By Connie Disney
MY FIRST AND ONLY real memory of my father is focusing on the pens securely clipped in his shirt pocket, because he died during the fall just before my second birthday. My mother later told me how much my dad enjoyed using his fountain pens, how he didn’t share them because the nibs would shift in the hands of different users, making it difficult to guide the pen thereafter. A fountain pen was a personal item; you didn’t share it. After that, I always had one of my own.
I remember being fascinated by the shapes of letters in my childhood books. They were mysterious, almost magical. Later, in school, I would “draw” my letters to make my schoolwork look attractive—a problem clear into the eighth grade, for everyone but me.
I STOOD ON the sidewalk along 100 South, across from Crossroads Mall, looking through the glass door at the thirty or so dark-brown painted steps that would take me up to the Sunstone editorial offices. I was there because a friend, a local graphic designer, had told me about an opening for a paste-up artist. He insisted that I would be a good candidate though we both knew it wasn’t true. “If you have any problems,” he said, “call me and I’ll walk you through it.”
If readers know anything about paste-up, they are chuckling right now. And if they knew my designer friend, they will remember how typical it was of him to be overly optimistic. The fact was that my paste-up experience was only a notch or two above nil.
It was early 1985, and my world had recently collapsed. I suddenly found myself the main provider for my five children. How did I come to be thirty-eight years old and unable to financially support my family? As I grew into adulthood, I never came to understand that:
a. The most common of life events can remove your eternal companion from full participation in nurturing and sustaining the children you’ve brought into the world together.
b. Such a life-changing event is more likely to happen than any natural disaster, making it far more practical to develop an ability to earn a living than to gather together hundreds of pounds of weevil-infested wheat and just as many bottles of fruit.
c. Having a marketable skill can soften the blow to you and your kids and help you keep your self-esteem intact as you figure out how to pay the rent, get new tires for the car, and buy school clothes.
Sadly, the obvious concept of being able to provide for my children before bringing them into the world wasn’t one of the principles of salvation so zealously imbued into us young women in my northern California Mormon ward during the 1950s and ‘60s.
Struggling with feelings of inadequacy, I nonetheless pulled the glass door open and climbed the stairs of the old Bennett Glass and Paint Building.
The moment I met Peggy Fletcher, my insecurities dissipated. I began to relax as she walked briskly toward me, smiling. She wore little makeup, her blonde hair cropped above her shoulders—a casual and tasteful look. Her appearance and gentle personality completely contradicted my idea of what a magazine publisher-editor was like. Our nearly thirty-year friendship began during that meeting.
She introduced me to members of the staff as we walked through the Sunstone offices. The large rooms took up only a portion of the second floor of the otherwise unused building. My work area was especially spacious. I came to love that room and the light provided by its north-facing windows. It was a good place to develop skills that would ultimately serve me in a truly enjoyable and satisfying career.
As with employees of most non-profit organizations, each of us had our own reasons for being there. For me, it was to learn more about working with type and ideas—things I loved. The support and empathy from co-workers making their way along their own paths was an unexpected gift.
The staff accepted that I had responsibilities as a parent, which, in those days, was unheard of at most jobs. Sunstone’s flexible hours made it possible to be home more often. Under deadline, I often brought my littlest two along and put them to bed on the floor in their sleeping bags. They were thrilled each time their friend Mike Stack took them on adventures through the convoluted levels and hallways, exploring unknown nooks and crannies. I have wonderful memories of working in this friendly old edifice, warmed by the busy-ness and banter of people engaged in a vital common cause—and by any space heaters we could haul up those stairs.
The majority of my time at Sunstone was spent pasting up the magazine. Paste-up, in a nutshell, is the method used before desktop publishing was invented to prepare pages for offset printing. It was a tedious process that took an unbelievable amount of time.
The paste-up artist would begin by preparing the paste-up boards (one for each spread of two pages): stiff white paper on which she would draw the margins and columns for each page in non-photographic blue ink that the stat camera couldn’t detect. Eight or so hairline crop marks were then carefully drawn in black on the corners of each page to indicate the location of the outside edges.
