David King was a hoarder and he kept old paper artworks used in the making of publications and posters for decades in great piles stored in his basement. After he died, his estate gave many of these artworks to Tate, now home of his huge Russian collection. We held back a few examples for possible inclusion in David King: Designer, Activist, Visual Historian. Shown here are four artworks – a magazine cover, a catalogue title page, and two of King’s best-known posters – that didn’t make it into the book.
All four artworks date from the late 1970s to mid-1980s, long before the computer entirely transformed the technicalities of production. In the UK, these layouts were termed “camera-ready copy” (CRC); in the US, they were called “mechanicals”. The layouts were the same size as the final printed piece. They were largely monochrome, and the repro service or printer would photograph them and put them into colour by following the designer’s instructions written on the artwork. The designer needed to be a good visualiser of the final effect, and particularly of the way the colours would work together when printed.
Colours could be specified by Pantone numbers, but in the examples shown here King often asks for a process colour – 100% yellow or 100% red. Sometimes he provided a colour sample – “This blue!” (see below) – though the outcome may not always have been an accurate match. The background of the Demonstrate! poster (above) is different from the “Yelo paper” sample stuck to the overlay. It’s also possible that King made this colour change himself. There was often an opportunity for adjustments at the proofing stage, though any changes requested would need to be paid for.
Layouts for books and magazines were composed on sheets of heavy paper known as grid boards, printed with pale blue lines to indicate the page shape, trim marks, position of columns and baselines, and other features of the page. The lines were non-reproducing so when the page was photographed, they disappeared. For one-off posters, the trim marks were drawn in pencil on a sheet of paper or card. Designers provided their instructions on an overlay – King used tracing paper in all the cases here.
Camera-ready copy could sometimes be very elaborate, with the type and other elements of the design stuck on different film overlays that were precisely aligned with each other on the base artwork. It was King’s usual practice, however, to place all the elements on the base, with his instructions written on a single overlay taped at the top. He would sometimes recycle unused grid boards prepared for other jobs, if the dimensions were the same as the current project. The Rodchenko catalogue title page for the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford uses a sheet from The Penguin Book of Political Comics (here called “Pelican”). King crossed this out at the top.
King constructed these designs using only a ruler, set square and scalpel. Judy Groves, his regular collaborator, describes him standing at a plan chest in his basement when working on the artworks. She doesn’t recall him using a parallel rule, which would have been easier, even though his large lightbox had one built in. Instead he relied on his eye. This was exacting enough to produce a seamless final image, although close examination can reveal tiny inaccuracies – for instance, in the placement of parallel elements – that wouldn’t occur in the era of 100 per cent accurate digital design. King used wax to fix the pieces in place and it was easy to lift and move them about if needed. He positioned carefully cut out halftones in exactly the same manner as blocks of type, slab rules, and devices like his trademark star shapes.
These old artworks retain their fascination. They are wonderfully physical to see and touch, and they embody the craft and actions of their making – cut lines, manual alignments, and meticulous spacing. The transformation from raw strips of black-and-white paper to the smoothly integrated printed surface, glowing with colour, still looks like a kind of magic.