Category: Tools

The dawn of digital


A guest post by a digital news graphics pioneer, Karl Gude, who is now a professor in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences at Michigan State University. Karl is Director of the Media Sandbox.

(Above: State-of-the-art in 1985, the Apple Lisa. It cost $24,000 in today’s money.)

Apple to the rescue

Grrrr… As a news artist working in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I hated plotting graphs by hand, like the ones below, (my boss wanted me to make charts like “Nigel Holmes in Time!”), and I made a lot of them. My fingers were black with ink and nicked by X-Acto blades. But by the mid ‘80s, there was a bright light on the horizon: Apple was making computers that could plot a graph with the click of a mouse.

United Press International in the 1980s. All news graphics were drawn by hand.

Life with Lisa

In 1985, I was working for the news agency, UPI, in Washington, D.C., which sold infographics to newspaper clients. We purchased two Apple Lisa computers which could generate simple maps and charts. Apple flew executives out to help us set them up, including Apple iconographer and designer Susan Kare ( Her icons for the operating system are shown below. Apple was excited that the news industry was interested in their products, and if UPI used their equipment, our 1,600 newspaper and TV clients would also have to use it to edit our graphics, if only to delete the byline!

Back to analog

I moved to the New York Daily News as their News Graphics Director in 1986. Unfortunately, it was back to the drafting table, and the old ways of doing things, but not for long. The editor was against spending money on graphics technology, but he agreed to allow me to rent one Apple Macintosh, or Mac (a bit better than the Lisa for graphics), to create infographics for a special series we were doing on transit in New York. The Mac was a crowd-pleaser, and when the editor saw what it could do he allowed me to purchase six of them. Out went the art tables, and in came the complaints. Most of the staff didn’t like this new way of making graphics and drawing, but before I could see how it all turned out, I moved to the Associated Press.

The Associated Press goes digital

Again, drawing tables! But, AP was already considering Macs, and the transition from drawing tables to computers happened quickly. I felt sad though, at the sight of about 12 battle weary, ink-stained and cut up drawing tables lining a long hallway waiting to be shipped to a warehouse. They were replaced with flat desks with Macs sitting atop 20-megabyte (!) hard drives.

One of my early Mac graphics drawn in Claris MacDraw 1.9.6, March 1988.

AP leads the way. (Editor’s note: Notice that Karl is “master of the Macintosh”. You can’t beat that.)

The first portable Mac

If you were to shrink every tool on a cluttered drawing table and cram them into a tiny little box, you would have the Macintosh Plus.  Because the computer was so light and portable, Apple designed a backpack so that it could be easily taken places, which was a dream for me back in 1987. As a news artist, it was hard to visit the scene of a breaking news event and cover it live in the same way a photographer could with a camera. The best I could do was to go there and make sketches (visual notes) to use as reference for a drawing that I would complete back at the office.

The traveling computer. Just a little larger than an iPad! Karl holding the bag a few days ago.

Before Apple’s swanky backpack existed, I used a cardboard box. There was a terrible accident where a building under construction collapsed killing a number of workmen in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which was about 35 miles from the AP offices in New York, As was the usual drill, I found myself explaining to a photographer, who was rushing to the scene, which photos I needed him to take for me as possible reference for a diagram. It was then I realized that I could go with him! No longer tied down to a drawing table, I threw my Macintosh into a cardboard box, and hopped in the car with him. The Connecticut Post was nice enough to give me a desk to work on (thanks Rick Sayers!), and my Mac was the first one they had seen in action. The diagram I made that night, explaining the process workers were using to build the doomed building (called “lift-slab construction”), was transmitted over a phone modem directly from the Post to AP in New York, who then routed it to hundreds of newspapers and TV stations around the country. Hours were saved in the making of the graphic, which made our subscribers very happy.

Drawing programs: vector or postscript?

In the early days, before scanners came along, drawing on Macs was heavy going. We used the vector-based MacDraw program, which was easy, cheap, and already in every newsroom. Because we were a news agency that supplied graphics to 2,000+ frugal news organizations, we had to stick with MacDraw much longer than we had wanted.

