21 April 2010

News and Media: Real Life Mad Men

By Anna C. Bowling

The picture below isn't the latest cast photo from the upcoming season of Mad Men, but it's close. From the 1960s-80s, my father made his living in the same field as Mad Men's Don Draper and Darren Stevens of Bewitched. Moments of high drama and wacky hijinx are a given in any high pressure workplace and before the days of Photoshop, digital printing, email and PowerPoint, any commercial art had to be done in a far different manner than we know it today.

Having a father who had an endless supply of paper, pencils, markers and the like that couldn't be found in the five and dime was a treasure trove for an artistically inclined child, even though it was made quite clear those were for Dad's work. To this day, a glimpse of a Pantone color chart brings me back to the days I was allowed to visit his office, always a busy place. Sneaking into his studio at home to pilfer the tools of a hard-working commercial artist gave me an up close look at what real life Mad Men (at least those in the art department) did all day. Many of my father's assignments were for newspaper inserts publicizing the latest that department stores such as Caldor's or Barker's (rivals in some circles) or grocery store chains had to offer for a given week.

Since this was before the computer age, the art had to be done by hand, and photographs were taken on film and developed in darkrooms. Layout was another step, cutting and pasting with actual scissors and glue, tape or fixative to make sure everything fit within the allowed space. The layouts could go through several versions, with several layers of tracing paper to try out different colors, image placements or other variables. Typesetting was its own department, which to my pre-elementary school imagination must have been somewhere between a Guttenberg press and a Xerox machine.

Everything came together in large, clanking printing machines that spit out the colorful advertisements on newsprint or glossy paper, ready at last to be picked over with eagle eyes to ensure that everything was spelled correctly, in the right place, and any special elements such as frames or holiday clip art were only on designated pages. My father's personal favorite lucky save in this department was spotting the "It's Mother's Day; Show Her What She Means To You" banner carried over to the wrong section and applied to a manure spreader when it should have stopped at jewelry and small appliances.

Once approved for release, the next step was to get the items where they needed to be, which could be through mail, courier or even personal delivery. Here again, deadlines were all-important and stress levels could rise dramatically if it looked like something wasn't going to make it on time. Since advertising requires a high degree of creativity, our Mad Men usually found a way to make things work, and inserts arrive on our doorsteps and newsstands, snugly buried in our papers at last.

The mechanics of getting a client's concept out to the masses has gone through a computer revolution, but the real life Mad Men (and women) were expert at putting in long, hard hours and nights of work to keep the wheels of commerce turning, juggling family and social life and often their own artistic pursuits as well.