comp : the magic performance

Just another reject…

by art chantry (

THIS is called a ‘comp’ (in the old lingo of graphic design). a MARKER comp. some of my friends used to called them ‘squeakies’ because of the sound marking pens make when you use them. a ‘comp’ was a short slang term for the proper name – a “comprehensive.”

before the advent of the computer in the total re-defining of graphic design, this was the best way to show a client what their finished piece looked like. it is basically a full color rendition of the finished piece. in the final stages of the design process, you obviously had to try to show the client what the dang thing looked like as close as you could to what it would actually be. the easiest and quickest way was to try to draw it using marking pens. comps were wonderful adaptable tools. you could literally stand in front of the client and re-draw the thing to give them an idea what it would look like if you changed it to their whims – “my wife likes pink. can you show me what it would look like in pink?”

AC:you see, folks. a comp was about selling the IDEA. it's a perfect format to work ideas. you could take a pen and re-work the idea right in front of the client. the client became part of the process directly and took ownership of that idea you worked up right there. after that, it was gravy. not like that any more.

Of course, nowadays, the client can just get into your file and change it himself and not bother to tell you. i can’t tell you how many times in the last fifteen years clients took finished camera-ready files and changed it all around – just because they could. when it came off the press completely ugly and fucked up, they still managed to blame YOU, like somehow your magic didn’t make it through THEIR hands to make the changes done on their whim after the fact.

But, this way, it still remained in the control of the designer and not the client. you could easily screw it up intentionally to change their mind. you could re-draw it in pink – but make it look like crap. that usually worked pretty good. clients were still in awe of what you did n those days – like you were performing magic. they would be so intimidated by your skills that they would be too afraid to challenge your decisions. them were truly much better days.

I knew guys who were such magnificent comp artists that they made pieces of fine art – constructions utilizing every techno-gimmick and ‘latest process’ imaginable. the design they would present to the client was so gorgeous and astonishing that the client would always love it and buy it without the slightest second thought. the problem with this approach is that there was usually no physical way to reproduce the comp on an actual printing press. these comps were TOO good. what i learned form these great comp artists was that you never present you work in such a magnificent form. you always want the comp to be LESS that the printed finished result (which you wanted to be a spectacular step up. these master comp artists would deliver finished printed projects and the client would freak out in anger (because the sucked in comparison to the comp). you never ever present a comp that is better than the finish. that is like a huge design sales mistake. you want the client to think their finished project is even better than your sketches.

Computers are great comp tools. you can create absolutely beautiful perfect renditions (and even inkjet print-outs) of your design that looks just exactly like a printed finished piece. the big problem with that great sales tool is that the computer and the inkjet are so completely different than a real offset-printed design process that it can’t easily translate to that medium. no matter what you create on a computer, it’s not a printing press. since we design things to be created on a printing press, it always comes out differently. it’s always a little ‘off.’ computers are just plain bad production tools for printing.

Computers are great comping tools but they are terrible production tools. it reminds me of those weird translations on the ‘directions’ and instructions you get from places like japan – you can’t really understand what is being said because the translator can’t do a good enough job with both languages. unless you are a truly gifted linguist, it doesn’t translate coherently. computers can’t translate the projected image on that screen to the reflected light/layered ink version the client finally gets. i have yet to see it work properly. there is a massive error in translation, like english engineers trying to write technical jargon directions in japanese (or vice versa).

Not many graphic designers these days ever bother to really master printing, like we had to in the old days. if you didn’t know printing, you couldn’t survive back then. but, nowadays we can create a badly translated ‘fake’ design that anybody can do (if you just buy the software) that is ‘good enough’ for the unlearned and unskilled. then we just send it to a printer and say “make it so.” every printer i know has an employee whose sole job it is to tear apart your files and completely reconstruct them into something that (maybe) can actually be printed on a printing press. they do this automatically – no matter ho

od you think you are. that freaks out a lot of designers when they figure that out, too.

