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ATPM 15.03
March 2009


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by Mark Tennent,

Eating the Elephant

It is job hunt time. Book design is apparently as dead as a dodo since the US publishers of my books have embargoes on commissioning new work. Consequently it’s back to a role I spent 15 years in, albeit 18 years ago.

A quick trawl of the Web shows two things: the pay has shot up, and there are vacancies all across the country. This is completely the reverse for design jobs where, as computerisation took hold, designers have had to take on an ever increasing load for a decreasing amount of money. The majority of appointments are in London, Oxford, or Cambridge.

18 years ago there were typesetters, layout artists, proof-readers, indexers, a designer for the cover, another for the inside pages, an illustrator and a photo-manipulator. That is plus the experts at the repro and print stage who were scanner operators, film wizards, and colour specialists. Now, one person is supposed to take on all those roles for the same fee we used to get for designing the inside pages.

Not so in my returning field where workloads have shrunk, specialism has taken over from generic, and holistic is the buzz word.

15 Inches of Flickery Luminescence

I’ve been to a few interviews now, and without exception the working environment has been depressing. You park and wonder how many wheels will be left on the car next time you see it. The offices are usually accessed by tatty entry phones where the local kids have scratched their names across the steel front. Inside, a lick of paint and a tidy-up would help, but I’d soon be pining for my own office overlooking the garden and, in idle moments, watching the wildlife scampering around.

Worse was to follow. At one, I was sat down in front of a computer to compose a written answer as part of the interview. Probably the worst computer I have ever used, with nasty clickety-clackety keyboard, running unknown versions of Windows and Word on a CRT monitor. That machine was 15 inches of flickery luminescence showing 12-point Times New Roman. Each letter displayed on screen as half an inch high and formed from rectangular blocks. No anti-aliasing or font smoothing here. Windows is a dog at the best of times; this version was a pitbull/pug mongrel cross, which kept prompting to update various components before it would save the file.

At one interview they apologised for the top salary they could offer but quickly added they would fast track me for the next grade and another ten grand a year. I didn’t like to tell them I hadn’t earned that much since the early 1990s when I used to sell large quantities of print. I thought regretfully of the pension I’d have built up had I stayed in the work rather than throw money at a black hole in Edinburgh controlled by a fat Chief Exec. His annual rise in pension is more than my total lifetime income.

The interviews themselves are quite fun. They all ask the same questions, and each time I come away with a better answer for the next interview. For example: “How do you handle stress?”

Now, I’m not normally stressed out (as a designer, anyway), so I talked a load of bollox the first time. They said I should have answered “I’d talk to my manager.”

Next Interview: “Can you tell me what you would do if you found the job was making you feel stressed-out?” Answer: “I’d talk to my manager.” They seemed to expect more so I added the load of bollox, to which they nodded sagely.

With practice one can answer questions with a single word: money, manager, legislation, holistic, team work (or multi-agency), progression, bollox (for the last questions, which are always nebulous).

Throwing the Pizza

My sister-in-law who trains people in Officespeak suggested I drop in some buzz bollox such as: blue sky thinking, eat the elephant, brown bag lunch, brainstorming was out but it’s in again, paint the picture blue, turning the fine line, throw the pizza, play the pink piano, tickle the frying pan. These are on top of all the technical jargon and acronyms which didn’t exist 18 years ago.

One thing the whole experience has shown is the state of working conditions people accept. The offices are offshoots of wealthy organisations who pay good salaries for staff yet have continual recruitment problems. The working conditions are insalubrious and the tools supplied to do the work are simply dreadful. I’d prefer an old Mac IIci, circa 1989, to any of the PCs I’ve been sat in front of.

Apparently Obama felt the same when he got to the White House. His computer-savvy, Internet-embracing team found nothing they wanted to use and hardly any computers, anyway. I can empathise with that. Meanwhile I’ve got to tickle the pink elephant with the best of them.

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