We would sketch out our drawings on paper, and in order to get them into the Mac to finalize them, we followed this process:

  1. Size the drawing (or photo reference) on a copy machine to about the size of the tiny Mac screen.
  2. Trace the drawing (or photo reference) with a marker pen onto clear acetate.
  3. Tape the acetate to the Mac over the screen.
  4. Trace the image with the mouse (much like drawing with a bar of soap) by clicking around the acetate drawing without moving your head (otherwise, your drawing would be distorted).

The equipment in this illustration was drawn directly in the Mac SE using MacDraw II, but the people, which my wife posed for, were drawn using the method detailed above.

Covering elections with the Mac meant sending graphics directly to papers through Mac-to-Mac- dial-up instead of over a slow, bogged down photo network. Here I am in D.C. with AP’s Brian Horton to cover the 1988 elections.

1989 MacDraw graphic, one of my last with that software.

Superior postscript drawing programs like Adobe Illustrator and Aldus Freehand had come out, but for the Associated Press to switch to one of those meant getting all of our news members to purchase and learn it, and most of the smaller papers resisted this expense of time and money. Also, postscript programs couldn’t read vector images, so entire databases of maps and images would be useless. Eventually, though, we had to make the move. We asked both Adobe and Aldus if they could build into their next version the ability to open and edit vector-based images. Adobe said, “That’s against our religion. No.” But Aldus said, “How soon do you need it?” So, we announced to the newspaper world that AP would be switching to Freehand, and that we could get if for them at a discount. I heard that the Adobe guy who made the “religion” comment was fired for lack of vision.

Sketching out a plane crash graphic before drawing it in the Mac. We built lots of aircraft models for reference.

Still, despite all of the awkward limitations, drawing on the Mac still was better than drawing with an ink pen, and pasting a layout with melted wax onto boards before having them photographed and printed. The Mac allowed you to edit your lines and fills, change text easily, move elements around into different layouts, and create databases of elements, like maps, that you could reuse another time. It was heaven.

An early Aldus Freehand drawing, 1989. The thick 3D boxes were a bit much. Hey, so were shoulder pads in jackets!

By the early 90s, the Mac and Postscript software, predominantly Adobe Illustrator, had stuck and both were here to stay.



This follows on from my post last week about mechanical art:

It obviously wasn’t just a matter of making overlays with pens and black ink, or cutting shapes in Rubylith film. You had to pick the CMYK colors, and try and visualize the final result. I used two process color books that displayed a huge range of possible color combinations.

One book has black cards with cutouts to isolate colors, and a transparent sheet of black tints to estimate surprints.

Of course, you could refer to previous proofs and build up a vocabulary of color values that you knew would work. But it was not an exact science, and there were sometimes interesting results. Either I had marked up the overlays incorrectly, or there was a mistake at the pre-press company. (How they could ever get it right amazed me.) Sometimes I had selected a color, that when put next to another color, looked downright awful.

But mostly it worked. In the case of this Parthenon artwork (from 1988), I applied several layers to the first “Chromalin” proof to correct my miscalculations. I’ve shown the printed result before in a post about the pre-computer era:

Time has taken it’s toll on this mechanical. The layers have shrunk or expanded, which is why they don’t register correctly, and the blue-inked instructions have spread out, but it still gives an good idea of the process of working with overlays.

This artwork is heading to Munich! It‘s part of an exhibition of my work. From March 9 to 11, at the EDCH and INCH conferences.
I will also be giving one of the keynote presentations at INCH, and running an information graphics workshop.

Design conference:

Infographics conference

Infographic workshop:

Tools of the trade


Need a circle? Use this.

When I started making infographics, every freelancer in the business carried a briefcase everywhere they went. It was filled with all the equipment needed to make artwork. You needed technical pens, french curves, ellipse templates, compasses, ruling pens, paintbrushes, a craft knife, and so on. We spent a lot of time in art supply stores, buying designer’s colors and inks and everything else. I still love those places more than any other shops, although there are a hell of a lot less of them around now.

