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A very short history of Design Tools Monthly
by Jay Nelson, founding editor and publisher

In 1988, I was managing one of the nation’s first service bureaus (RJL Graphics in Austin, Texas). Every day I witnessed the pain and frustration of graphic designers trying to keep up with changes in technology, so I decided to create a way to deliver the information they needed, in a way they would enjoy. I knew the market wasn’t yet ready to pay for that relief of suffering, so I moved to Boulder, Colorado, and waited for the swell of frustration to peak.

By 1992, the frustration was palpable and widespread, so in September 1992 I introduced the world to Design Tools Monthly. I promoted DTM in every free or low-cost way possible — never spending more on promotion than I took in from subscriptions. A number of well-placed industry people assisted me in getting the word out, which helped tremendously. (I owe a huge thank-you to Tim Gill at Quark and Bill Davis at Monotype, among others!)

The Internet was not being used much at that time, partly because the speed of modems was limited to 2400-9600 bps. Because of these slow connection speeds, Quark’s Tim Gill suggested we add a monthly floppy disk of hand-chosen shareware, bug fixes, fonts, updates and XTensions to our service. He even gave us the exclusive right to distribute Quark’s free XTensions as they were released! Every month we trolled CompuServe, AppleLink and America Online for truly useful items and delivered them to our subscribers.

Producing the disks was fun — once we had a final master, we would sit with two Macs and feed them floppies as we watched a movie (VHS!). When our subscriber base was large enough that it took longer than a two-hour movie to copy the floppies, we hired a disk duplication service to do it for us. :-)

Over the years, quite a few people have asked me what kind of system we use to write stories and keep track of them. The surprising answer is: FileMaker! I’ve used FileMaker since version 1 in 1985, and it’s always been my go-to system for tracking all information. By setting up a layout in FileMaker that resembled a column of text in our QuarkXPress newsletter template, we could print out the stories from FileMaker and choose the best ones for the current issue. Then, we’d export those stories with XPress Tags added to the various fields, and when we flowed it into QuarkXPress the stories practically formatted themselves! We still use FileMaker to write and edit our stories.

Designing the newsletter was fun: We consciously used no grays — just solid black and white. By doing that, we hoped to imply that our information had no “gray areas” — it was as black and white as our design. After looking through hundreds of fonts, we chose ITC Galliard, ITC Franklin Gothic and Shelley Andante. Only later did we discover that they were all designed by the same incredible font designer: Matthew Carter! I drew the squiggly Mac II, based on Apple’s original Mac squiggle. In 2000 we hired the incomparable logo designer Dave Shelton to update the DTM logo with colors to match the newly released gumdrop iMacs. I then used Alien Skin Software’s Photoshop plug-ins to make the letters puffy and translucent. After publishing several issues and CDs with the logo in various colors, we settled on the red one you see today.

We started in print, and we’ve printed every issue for the past 21 years. Our first website went live in 1995. In 1997, when Internet connection speeds became fast enough to download our newsletter in PDF format, we began offering Design Tools Monthly electronically as well. In 1998 we grew from 8 pages to 12 pages. And in 2001 we began putting the newsletter and our Updater Disk items (formerly on floppies!) onto a quarterly CD and sent it to our subscribers.

Time flew by — tools changed, faces came and went, and we had a fantastic time mixing it up with the industry leaders at events such as the Seybold Conference, Macworld Expo, Graph Expo and Thunder Lizard Conferences. I spoke at various events, which always made me very nervous! New subscribers joined us from more than 40 countries, which amazed me. I remember consulting our globe on several occasions to determine exactly where some of them were.

In 2007 we teamed with CreativePro.com to begin our experiment with a weekly podcast: “Design Tools Weekly”. Jeff Gamet and I had a great time getting together and bringing some DTM goodness to the world at large. Ultimately, it took more time and energy than it was worth, so we stopped recording them after three years. You can still hear them http://www.DesignToolsWeekly.com.

I began to think of a lot of my industry buddies as family. There is something about the people who are dedicated to helping others understand the tools and processes in the print world — perhaps it’s because my grandfather was a typesetter and my great-grandfather was a book publisher — but I just felt at home in that world. Still do!

