Monday, July 11, 2005

How I earned a living without doing much.

I don't think anyone but forms designers will find this the least bit interesting, but here goes anyway.

I like to think that I had the oddest job on earth during my working life. I analyzed and designed FORMS for a big, major Wall Street firm.

The forms you get. The forms you fill out. The forms you sign. If it was a FORM, I designed it. Your brokerage confirmation. Your monthly statement. Your client agreements. All the little bits of paper that departments passed among themselves to do STUFF that had to be done. I had to meet with the people who either needed (or THOUGHT they needed) or wanted the forms, listen to them try to describe what they thought they needed or wanted, and then have to understand what they REALLY wanted, or what the company REALLY needed. Then, I'd execute the design I'd create in my mind, and start the approval process. I was really good at this job. It took a thorough knowledge of my company, its products, federal regulations plus a flair for graphic design and typography. Being a bit of a nerd didn't hurt, either.

I started this career in 1969, at a firm that merged in 1980 with another Wall Street firm. At that time, I physically drew the forms by hand on a big drafting table, with the help of a parallel rule, a couple of triangles, and a set of
Rapidograph pens. If I could, I drew them double size to cut the blobs and sloppiness down by 50% when they were shot in the print shop.

Patches and corrections were made with an X-Acto knife, or razor blades, a light box and white tape. Type was set on an IBM Selectric Composer (Like a Selectric typewriter, but proportional spaced letters, and 3 escapements which g
ave me sizes from 7 to 11 points.

Large type was set with a Varityper Headliner, a monster of a machine which set photographic type on 35 mm white photo print paper, and had a tank with photo printing chemicals. I used a WAXER, which laid a coating of wax on the back of the paper to stick it down to the mechanical. Man, THOSE WERE THE DAYS!! All that, and the forms still looked like shit, as well. I can't tell you how many times I sliced a piece of fingertip off on that light box.

Every now and then, the company would change its logo, or name, or merge with another company, and I'd have to change ALL of the company's forms (there were usually around a thousand active forms at any time). By hand. This task fell to me on an average of once every 18 months - a phenomenon that ABSOULTELY GUARANTEED my employment for 33 years. In all those years, I never had more than two people working for me and usually, it was just me and (if I were lucky) a part-timer.

In 1983, after almost 15 years of cutting and pasting, I was given an Apple LISA computer, which had the first page layout system created (by Compugraphic) for a mouse-driven WYSIWYG computer. The Macintosh came out the following year, and my first "real" Mac came a few years later in the form of a Mac II. For years I designed forms using MacDraw (a program that was GREAT for forms layout, too!) and MacDraw II. Later, FormsExpert II came along, and I was in HEAVEN!

I really enjoyed analyzing and designing forms. There's a small cadre of people who do this professionally, probably numbering under 500 in the whole country. I'd bet there aren't 1,000 in the whole WORLD! We're even organized, and have an annual symposium for and by the professionals in the field.
Hmmmm. Now that I think of it, since there are so FEW of us, we really should be paid a LOT more than we get!

I think a good form design is one that leads you gently through the form without your knowing you're even working with it. The form guides your eyes and moves your pencil gently but firmly, and you don't have to guess what you're doing, what data is expected, or what's expected of you. It isn't ambiguous. It's how I earned my living.

Man, I loved that job.
After 9/11 I asked to be RIF'd, and "they" turned me down. Finally, I had to prove that my "department" (me and a part-timer) was staffed "adequately," and they were finally kind enough to let me go. "They" were afraid that things weren't covered, and immediately hired me back as a consultant. I finally left after 4 days of "consulting." Man O Man. I came, I saw, I did, I left, I wonder just what I did for 33 years to make them feel this way! I made a real good buck, and never had to eat hot dogs every night. Life was good. Like I said, Man, I LOVED that job!


stardust081582 said...

wow! I absolutely have no idea that the forms I used in transacting with a company is done by a professional! I'm glad I read your blog. I'm happy for you that you have enjoyed your work. I hope I get the same satisfaction from mine... but hey, I just drop by... =) Thank you.

hix said...

I enjoyed surfing your site. I had surgery on my left shorten the first metatarsal. I stumbled onto your site trying to find out if other folks have trouble walking with a walking cast. My doctor said I could put weight on my foot this past Monday...and I still can't walk without crutches...which is a disappointment for me. I have two screws in the bone and I followed your rough timeline and I guess I am progressing about the same as you did. It was helpful to me to see that you did not walk immediately when you transitioned to the ski boot. I see you work crossword puzzles...for me it's sudoku. My grandfather had a Ham radio station...I think it was the first one in Louisiana...1917? His call sign was W5DMP. He also LOVED music and had a fantastic reel-to-reel system with Klipsch powerful...they made the house shake! For a living, he did many things over his life's span...but when I was a child...he was making silk screened circuit boards. He had an IBM Selectric and something that might have been like your Varitype...he used to print out my name on strips of paper in different type styles (1960's). He had a drafting table and a little sign posted above the light switch that read, "TURN OFF GLUE POT." I'd bet you know what that means! ;-) Thanks for your blog. It brought back some happy memories and gave me a little hope about my foot healing.