A typesetter provided long columns of text generated on photographic paper that the paste-up artist would cut and adhere to the boards. Then, with a roller, she would apply hot, melted wax to the back of the paper containing the text. The wax allowed the type, lines, words, or even individual letters to be cut out, lifted, and repositioned to make changes and corrections. It was necessary that each piece of type on each line and on every page be perfectly straight.
Completed paste-up pages were known as camera-ready pages, flats, or mechanicals. At the printer, the mechanicals would be photographed with a stat camera to create a negative for each printing plate.
I usually assembled a total of about twenty-five paste-up boards for each issue. As I completed a mechanical, I would cover it with tissue paper and then fold and tape the tissue paper securely to the back. Then I’d place the boards in a box for the ten-or-so mile drive to the printer. In hot weather I had to be careful that the wax didn’t melt, causing the type to move or fall off. Such a disaster was known to happen. I’d heard the stories.
When I arrived at Publisher’s Press, Lyle Mumford would greet me and we’d sit down at a big table to check each of the boards. Lyle taught me much of what I know about how to prepare a project for the printer, explaining, for example, why the paste-up strategy I used in a certain situation was not going to result in what I was expecting; he’d point out the specks of lint that could become forever printed on a page; he’d reveal cut lines that would create shadows. I had to return to my studio more than once to redo boards so that proper pages could be made.
Along with preparing the inside of the magazine, one of my first challenges was to figure out how to design each issue’s cover in just two colors. Though in many ways the technology of the 1980s made full-color printing less time consuming for the paste-up artist, Sunstone’s budget could not accommodate the huge cost difference. At first, I felt like the kid who was thrown into the river with the expectation that she would thereby learn to swim. The learning curve was sharp, and the deadlines imminent.
At times, I became completely intimidated and overwhelmed. To fill the gaps in my knowledge and skills, I occasionally hired designers and graduate students (when the budget allowed) to prepare the covers. I learned a lot from them and was grateful that they were willing to take on the task.
In 1986 Peggy Fletcher retired from Sunstone and Elbert Peck became the new editor. When he approached me one morning about re-designing the magazine, I was delighted to discover that I didn’t respond with that old “sink-or-swim” feeling. I had come to love my job. Type was the vehicle for communicating progressive ideas as well as forgotten age-old truths that I laid out on the pages of this beloved magazine. Perhaps my affinity was triggered by my childhood memories of my father’s pens and my early enjoyment of letters. I could comfortably embrace this challenge. The invitation was an honor.
In selecting a typeface, readability and space constraints were our biggest considerations. Given our small budget, it was necessary to squeeze as many words onto a page as possible. The width of letters varies among fonts, as does the x-height (the height of lower case letters) and letter and word spacing. Each of those elements would hugely impact the text’s readability and the amount of space used. In 1986, all you could reasonably control were the size of the font and the leading (the space between lines); every other feature you needed had to be intrinsic to the font.
We considered typefaces such as Baskerville, Bembo, Berkeley, Garamond, and Goudy Old-Style, since serif fonts were thought to be easier to read. We finally settled on Berkeley, as it best filled our needs, and we liked how it mixed tradition with a modern, forward look. Its lower-case “e” with its sloped crossbar is especially unique. I was also taken with the font’s history. It was designed for the University of California Press at UC-Berkeley, a respected institution of higher learning with a reputation for pushing boundaries. To this day it remains a favorite of mine.
Elbert and I pored through contemporary periodicals and discussed the pros and cons of different designs as they might be applied to the needs of Sunstone. The basic design of The Atlantic is classic, with, again, a progressive style, that appealed to my vision of Sunstone and it eventually influenced much of my direction. There were still a multitude of other design issues to be addressed, however. Among them were the text’s line length, margin widths, the position and style of running heads, title design, subheads, photo captions, and sidebars.
As we put together the masthead (also typeset in Berkeley) there was much hemming and hawing about what to do with those eight letters. Eight letters! How hard can it be? You would be surprised. The time spent on it consisted mostly of puzzlement, indecision, and frustration. It was when I tilted the “o” slightly that I had a moment of triumph, “I’ve nailed it”! I smile when I think of that moment now, almost three decades later. I recently looked at that masthead again. It’s okay—but certainly not great.
My experience at Sunstone is a significant chapter in my life’s story. It happened at just the right time, and was the springboard to a good career that I have fully enjoyed. I am very grateful for it.