Elli Fordyce – What's your type?

by R27 CREATIVELAB on Wednesday, 18 March 2009

A quick note before we begin - you can hear samples of Elli's music at the end of the article and download desktop images.

I have to admit the ’80s were a funny time for me: deciding which path to take in my studies and career (for your reference, I still haven't fully decided). We had the large hair styles, fashion which I care not to talk about again, and shoulder pads which should have stayed on the American Football pitch; but, hey, that’s just me. We also had my first and early experiences of graffiti and Hip Hop, with its sampling of old-school tracks. I was already a fan of jazz from my young days of being glued to those black and white films, anything from Fred Astaire to raw gangster flicks with an endless supply of bullets, gun smoke and screeching tyres. I guess the graffiti along with comic books was my first introduction to type and graphic design and in the following years may have set me on my way to an almost career.

What I wasn't aware of was how things were about to change. I loved putting together handmade visuals, arranging and rendering type carefully, laying down sheets of tracing paper until I was happy with the opacity of the image showing through. The end results where a complex mixture of photocopied image, type and colour, creating clever 2D and 3D visuals. We studied letterpress and set hot metal out ready for print. Meanwhile something was about to change: the digital era was catching up with us. Elli, in one of her many jobs, worked as a typesetter for a while and shares a few of her experiences below.


You worked as a typesetter for a while, when was that?
My ex (Randy) and I were trying to "launch" a highly graphic tabloid-format magazine called "not just JAZZ" in New York in 1980. He learned to set type on a Compugraphic 7500 (with phototype output) where our friend worked and could arrange for us to have free time when the machine was not in use. When that availability ended, we leased a 7700 -- one day before that model became obsolete due to the new digitization (but who knew?). For orientation, that was a couple of years before the first IBM PC with one 5" floppy disk and no hard drive came out and there were no computer graphics or desktop publishing. We met a couple with a small type shop and -- still not knowing what we were doing -- got the bright idea it would be very easy to start a typesetting service and began hunting for clients. Meanwhile, friends were helping us with magazine design and we were learning about type, graphics, layout, etc. (Randy, previously a jazz musician, was an amateur writer which had kick-started his dream of publishing the mag to distribute his writing; he soon also became enamored with type and graphics.)

We'd set up in a large living room with a loftbed in a huge Upper West Side NYC apartment where various folks each had private rooms and we all shared the kitchen and bathrooms. Since we didn't have our own printer, we made multiple trips in the middle of the night to print out our type. On one trip, Randy (who was claustrophobic up till then) got stuck for hours in an elevator in an old warehouse building where the after-hours key had been changed without his knowledge. (By journaling on scrap paper, he overcame the claustrophobia -- it was either that or die.) Our 3rd live/work situation was 5 years above one of the first copy shops in NY, where we became the go-to place for their customers to get type and layout -- resumes, flyers and the like -- our first client base. We began marketing by mail to companies and designers I found in the Yellow Pages, got more clients and eventually wound up with a more-than-full-time "business" for several years, adding a freelance typesetter for a while and using freelancer paste-up folks as needed for bigger projects. We published our magazine 12 times the first 2-1/2 years, before we ran out of money, credit and steam. Pretty good considering our only experience was in interviewing, writing and creativity, and being without credit, money or business expertise.

After we quit producing the magazine, the 18-hour days at least 6 days a week working for paying customers nearly killed me off and definitely finished killing off our relationship, although that continued to drag on for many more years while I tried to pay off our debts before making a final decision. I was very happy to go back to temping as a word processor in law firms after the 6+ years of doing all that: it was so much easier and way more profitable.

What were your responsibilities?
It was mainly a one-person shop and I did nearly everything while Randy mainly researched and experimented with computing, and other nontrackable activities. The magazine, which I was excited about and supported him on, had been his baby for which I did the drudge work and provided as much cash flow as I could by temping during much of that time.

What was your average day?
That depends on which part of the 6 years we look at; at first when we didn't have much work I still temped. By the end we mainly had one pain-in-the-butt publishing client who took way too much time while the work netted us very little profit. When we lost them as our equipment lease was also ending, rather than upgrade to digital equipment which would have cost a lot more than the old lease, we opted to toss in the towel. By then desktop publishing was ubiquitous; much of what we'd been doing was being supplanted at the low end by in-house departments, individuals and the many copy shops which now had computers and software, if not many skills or much conceptual knowledge. We had no interest in continuing in that mode.

Do you think people appreciated the work that went into setting type; the kerning, leading, the time it took?
There were clients and there were clients. I did type for Joffrey Ballet's poster one year and their art director was a complete nut about every single space between every single letter. None of that was automatic on our ancient low-end equipment, so it took many many hours, during which he often stood looking over my shoulder pointing at the screen and kindly controlling every aspect. Nearly everything on that extensive job was done on a "rush"-fee basis and much was "overtime rush"; then we had to take them to Small Claims Court to collect what was for us a considerable fee and one for which we'd earned every nickel the hard way. He was a great dance photographer who had inherited the art-director gig on this project. He once told me that when he moved, he always had to look for an apartment on the first or second floor because he forgot stuff so often it had to be easy to return home (an aspect of the well-meaning personality I dealt with for weeks, although at first we’d felt so honored to do this work for this prestigious arts organization!).

