design rendered in Chart Pak tape, the tools of previous eras read as clunky and primitive; but they were also, in no small way, borne of the genuine physical contact between the maker and the thing, a tricky proposition rich in complexity, negotiation and page-thickness. There was more room for error — indeed, there was more error, period. (My graduate thesis, produced as a mechanical from type I output on a Mac SE — you can stop laughing now — resulted in a book that was the casualty of precisely this process: I hung the quotes by hand, and many of them fell off enroute to the copier. Some of my best writing may well have ended up, I fear, on the cutting room floor.)
As a teenager, I once took a summer job in the art department of a small advertising agency, the kind with a bull pen, drafting tables and yes, glue pots. My job (for which I was paid well below minimum wage) was to take a single-edged razor blade and scrape all the gummy rubber cement off the pots. (No, I am not making this up.) By early August, I had amassed a rather impressive ball from the gluey detritus of my labors — a result I recall as rather sad, so naturally it impressed my ten-year old daughter, who thought this enviable. (“You got paid to make a glue ball? Cool!”) Sadder still, it did little to contribute to my then-meager portfolio. Still, that big rubber ball was, at the very least, something you could hold in your hand — it had density and weight and mass — and I suppose that’s saying something.
But it does beg the question: no one doubts the veracity of the physical evidence of the designed thing, but what of the process that preceded it? The makeready symbolized all that was time-based in the making of printed matter. With its function effectively rendered obsolete, so, too, goes the form — at least where commercial printing is concerned. (Thank goodness for silkscreen and letterpress printing, within which the makeready may well continue to thrive.) Ephemerality is so often the casualty of any kind of progress, as production of any kind is invariably supplanted by quicker, cheaper, more efficient means. In this case, the more the physical object is compromised by speedy transmittal, the more our definitions of design, and of the methods that produce it, must adapt to new conceptions of both method and manufacture. To jettison the makeready, however efficient, is like throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. I, for one, will miss it terribly.