It’s gotten so bad that the craft and art of fine printing is almost gone as well. ‘close enough and cheap enough is good enough.’ that makes for some seriously lame design language translations. things like varnishes and screen building and even using any paper than a #2 coated white is completely gone because the computer can’t display that and it’s only something you learn working with a press.

Printing is a very very old language and craft. computers even went ahead and changed the language to suit the engineers who designed the programs. how many of you really know how to properly use the word “font” or ‘invert’? how many of you even know what a ‘pica’ is and how to build your own spectrums with overlapping solid ink colors?

I once had a workshop full of graduating students at one of the most prestigious design college in the world ask me to explain the difference between silkscreen printing and offset litho printing. try to imagine the level of printing ignorance that requires? and it was from the next wave of graduating ‘heads of our industry’, the bright future of graphic designers! it really took me back. change like this can be a real problem for quality control. i constantly see million dollar typos out there.

I have drawers an drawers of rejected designs. a lot of people think that i (being who i am) get to do anything i want, that i have total freedom to create my own art and vision. nothing is further from the truth. i imagine that something like 90% of the design work i create never sees the light of day. i save the ones i liked and often don’t even bother to save the actual design selected and used. often, i will dig out old rejected design work and re-purpose it into something else (sort of a recycle of old rejected designs). you have no idea how many rock posters i’ve done actually started out as magazine covers or record covers only to get repeatedly rejected by clients. some of my most famous rock posters were very likely rejected a half dozen times by other clients before i just slapped them onto rock poster.

Gigposters just have to look cool, not really say anything about the band or the event. ‘looking cool’ is all that’s needed, so it becomes the use of last resort before i abandon the rejected idea in some drawer. i found this old comp/sketch in a drawer the other day and i remembered how much i liked it. i thought this was a great little mark. at the time i imagined hip grunge kids in seattle wearing this big mod target with this challenge from KCMU. i saw in my mind’s eye, a little army of angry kids descending on seattle sporting this image. seattle has a long history of repression and rebellion.

KCMU was THE college radio station in seattle during the punk years. it was funded independently, but maintained it’s offices on the university of washington campuses. it was the ONLY radio station in the region that would play things not on the top 40 playlists. it also went to great lengths to play locally produced music by local bands. without KCMU, nobody may have ever encountered grunge at all. i still remember the very first time i heard Mudhoney’s ‘touch me, i’m sick’. i was driving through town and this incredible SONG came on KCMU. it was such a jolt and such a surprise that i literally had to pull my car over to the side of the road and just sit there listen to it open-mouthed, my jaw hanging. when the DJ said it was by seattle’s darlings, ‘Mudhoney” it was like the heavens opened up and i KNEW something was finally happening in seattle.

KCMU used volunteer dj’s and the cream of the seattle underground hipsters seemed to have all had a show on KCMU at one time or another. bruce pavitt, one of the co-founders of sub pop records had a show that everybody at the rocket listen to religiously (bruce also had column in our magazine, so he was ‘one of our own.”) these KCMU dj’s were totally unprofessional – just local kids playing music they liked. bruce used to actually YAWN on the air while he played the music. we would just laugh and laugh. he was a terrible ‘personaliy’ on air, but he had the taste we wanted to hear.

By the time KCMU approached me to design a new station ID/logo for them, they were under attack by all the usual forces of taste and decency. it seemed everybody with any power either wanted their airwave space for themselves or wanted “those dumb tacky kids gone.” many battles took place to save the station and it constantly squeaked through to survive. without KCMU, i doubt the ‘seattle scene’ could have happened at all.

My design here was basically that old ‘mod target’ (actually, i think it’s a classic archery target). since KCMU was going through one of it’s battles at the time (lord knows what about – tipper gores’ ‘obscenity’ fight maybe?) i thought making KCMU an actual target on someone’s tshirt (over their heart) was a great metaphor.

The line, “this is the logo of KCMU, don’t you forget it.” was something i stuffed in there to express the frustration of the constant efforts to change the station’s music format away from what supported the underground community it represented. it was supposed to be a defiant battle-call and challenge and statement of resolute defiance.