— Jay Nelson

An alternate history of Design Tools Monthly
by industry luminary, author and color expert Dan Margulis

In 1992, when Jay Nelson founded DTM, getting reliable information about what was going on in a rapidly changing industry was unimaginably difficult by today's standards. We didn't have Google, basically we did not have the Web, most people did not have e-mail, let alone social media.

Also, many more of us had to work with multiple applications than is the case today. And we had to know much more about the innards of computers and their OSs. Disk space was extremely expensive. Taking inflation into account, a gigabyte of hard disk space cost ten thousand times what it does today. So we had to stay current with the latest backup and compression strategies.

So few people owned computers, let alone graphics software, in those days that there wasn't a big market for books. Accordingly, almost all were written by professional tech writers who knew little to nothing about what they were writing about. Even if the content had been useful, it would be out of date very soon, as the programs were advancing rapidly.

Unless one sprang for the big bucks to go to conferences, trade magazines were the only means of keeping up, but there were many of them, and their objectivity was in doubt.

Under these circumstances, Jay's idea was brilliant: a monthly newsletter of 12 pages or so, no photos, all black and white, summarizing recent developments, monitoring all the trade press and regurgitating some of the better tips found in their articles. And most important of all, no advertising.

Naturally that made for a high subscription price, but it was worth it. There might be 80 or more news items/tips and even if only three or four of them were useful the subscription would pay for itself.

In short, given the realities of 1992, DTM had a fine business plan. Since then, however, time has inexorably worked against an expensive monthly publication. The marvel is that it lasted till the turn of the century — let alone until 2013.

The main reason the model held for at least the first ten years, IMHO, was that DTM, being advertising-free, remained objective, while the trade magazines became a cesspool, completely under the thumb of the vendors. Software upgrades that were unstable enough to crash twenty times a day were given five-star ratings in the magazines that took advertising. Design Tools Monthly several times, and quite rightly, advised us not to install them. An example is appended to this story.

During the last half of its life, DTM continued with what had made it successful. It was a big supporter of independent type designers, and could always be counted on to give us interesting new fonts to play with. It specialized in pointing us to good freeware and shareware add-ons. It told us what books to read. It continued to offer tips in all graphics programs, from little-known keyboard shortcuts to newly published methods of solving problems. There were no think pieces about what the future of the industry would hold, just a mountain of facts about what was actually happening and what our choices were.

Almost four years ago, Jay married graphics author Lesa Snider in Hawaii, a place whose culture they both love. We have not heard the last of them, as both have active speaking and writing careers, plus Jay has hinted that DTM is not dead forever, although no new issues are currently planned.

Jay and Lesa set us wise to Napili, a laid-back beach community in Maui that has become one of our favorite places in the world. When we next visit there, I will lift a glass of Maui Rum to their future success and happiness. If you work in the graphic arts yourself, then you should join in that toast, because DTM has had a lasting, and positive, effect on our profession.

— Dan Margulis

P.S. In late 2000, I published a Makeready column called "99 Layers and Counting". It was a joint review of Photoshop 6, which was a nice release, and of Illustrator 9, a total disaster. I'll try to post the column in the next few weeks, but for now it's enough to say that I was so disgusted by the trade press at that time that I quoted a review from an advertising-supported publication and the same product as commented upon by DTM. I'll let you decide which was which, and to think about how important the DTM comment was. Professionals kissed Illustrator 9 goodbye, and the program has yet to recover.

Review #1: "Illustrator 9 maintains the smooth, intuitive interface found in all Adobe applications, and learning to use the new features is fairly easy. Today's design trends demand cool transparent effects É and currently no tool out there can do it better than Illustrator. You'll find enough features and improvements in Illustrator 9 to justify the cost of the upgrade even if you specialize solely in either Web or print design. And if you do both, your dreams just came true."

Review #2: "It's now been more than two months since Adobe became aware of the large number of crippling problems with Adobe Illustrator 9.0, but has chosen not to address these issues publicly. Therefore, we continue to recommend not using Illustrator 9.0 for critical work until an update is released. Some of the reported problems include: Photoshop 5.5 won't open Illustrator 9 EPS files, conflicts with Adobe Type Manager, Font Reserve, Action Files 1.5.2 and Suitcase, clipping paths that change from version 8 to 9, text redraw problems, missing graphics when exporting to PDF, graphs that disappear when updated,documents that won't re-open, corrupted text, and imported EPS files that get garbled."

 

 

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