by Art Chantry ( Art@artchantry.com )
labelmaker was a big cheapo solution for typography back in the early punk days. you saw it everywhere, on record covers, posters, zines. you could literally buy a label maker gun (especially the gutbucket brand called ‘dymo’) for two bits in a thrift store and then get the tapes out of the free bin. a few clicks, some bad spelling and VOILA! professional lettering. sorta.
i first used labelmaker in my graphic design work in the mid 70’s, when i was still a student. i used it on a poster for a student art exhibit. that poster was a great lesson for me, because everything i used on it was found in the garbage. it was my very first “garbage” poster. even my labelmaker gun and tape was found in a trash can. you see, i used to be a garbage man before those college days and i found cool stuff i’m still using to this day. in fact my very first business card i ever made for myself was labelmaker type. man, it looked awful. it was perfect. perfectly awful. delicious.
then the punk thing hit like a sledge hammer and labelmaker was one of the “solutions of choice” (alongside ‘ransom note’ type and scribbled handwriting and crudely drawn hand work and typewriters.) basically anything that was cheap was perfectly acceptable in punk graphics. and labelmaker type was used so much that it was overkill. it became a cliche.
in hipster circles, when something becomes ‘used to death’, it’s over and gone. labelmaker disappeared from graphic design almost completely after that. it was poison, a pathetic joke. from about 1978 through the end of the 80’s, it was totally forgotten as an interesting design solution for anything in type or design. this business is extremely faddish, you may note.
in the late 80’s, i was hired by larry reid at coca (the center on contemporary art) to do up a poster promoting their next big show “low technology”. it was to be an exhibit of machines made by artists (grouping all of those ‘mad scientist artists’ i’ve so often talked about all into one big public display).
coca had just been the target (unfairly, of course) of jesse helm’s campaign to defund the NEA. coca was one of the organizations caught in the middle. so, the poster i designed dealt with not only the mad scientist machine artists, but the political situation of coca. it turned out great. but, that’s not what i’m here to talk about.
i needed a type solution for the poster. since it was ‘machines made by artists’ and we all know what that’s gonna look like – total DIY. then, i remembered good ol’ labelmaker. i dug around and found my old gun and cranked it some label type. then i photocopied it a couple of generations, so it would be flat on the paste-up (and look properly amateurishly shitty, like lettering artists would make. artists can make great images, but they don’t know shit about typography. at least until computers started to do it for them). i thought it was a great joke and the perfect type metaphor for the gig and a great graphic design retro reference. it look great. then it won typography awards from professional design organizations. we all laughed a lot at that. labelmaker? awards? ha!
as far as i know, nobody had done that trick in over a decade. it worked so well, i used it a couple of more times here and there. it looked fresh and new again, probably because it had been forgotten and ignored so completely.
the most prominent place i used it was on the rocket as ‘section headers’ throughout the magazine. it looked great (again) and was exactly the right nuance for a trashy music mag. to top it off, in every issue i went back to the previous issue and photocopied off the labelmaker headers from the previous issue. then, i pasted the deteriorated image into the new pasteup. to result was that readers got to watch as the section headers slowly rot away into illegibility over a span of the next 9 months. when they got so messed up that you couldn’t read them any more (that became utterly non-fional) i switched to a new header design. i played the game out to a logical conclusion.
the rocket was drop shipped in small bundles around the country. we also had a subscription list that included every ex-rocket staffer we had an address for. many of these old rocket people had moved to new york city and made a big impact in the publishing biz there. they had worked so hard with nothing just to survive for so long that they hit the ground running in nyc. before long they were art directing a dozen major league publications there (vanity fair, village voice, metropolis, newsweek, vibe, and on and on…). in new york circles, these ex-rocket people were nicknamed “the seattle mafia.” so, these folks got the rocket at those publications every month and it got passed a round.
when some of those folks saw the labelmaker, they laughed at the joke, too. people old punks, they totally ‘got it’. after a while, bob newman sent me a copy of the village voice with labelmaker used on the cover design and scribbled a note on it saying”HA! ripped you off!”. then i got a copy of guitar world from jesse reyes with a note saying, “i stole your idea. hope you don’t mind!”.
after a few more of these i began to realize this was a great example of how graphic design language worked. it spreads like a virus (thanks bill). monkey see, monkey do. a design image can catch the popular consciousness and spread like disease, infecting people who come into visual contact. we’ve all seen it happen over and over, but here it was happening in this small scale and it was being witnessed and commented on.
my co-worker, grant alden (he was editor at the rocket), noticed it too. his take was total fascination. he said he finally can see verification of all the BS i’d been spewing and he was officially convinced. he wanted to actually document the process as it worked it’s way across the pop culture. thus began the process of looking and following up wherever labelmaker popped up in pop graphics.
before long, at directors and designers who friends of those ex-rocket art directors in nyc saw the joke and copped it, too it popped up in rolling stone and a few other hipster magazines. and then it started to transfer across mediums into record covers (a logical jump from music magazines). it was used on a duran duran record cover and then labelmaker showed up on a joan baez lp cover (!) it was spreading. it began to show up on best selling fiction dust jackets as well.
david carson saw it and began to use it mercilessly in his early phase. when he did a cd rom of typefaces (everybody was doing that back then. you could make huge money fast if it clicked) and it included ‘labelmaker’ as a typeface. so, here you could buy a $3000 computer and $1000 software and a $200 cd rom to do labelmaker. it cost ME 25¢. we thought that was particularly funny.
then it went corporate (due to it’s availability as a computer typeface.) it started to show up in annual reports. most notably it was on a warner brothers annual report that won dozens of prestigious industry awards. it even showed up in logos and corporate identities. grant and i were awestruck by how far it had ricocheted by this point.
but the crowning glory was still to come. that summer, the new season baseball cards hit the markets. the wrappers for one brand (fleer? i forget) actually used labelmaker on the wrapper design! that old labelmaker joke we pulled on the rocket actually bounced around graphic design culture and made it on the american staple of baseball cards!!! does it get any better? (actually, a designer who worked there at the company was an old rocket dude. so, we have direct documentation on that.)
so, what started off as an old punk cliche used to illustrate the machines of artists, was then folded into the rocket. then, like a pinball stuck in a bumper, the gimmick stuck int he nyc design grinder. occasionally, the ball bounced over to the west coast and then maybe over to japan once or twice, but then it flipped back off the rail into that original nyc bumper and scored even higher points before finally getting lost down the bucket.
it was one of the best small illustrations of how this stuff works that i’ve ever witnessed. you can actually control it and make it happen. when it’s done right, everybody knows what it means and starts to say it, too. it’s not copycatting, it’s language.