There were some problems that we don’t have today. If you ran out of ink on a Sunday, you were finished. Stores were closed for the day back then. Then there were the accidents: cuts from very sharp knives, bottles of ink knocked over onto elaborate artwork, airbrushes suddenly spitting paint over beautiful backgrounds.

Yes, it was stressful, but it was also a craft, and it felt like one. Like making furniture or pottery, or something arty. We were artists, or at least we thought we were. After all, we used some of the same gear, just no beret or white smock.

This compass set once belonged to Peter Sullivan, and was used to create numerous classic infographics. It is Swiss-made and is wonderful to use. It contains ruling pens and compasses of various sizes, including a drop-bow compass for very small circles, and an extension bar for large ones. Notice the small circular stand that lets you draw a circle without the compass point making a hole in the artwork.

French curves were essential. I had some wooden ship curves for long, gentle arcs, and a difficult-to-use Flexicurve (a plastic bendable rod).

Ellipse templates were needed in multiple degrees and sizes to draw all the perspective circles in a piece of art. In a rough drawing, I would note the ellipses needed for the artwork, otherwise it meant painstakingly matching them up to their respective templates again. I had many of these crammed into my briefcase.

A more exotic instrument. The eleven-point divider was used for division of a line into up to ten equal sections, such as a scale on a chart. I never really used it, I just liked opening and closing it.

Below is a proportional divider. Used for transferring dimensions from one scale to another, or for dividing up lines equally.

A proportional scale for working out scaled sizes was a staple of design departments back in the dark ages.

Color code




A brilliantly simple project by Inka Matthew. Why don’t I have great ideas like this? Don’t answer that question, please. Anyway, more examples can be seen here:




With the holiday season approaching you might want to start thinking about a designer tree:

More stuff at Pantone Universe:





In a 2012 market research survey, 1,000 smokers selected Pantone 448 as the world’s most repulsive color. The Australian government was looking for a suitably awful color to mandate for cigarette packaging. They combined this with shocking images of the effects of smoking in an attempt to reduce cigarette use. Other countries are now following the same track. In May this year, the United Kingdom introduced the same approach.




Next time you’re in Brussels, stay at a hotel that’s a tribute to the color system.


Pencil power


On a visit last week to CW Pencil Enterprises ( in New York City, I had trouble leaving the premises. There are all kinds of pencils there from around the world, along with sharpeners and notebooks. You can even have the pencils personalized with a 1960s foil-stamping machine. Coincidentally, or perhaps it’s just good karma, the store is right next to the studio of Bryan Christie Design ( The owner of this pencil-lovers paradise, Caroline Weaver, is (of course) pencil-crazy, which is confirmed by a sizeable pencil tattoo on her arm. She had thought about selling pens as well, but decided to stay faithful to the pencil, and not dilute the concept. Yes, to that!


Pencils are such a great bargain. You can buy someone a beautiful, creative gift for a very reasonable price. Inside the package above are five gems that I chose on my visit.




And if you really want to go for it…


I talked about the original Blackwing 602 pencil in a previous post ( You can see a Palomino Blackwing Grand Piano Box Set in the photo above. Go to eBay and see if you can get a Eberhart Faber original set for less than $400. I have not bought one. Yet.

The ultimate pencil



The Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 is considered by many people to be the last word in pencils. Nothing else compares. The trouble is, it went out of production in 1998. You can find one (or a box like this) on eBay. But watch out, it can cost as much as $75 for each pencil. Apparently, there are Hollywood screenwriters who cannot function at all without this pencil. “There is no way I’m writing that screenplay without a Blackwing 602,” they scream. And it has to be the original (alternate shown below), or they’re going home.


I’m happy with the modern version, the Palomino Blackwing 602, which has been around since 2008. I’m not too freaked out by the change in the eraser color either. But some people…