function jdb_page_navigation()
sPageSlug = 9-aldus-minutiae
sPageTitle = 9 | Aldus minutiae
header:139:aPageArgs:page_title = 9 | Aldus minutiae
header:140:aPageArgs:section_title = Typographic memoir
functions-johndberry:262:aPageArgs:page_title = 9 | Aldus minutiae
functions-johndberry:298:sPageTitle = 9 | Aldus minutiae
functions-johndberry:314:sPageTitle = Typographic memoir
functions-johndberry:359:sPageTitle = Typographic memoir

Typographic memoir

9 | Aldus minutiae

At the end of the 1980s, I found myself working as a technical editor at Aldus Corporation, in Seattle’s old Pioneer Square district. Aldus was essentially responsible for the desktop-publishing revolution.

For several years, I had been doing technical editing and sometimes writing on contract at Microsoft, across the lake in suburban Redmond, so it wasn’t a big jump from one software company to another. But Aldus, unlike Microsoft, actually made products that I wanted to use — PageMaker, primarily, and other applications used in publishing. And, also unlike Microsoft, Aldus was headquartered in the heart of the city.

I don’t recall just how I ended up making the transition. It may well have been Ole Kvern who either suggested to me or suggested me to the people he worked with at Aldus; neither of us can remember at this point.

I worked for Margy Kotick, an excellent supervisor who ran the editorial team in Aldus’s documentation department. One of the adventures of editing or writing a manual for an upcoming version of PageMaker was that Aldus was committed to using that new, unfinished version to produce the manual itself. Which led to frequent delays and roadblocks, and in effect made the documentation department an unacknowledged — and unscheduled — part of the quality-assurance team. (This is the practice that Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer called “eating your own dogfood.” It sounds virtuous, but it can be terribly inefficient.)

This was well before the ubiquity of laptops and remote working; most of the editing I did was done on paper. Whenever possible, I would take the stack of pages I was working on and carry it a couple of blocks away to the lovely Italian coffee shop, Torrefazione Italia, on the tree-shaded pedestrian Occidental Mall. I suppose I was an early adopter of what has now become commonplace (at least before the pandemic): doing technical work from a coffee shop.

Ole and I often compared notes on PageMaker’s typesetting capabilities, and lobbied for changes such as fixing the default settings for hyphenation and justification. (It was Ole who coined the term “walking the lines” for inspecting what you had just typeset, line by line, looking for awkward breaks and fixing them by hand. Even the best algorithm still needs some overseeing by a skilled typographer, and the algorithms then were still a work in progress. At that point, the ultimate end of all of this desktop-pubishing effort was printing on paper, so maintaining a reusable text stream wasn’t an issue yet.)

The number of people I worked with at Aldus who are still friends and colleagues is legion. Jan Wright, Jerry Whiting, Thom Feild, Ben Bauermeister, Laura Perry; the list goes on. It was a hotbed of talent, all oriented toward the art and craft of publishing.

At Aldus, as at most software companies, upcoming versions of their programs had working titles, or code names. The teams that worked on each project liked to make T-shirts or other wearable souvenirs based on those code names. One of the smaller projects I worked on as an editor was a version of PageMaker for the OS/2 operating system, which was still a thing in those days. For reasons I’ve completely forgotten, the code name was “Hendrix,” which of course led to a T-shirt in purple on black promoting the completely imaginary “OS/2 PageMaker World Tour 1990,” with an iconic image of Jimi Hendrix. (Yes, of course, it was appropriation.) Another notable software wearable was the sweatshirt produced when Aldus acquired the San Diego–based company Silicon Beach: a collage of Seattle images and images of sunny beaches, including the Coppertone kid.

Image from a promotional sweatshirt for Aldus OS/2 PageMaker, code-named
OS/2 PageMaker “World Tour” sweatshirt

One of the iterations of PageMaker had focused closely on improving a single aspect of the product (I’ve forgotten now what that single aspect was). “Forward in one direction!” had been the internal slogan. So for the next version of PageMaker, which had a wider range of new features and improvements, the cry became “Forward in all directions!” An inspiring if daffy statement of purpose.

Straight Talk

My knowledge of typesetting and typography, as well as my skill at technical editing and writing, led to my being given the task of creating a series of technical white papers for Aldus. They were called “Straight Talk,” and the first ones were aimed squarely at PageMaker’s great competitor, QuarkXPress.

For the first two papers, I delved into the intricacies of the composition engines of PageMaker and XPress, interviewing Aldus’s engineers and getting a seriously under-the-hood look, which I then had to translate into something that desktop-publishing users could easily understand.

Aldus and Quark were giving their respective program frequent updates, attempting to leapfrog each other and win the war of feature lists. (Engineers at Aldus muttered that Quark sometimes added a feature just so they could check it off on the list, without really implementing it very well. No doubt engineers at Quark made similar derogatory comments about Aldus.)

What I discovered was that PageMaker and XPress were roughly equivalent in their typesetting capabilities. Each program did certain things better, but there was no clear winner. Where Quark had won, however, was in its marketing: they had better advertising and managed to give the impression that QuarkXPress was the “professional” publishing program while PageMaker was nice but, well, sort of amateur. This was not true, but Quark was winning the marketing war.

I wrote those first two white papers, and edited the rest of the series, including several papers about “color space,” an arcane yet essential aspect of digital publishing.

Aldus was a small company, but was curiously siloed, with different departments not talking to each other very much. To my surprise, when the first Straight Talk papers were published, no copies were distributed to the documentation department, the very people who needed to know this technical information. I made a point of taking a stack of copies and giving them to Margy to pass out to the editors and writers.

Aldus magazine

One of the most creative things that Aldus did, aside from creating its applications, was to start up its own magazine. Called simply Aldus, it was a sort of “soft promotion” tool, enhancing Aldus’s credibility and nous. There were how-to articles, of course, but editor Harry Edwards had a mandate to take the high road, commissioning articles on a wide variety of design-related subjects, sometimes with only tenuous connections to the company’s products. “It was like writing for the New Yorker,” as my partner Eileen Gunn described it, impressed with the intensity of their editing and fact-checking. She had written an article about artist Carl Chew, who was using Aldus PhotoStyler, a Photoshop competitor, to produce swirling visual effects for the rugs and postage stamps that he was designing.

Between Harry and his second-in-command, Nick Allison, who later took over as editor when Adobe bought Aldus and changed the title to Adobe Magazine, I got to write a lot of fun and worthwhile typographic articles and reviews. When I went to my first type conference, Type90 in Oxford, England, I got in on a press pass from Aldus, and the interviews I did there ended up in subsequent issues.

Technically, Aldus and Adobe “merged,” or at least that was the official story. But everyone knew which one was the dominant partner. People at Aldus were sad to see the company lose its independence, but most were agreed that if they had to be sold to somebody, Adobe was the best option.

I later participated in a couple of advisory boards for Adobe as it was developing what would become InDesign, but by that point I was no longer doing technical editing. I was putting PageMaker, and then InDesign, to work in designing and typesetting books.