September 4, 2006

The Other X-Acto and Wax Technique

Posted in books, Design, Rants, Tools at 2:19 pm by India

The other day, Cathi told a tragic story about how

I remember right after my newspaper moved me to a brand new building and informed me I’d have to do layout with an exacto knife and waxer again because they had no Mac for me . . .

And while I’m in awe of Cathi’s skillz, I have to say, when I think “X-Acto and wax,” my associations are quite different.

More than once—more than once, I say!—I have seen type spec’ed in the margin as something like 16pt Akzidenz Grotesk, and I look at this tiny type and think, “Sixteen points, my ass,” and then I click on the line and find that, yeah, it’s sixteen points, with the superior attribute applied to it, so it’s shrunk down. And the designer didn’t even notice that he or she had done it. Or worse, she did notice, but she left it like that saying, “Oh, let the compositor figure out what point size it is.”

And then the same designer will demonstrate to the comp how a blockquote should be formatted by creating a separate text box with a runaround and then dropping that into the middle of a regular paragraph. Apparently because the designer doesn’t know how to set indents. And god forbid she should know what a style sheet is, or a character style. I mean, really—knowing how to use your tools, that’s so . . . working-class. Designers are professionals.

That kind of laziness makes me apoplectic. “It’s the fucking X-Acto and wax technique!” I rail, waggling my hands at anyone who’s standing nearby. To me, those words represent a bullet-headedly analog approach to using digital tools. It’s like pulling an automobile along with a mule team .  .  . or . . . something like that. It comes from thinking of a layout program as merely digital paste-up.

“What’s wrong with digital paste-up?” you ask? Well, disregarding the question of whether you should have some faint inkling of how to operate the tools you spend your entire day beating your head against, suppose someone wants to make a website out of your book that’s set up with every piece of indented text in a separate box, and with the whole thing styled in “Normal” with local overrides. How would you export your text as a single thread, while retaining some kind of indication of how it’s structured? And don’t tell me “I’d just use Quark’s ‘Make My Homepage :)’ widget!” (or whatever they’re calling it). I’m not saying those automagic exporters are useless, but if you put a pigsty of a document into them, you will get a pigsty of a Web page out of them. If, on the other hand, the document is set up thoughtfully, generating valid code from this kind of conversion is not a big deal.

But even if you’re a shortsighted eejit who doesn’t believe the document in hand will ever be repurposed into some other format, don’t you think maybe it might be helpful to the compositor if you were to supply a template that has at least some small hope of being usable? Maybe they’d make fewer PEs if they didn’t have to recreate your badly described design from scratch. (Hint: It’s also easier for you to write up an accurate comp order if you set up your layout properly in the first place.)

And, more to the point, don’t you think it would maybe help the designer who has to modify your files two years from now, for the second book in the series, and who can’t make heads or tails of that abomination you so creatively call a “layout,” because no two body paragraphs are the same and none of your written specifications match what’s actually in the file?

I’m probably going to keep raging inarticulately about this from time to time, because it pisses. me. right. off. But for now, I just wanted to define the term X-Acto and Wax Technique. When I use it here, I don’t mean clever stuff like what Cathi was talking about. I mean the filthy files turned out by the shockingly large proportion of supposedly computer-literate designers who shouldn’t be allowed to work with anything other than an actual X-Acto knife and a waxer.

I am just telling you.


  1. Sparky said,

    Sing it, sister! I could have pulled this right out of my own folder of ready-to-go rants. Even before I had to worry about projects that went on to new lives in new media, building a solid file that was easily managed, updated, and described was a matter of full-on professional pride, not to mention a courtesy to everyone else who’d ever touch the files.

  2. India Amos said,

    Glad I’m not the only one.

    This is just a single facet of a much lumpier issue I refer to as file hygiene, which seems to be underemphasized in today’s desktop publishing atelier. A lot of bad file hygiene is software driven—it’s quite easy to make even a tidy file in Quark that will neither PDF nor print, and there are a ton of little workarounds that one has to learn just by doing things wrong and then getting smacked by the printer’s prepress staff. But making a messy file, with crap layered upon crap and unused fonts and colors on the master pages, and so forth, is asking for it.

  3. Simon said,

    Enjoy your blog – great articulate comments, and quite educational too.

    Yep, that’s the thing that bugs me… I’m constantly working on 24 book educational series where I set up templates, carefully arrange templates, styles etc. Then watch as some designers using it slowly unpick your good work through their ignorance… no matter how many times you explain the logic, and explain that this WILL be re-editioned, they still don’t thread the text or use the styles (well they do for the 1st few pages, then get lazy).

    What’s annoying is that you don’t know by just looking at the printed page you’re checking, it’s only when you look at their file that you discover the sloppiness, and I know I don’t have the hours in the day to physically go through and check every file.

  4. India Amos said,

    Hi, Simon!

    Ugh. Don’t even talk to me about educational books.

    At my last job, we did these nasty test-prep books with, like, ninety paragraph styles and fifty character styles, and the series design had changed a couple of years before I got there, but the books were being updated on an as-needed basis. So we had to convert each one to create the revised editions, but the style names in the new template (not that there was an official template—the template was always the last book we’d finished) didn’t match the style names in the old one. What’s more, the style philosophy in the two templates didn’t match, as in how vertical space was inserted, whether items were indented using tabs or styles, etc. And despite there being so insanely many styles in the old design, those books were still infested with local overrides and the dreaded “Normal” and “no style” styles, so that even if you changed the names and appended the new styles, you still had a solid week of fiddling ahead of you.

