Michael Quin Heavener

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Creating the climber cover

In the infancy of PC-based desktop publishing, doing sophisticated graphic/text melds was almost impossible. Even as recently as the early 1990s, such eye-appealing techniques required a six-figure Silicon Graphics (SGI) workstation and working in "display Postscript."

Enlarged view

Given that I had given myself twin—and often conflicting—goals as publisher, editor, and production manager for the company's weekly international magazine (improve visuals AND reduce costs), using an expensive SGI was out of the question. That would have required leasing equipment and booking designer time and labor at an agency.

Accordingly, I set out to recreate (if possible) the look and feel coming out of the "high-priced houses"—to try making a stock photo of a mountain climber pop out through typographic treatment. The image elements were created in Photoshop version 3, which predated the use of layers and multiple "undo's."

1. The first necessity was to overlay the magazine's "flag" (a newspaper term; often called the masthead in layman's terms—technically, the masthead is the list of editorial and advertising staff on page 4 or 5). Since the flag extended into the rock wall of the image (see below), that meant merging several PageMaker elements into the visual treatment. Photoshop's type tool just wasn't sophisticated enough then.

Hope is often borne of a desperate attempt to do something that looks impossible. In this case, well before the advent of Adobe Acrobat, there didn't seem any way possible. However, I knew that PageMaker committed its internal formatting to the Windows clipboard. Anything copied from PageMaker and pasted back into PageMaker, even into a new document, carried the formatting along intact. Even Microsoft Word couldn't do that yet.

So I took a big chance. I set up the flag in PageMaker, selected everything, and copied it. Imagine my surprise—when it actually pasted intact into Photoshop! Keep in mind this was well before the Aldus/Adobe merger and alignment of their products. Now, most of this can be done directly in Photoshop. The rest in the layout program can be saved to PDF, since PDFs can be opened directly in Photoshop without losing any control.

Of course, nothing aligned properly. And there was still the little issue of bringing small sections of the image to the front of the type, with a little offset to create dimensionality.

2. Back in PageMaker, I nudged and finessed the various elements over and down, and over and up, and over again, until I thought I had the proper visual alignment. Then I performed a quick pasted into a copy of the Photoshop image to verify. This step took more than a dozen attempts to finally "get it right."

At this point, my concentration was only on the words "This Week" and "An International Magazine"—the rest of the type was added later, after importing the completed Photoshop image into PageMaker.

3. Once I had placement absolutely perfect in a clone of the original type-less image, I had to add a path around the elements that conflicted with the granite cliff. I was unfamiliar with using the pen tool to create paths (that knowledge didn't come until I worked at Seattle Lab), so I used the lasso tool set for polygon mode.

I felt I didn't have the manual dexterity to try curves and rounded edges. I theorized, correctly as it turns out, that since the computer treats everything as a rectangle (that's what the pixel, or picture-element, is all about), I could rely on the eye/brain desire to see everything in real-life terms.

So, if I clicked in minute-enough increments, at reproduction resolutions in imagesetting, the tiny discrepancies should—and did—blur and become invisible. (It's so much easier nowadays using the pen tool, with its bezier curves and draggable control points.)

Working in a copy of the composited image, I blew up the display to about 1200 percent, I carefully click-click-clicked around the edges of the letters "Th" to isolate that part of the image. Fortunately, Photoshop let me replace the pasted copy with the original image without deselecting the "marching ants." From there, I could grab just the portion of cliff inside the letters.

Back in the composited image, I discovered I had a second alignment problem— the standoff was not sufficient to convey depth to the letters. I actually had to retrace back to the interim layout in PageMaker and redo the "cut-and-paste" process until I got the letters just the subtlest nick off the final lettering placement. Of course, that meant doing the whole "marching ants" process all over again.

4. Once I finally had the magazine's name done in granite, I turned my attention to the black box with the "tagline." Having brought "This Week" to the front, I needed to send the other element to the back—metaphorically.

This was, fortunately, easier, since the alignment was nowhere near as critical. And I already had the practice. All it entailed was selecting the portion of granite and climber's head that would cover the black box, and copying it into the final composite.

Photoshop 3, fortunately, did not actually commit copied elements to an image until they were deselected. As long as the ants marched, it could be nudged around with the arrow keys, thus allowing me to align the edge of the rock wall exactly where it needed to be so the climber's head was seamless.

I suppose I could have done it the other way, too, cutting out the black box instead and then butting the box aganist the visual element edge in the photo where I intended it.

The rest of the type elements—headlines, subheads, and teasers—were added in PageMaker after importing the finished composite image.


Follow-up: Things have gotten much easier, thankfully, with the advent of Photoshop's layers and "text-as-layer" features. Nowadays, I can do this in a matter of seconds— instead of the half-day the climber cover took. However, the process is essentially the same.

Was it worth the effort? I got great feedback from other designers who couldn't believe I'd done this using only Photoshop and PageMaker. In terms of advancing my technical skills, the time was not wasted. I actually gave a mini-seminar to three other designers, retracing my steps so they knew how to duplicate the effect.

But, the cover garnered only a passing glance and grunt of acknowledgement from the intended audience. It was a "ho-hum; looks nice; what's in the rest of the issue for me?" response, both from management and the field sales force. Whereas I expected readership to perk up doing something we'd never done before, I felt the effort hadn't paid the benefits anticipated.

I also learned the lesson that technique (and applied technology in general) is—and should be—transparent to the end viewer. The corollary is that if technology and technique are NOT transparent, they inhibit comprehension and retention. If I'm intrigued by how it was done, what it means becomes secondary.

 

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