KCMU rejected it in favor of a much simpler, more ‘professional style” call number logo like so many other stations used. they were afraid to attract attention (!) and didn’t want anyone to see them and come after their butts again. basically, they were getting tired and scared. the battle to survive was taking a toll.

The final boring logo design i worked up that they selected was only used as a bumpersticker and nothing else. their identity stayed pretty much the same. nothing changed much and within a short time, the station was sold to microsoft multi-millionaire paul allen. he gradually changed it in KEXP and went satellite with it. the result is a very successful and hip and popular radio station, but with absolutely NONE of the soul of the old KCMU. it was like when they changed ‘punk’ into ‘new wave’ to sell it easier to the masses. people ate it up and it actually started making money, but it was an extremely pale unrecognizable format. most people have no idea that KEXP was once the legendary KCMU.

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maybe my little logo design was just too nasty? or too honest? dunno. just another reject.

AC: bringing up register marks. here’s a good example of the computer dilemma – if you design a piece in layers on a board like a printing press (each overlayed layer is a different ink color. this is what a ‘mechanical’ is), you can’t scan it into a computer and keep the layers in register. i’ve asked the best and the brightest in the business to show me how to do that. they always say, “oh, that’s easy”. but, a few hours later they agree you can’t do it. so, if you work in a ‘mechanical’ layout, you can’t translate your work into digital any more. period. the art work has to be created in digital format from the beginning. now i can’t work in mechanical ny more – and THAT is directly the same language as the printing press. so, a computer is a lousy production tool even at that really base level. and of course, nobody even makes register marks any more. i’ve looked all over the world for them. gone….

… i still work the old way and the clients are so spoiled that they constantly freak out on me. every step of my process is more than they can handle. i have to go into ‘war’ mode to just get through it. i don’t get many repeat customers any more, but i sure do some amazing award winning work. clients don’t care. they’re buying off a menu, now – “one from column A, one from column B, …..”

…another story: whenever i present a market comp to a client, they don’t know what it is or how to ‘see’ it. they always ask about the streaks, worried that they are part of the image. either that or they want to make sure they stay because it looks so ‘arty’! when i was starting out, i quickly learned that clients can’t see what you see. i learned that when i worked with architects, i always presented my ideas in blueprint form – they had no problem with that (because they talked that visual language). once i worked with a photographer and he just couldn’t ‘see’ my ideas at all, no matter how exactly and cleanly i made the comp. then it hit me – i made him look at it through his viewfinder on his camera. then he went , “oh, now i get it.” crazy, huh? now every client sees everything on a computer screen and that’s the only thing they understand any more. so sad….

…ever get an OSHA handbook and find out how much of this stuff we work with is dangerous? did you know that wax fumes are carcinogenic? and ‘blanket wash’ on printing presses are about as lethal as cyanide. i watched guys clean up after work with that stuff like it was water. they’d rinse their faces and dry off with a towel. instant brain damage….

… i’m about ready to sell of my massive collection of old type catalogs. i’ve been collecting that stuff for over 30 years. but, it’s no real use to me any more. so sad. every time the technology moves forward a step, i have to take another step backward to stay ahead of it. my work looks incredibly shitty nowadays simply because it’s the one last thing left computers can’t fake….

…when i say “shitty”, i mean my artwork looks like it was xeroxed too may times or left at the bottom of the ocean too long. all of my artwork looks like it was reproduced before many many times. that’s very intentional. computers do ‘clean’ and ‘straight’ at the push of a button. it used to be that it was almost impossible to do clean and straight by hand – that’s why corporate guys got paid the big money. they could actually draw all those rules and stuff. every try to corner a .3 ought border by hand? it’s murder. so, now i don’t even try. nothing matches up, registration is off, type is broken and blobby, everything is crooked. it all looks put together by a kid with learning disabilities and poor eyesight. that’s what i mean by ‘shitty.’ to the old pros, the way i work looks like a practical joke. but, i’ve never met a computer than can copycat what i can do (“yet”, anyway). so, people will still hire me to do what i do because they ca’t find a kid out of school working for minimum wage to do what i do. at least as well as i can do it…

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