    Each book was different, like a snowflake made of hellfire.

    And sometimes the sidebars were in the main text flow, and sometimes they were out of it. And did I mention that many of these books contained math? And that different math XTensions had been used, some of which we didn’t have anymore? Pages and pages of fractions and square roots, and they’d want a tiny change made to each one—a tiny change that would require reformatting the whole equation from scratch.

    And tables! Oh. My. Fucking. God. The tables. Raise your hand if you know how tables are done in Quark 4, children. That’s right: a hundred tabs, four hundred manual line breaks, at least ten stylesheets, and twenty manually positioned rules. And if the table moves, or god forbid you have to reflow the text in it, you have to reposition all the rules. Rules whose position you can’t accurately preview in Quark—they’ll look lined-up on the screen, but not when you print to a 600 dpi laser printer. And when you get the blues back, from that 1,200 or 2,400 dpi imagesetter? Oops! They’re not lined up there, either.

    This was in 2006, people. The modern era. Boy, computers sure do make our lives easier!

    So there I was trying to clean these monstrosities up as I converted them, knowing there’d be a new edition in a year or two (when the book has “SAT 2005” in the title, it’s a pretty sure thing), and my boss was all like, “Could you maybe not work so hard at cleaning them up? It takes too long.” I was at that job for a year and a half, so some of the books I’d scrubbed down and rebuilt when I started came back to me for new editions, and I was very, very glad that I’d taken the time to clean them up the year before.

    And even so, I know that the cleaned-up files didn’t make any sense, either, because I was constantly trying to explain how they worked to new people, and having to say, “Well, you can use book X as a template, except for the question-and-answer sections, which are more like book Y, and all of chapter 5 is the same in every book, so you might as well pull that out of book Z, since I just did that one and I’m pretty sure it’s clean, and you should totally ignore all the copyeditor’s style codes, because they’re all, all, all wrong, and . . .”

    My fellow refugees from that job can attest: it made no sense.

    But it would have made more sense if there had been a consistent set of intelligently defined styles, intelligently applied, in the first place.

  5. India Amos said,

    Wow, I think I scared even me off with that last comment.

    Don’t be afraid! I’m nice! Some of my best friends are designers who don’t use stylesheets! We get along just fine!

  6. India Amos said,

    But—one more thing I’d like to say about those very handsome and informative* educational books, which I enjoyed working on a great deal, is that THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN A MILLION TIMES EASIER TO SET IN INDESIGN, thanks to nested styles.

    That is all.

    * The best thing I learned, which was from a book intended to help people become EMTs, was that you should never, ever, use a tourniquet when giving first aid for a head wound. Jeepers! Now, isn’t that counterintuitive?

  7. Simon said,

    Luckily the books i’m working on are just literacy learning, barely any table or math hell.
    But that’s nothing with what I’m going through at the moment – quark 6.5 doesn’t want to be friends with osX 10.4.7, Luckily the project will be over in the next week or two. Then yippy! I’m off to Indesign land.

    I don’t know how Quark as a company thinks they’re gonna survive with such a buggy programme that costs megabucks to upgrade!

  8. India Amos said,

    Doesn’t play well with FontReserve, either. Quark 6.5 just isn’t a very sociable program. But Quark 7, now, that version has something for everyone.

  9. .sara said,

    “File hygiene” is possibly my favourite phrase of the… quarter. (:

    It perfectly expresses why I obsess over my HTML and stylesheets and why I want our #$*^&@ programmers to take the bloody time to write a little codelet to remove the 300 lines of whitespace (I swear) between line 1 and the DOCTYPE in our pages.

    Ahem. Sorry.

    File hygiene, good stuff, good call.

  10. India Amos said,

    But in HTML there are standards, you can run validators and things like HTML Tidy on your files, and the discrepancies between output devices (browsers) are obsessively documented.

    In book production it’s a free-for-all. I try to construct documents that approximate XHTML 1.0 Transitional, while many of those around me are using <font> tags and spacer GIFs. The standard is, “If it can be made to RIP, it meets the standard,” but you never know it’s unrippable until you get an anxious e-mail from your printer.

    And then there’s stuff that doesn’t affect rippability but that’s just bizarre, like how a designer I used to work with would, for reasons I can’t conceive, wrap text around images by making twenty hard returns. In the middle of a paragraph, if need be. So, aside from that technique’s being perverse in its own right, I’d get the file on the next pass and have to make edits that would cause the text to reflow around the images. So I’d take out all her hard returns and put the wrap on the image, as a normal person might do. Like, she never thought the text might reflow on any of the three subsequent passes, in a heavily illustrated book? This was someone who’d been using Quark for more than a decade.

    The same person—whom I would not generally characterize as stupid—had an inexplicable revulsion toward using margin guides. And she once typeset an entire book with hyphenation turned off. Inadvertently. Didn’t notice, while setting three hundred pages. Huh??? What are people doing with their brains while they’re working? Can you really play MMPORGs while you typeset books? Is that why some designers prefer to use multiple monitors?

  11. .sara said,

    I thought about mentioning how other people’s methods of assigning and using classes and IDs can sometimes drive me to drink, but frankly: you win.

  12. India Amos said,

    Oh, but I lose, I lose.

  13. […] stuff, too. So if you want to still have a text-design job, you people who’ve been doing the X-Acto-and–wax–style layouts using digital tools for the last twenty years? Y’all need to retrain. Seriously. That nasty habit which you heard […]

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