Do you have any pictures of your work area and colleagues?
No, that was 1980-86 and I'm not one to keep much stuff with what little I have buried away somewhere. I don't even have copies of the black and white tabloid magazine which was printed on newsprint (which didn't hold up well) for 10 issues, the black and white small mag on cheapo 20lb. stock with a two-color cover or the glossy large-tabloid black and white mag (for which we got cheaper printing through a printer using it to also show his work), our final issue and gorgious. The mag had quickly developed into something unusual and interesting, graphically and editorially, with lots of humor, interviews of artists in many genres and more. Before personal computers, everything was saved as hard copy or not at all. Maybe there's a department in the copyright area of the government in DC which still has them on microfiche or something. One friend had copies of the mag 22 years ago, before he moved after 9/11 from across the street from us then, Battery Park City. Who knows if he still has them?

What kinds of things did you work on?
It went anywhere from resumes, business cards/letterhead, post cards or flyers for individual performers and showcases, to ads, a large cookbook and an accompanying restaurant book ("Great Chefs of America"), for which we did camera-ready layout using galleys, razors and wax (I hated rubber cement). I remember a room of rotating round-the-clock freelance paste-up folks tripping over each other and working in odd positions, rushing to correct something through-out the cookbook. I’d queried the editor about something which hadn’t made sense and he’d given me incorrect info leading to our having to correct nearly every page in the book after the paste-up had been completed on deadline, when he re-thought his answer.

I liked some of the work, especially the finer "typographic" aspect (although our machine was so user-unfriendly and I was very klutzy at using it) but customers were often very difficult. It was a big relief to get out of that business, although I typeset freelance for a publisher who still had that equipment for some months, which was OK. I was very proud of our magazine, which had been the whole purpose for doing any of it, at least at first. The purpose later became to try to pay off the credit-card debt (unfortunately all in my name) we’d incurred to produce the mag and to live, and catch up financially.

You worked at a time when the digital age hadn't come in to any great degree.
There were already a few high-end digital type shops but that was unknown territory to us when we started; we learned about it peripherally as we went along, and were mentored by friends who were much more involved in aspects of publishing, graphics, type, etc.

What was it like at that point; were people aware of what was to come?
People we dealt with or knew at first were mostly unaware of a digital revolution; as we went along, printing was becoming more digitized on the lower end and people were losing jobs in the industry to the digital revolution. As we phased out our studio, many of the designers we’d worked for were beginning to design digitally in firms (even if freelancers were not), whether they wanted to or not; some were creating type specs digitally even though they used our cheaper photo type. There was no Mac yet, although I began hearing of Apple home computers about 25 years ago. We'd gotten our first PC with two 5" floppies and no hard drive (we didn't see how we could ever need all that memory), which cost $3200 in the mid-'80s! Randy was still not into desktop publishing but one of his first temp jobs (at Merrill Lynch, which got us to move to nearby Battery Park City, walking distance to the job) was as a desk-top guy, where he stayed for 6 years.

An industry was slowly beginning to vanish; how did you feel or had you moved on?
We had moved on and were so happy to have done so. We were very stressed out, and heavily in debt (which I recovered from by declaring bankruptcy many years later, having tried to catch up with the debt after breaking up with Randy in 1994. That’s part of the story of my CD "Something Still Cool" taking so long to complete).

Do you think that the appreciation of type has vanished or just changed now that typesetting has become so much more accessible?
I'm not tapped into the industry at all anymore but remember that at first appreciation for type had nearly vanished with the onset of computer graphics. Nearly anyone and everyone became a "desktop publisher" and the explosion of graphic-and type-mediocrity -- and worse than mediocrity -- was amazing! It was hard to look at. I'm much more immune to mediocre type now but am sure there's still a high-end market, but one that's much much smaller. At least extreme "jaggies" have gone out of vogue with better technology so accessible.

The same thing happened with audio and video as with graphics. When I began creating my first CD 9 years ago, people had already been routinely self-producing CDs, not waiting for a label to produce them, but they used professional engineering. Now you can find any level of engineering technology and professionalism (or lack thereof) such as that which is rampant on MySpace, et al. My producer is one of the great sound engineers and has the best equipment which matches his many skills and combines with his perception, focus and accountability. On some levels people do hear his degree of technical perfection and skill, but of course many (including me) don't get it -- even in the most obvious areas. In any art form or genre, so much goes on subliminally that most receivers don't actually know about, although that subliminal effect vastly enhances the impact of a specific piece. I've recently become aware of how low the standard of sound sync has become in professional-level video and film. I find that appalling and don’t know the cause but it's probably along the same lines of what happened with typography/graphic design when low-end computerization became publicly available.

It will be very interesting to observe and experience what technology has in store for all the arts as we move through the 21st Century and I’m really happy to be part of it in many ways.

You may also want to read the following articles covering Elli's life:

Elli Fordyce - Still very cool
Elli Fordyce – In the light she dances...

Useful Links

Elli Fordyce's Website: www.ellifordyce.com
You can follow Elli on twitter @ElliFordyce
Management: Redwood Entertainment [see artists page]

CD and samples available from | iTunes | CD Baby | Amazon | Napster | AmieST |

Free Wallpaper Images

On behalf of Elli - download your desktop wallpaper images by [clicking here]

Available in the following screen sizes 1280x960 | 1024x768 | 800x600

If there are any other sizes that would suit you more then leave a message and I'll arrange it for you...

Certain images are provided and owned by © 2009 Elli Fordyce |
Desktop images and text created by R27 | © 2009 R27 Creativelab


I love this series we are creating together. Who knew when I joined Twitter a few months ago that such an in-depth collaboration would result? I really appreciate your interest, insight and your concept.

See ya on Twitter. http://www.twitter.com/ellifordyce

by Elli Fordyce on 21/03/2009, 16:33. #

No problem Elli, it's interesting for me to learn a little more about your life and sharing it with your followers. Also enjoy creating the images for you. Role on April !!

by R27 CREATIVELAB on 21/03/2009, 17:16. #

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Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Best Regards Rajesh