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An Interview with Steve Tiano, freelance graphic designer
Interview Questions and Answers
Area of Expertise:
freelance graphic design
Q: Steve, for how long have you been a freelance graphics designer?
Steve: Well, Anne, I'm actually a freelance graphic designer, as in the whole of designing from a visual point of view. The reason I draw the distinction from “graphics” design is that I'm absolutely not a drawing or painting “artist.”
My expertise—via experience, training, and education—is book design and composition. I'm also slowly gathering skills and software proficiencies to transition to web design.
Q: What training have you had in graphic design?
Steve: I'm entirely self-trained, except for my initial on-the-job training as a proofreader/copy editor. In those jobs I got to see final product—how books and periodicals ought to look and what some of the pitfalls are in the production process. At one point I worked for a computer typesetter as a proofreader. This place was destined to fail, even though they did really fine typesetting of math and science.
One day I just decided that, if I possessed the equipment, I could do what they did. And once microcomputers became so affordable, I decided to get the equipment.
Q: Steve, you made the comment that the computer typesetter business where you worked was destined to fail. Why did you think this would happen? If this business was failing, why did you decide to do the same type of work?
Steve: That business was started, the story went, by a computer science professor and his wife. The prof had, we were led to understand, written a program for typesetting math and science. The accomplishment there was in creating something that automated the formatting of equations—really elaborate stuff.
Anyway, what I saw about this business—over time, of course, and hindsight does make for seemingly incisive observations—was that it was as if mom and pop ran a grocery store profitably, and then went on to expand into a megamarket that they didn't have the business savvy to run. By the time they brought in professional managers, they were so locked into running things that they didn't allow the managers to manage until it was too late.
I thought that by keeping such a business as a small “cottage” operation, I could avoid biting off more than I could chew. That was their problem. Expanding to where they couldn't deliver all they promised to their customers on a timely basis. Things fell apart; they floundered for over ten years. And finally they went under.
My overhead is low. I have a full-time day job with good benefits so this income is supplementary. I need it to grow to quite a bit more if it is to supplement a government pension and allow us to move to California, but I believe that's doable ... if the really tight market loosens up.
Q: What, if anything, did you learn about running a business from being at the doomed computer typesetter?
Steve: On the design side, I'd say creativity needs to be matched by a sense of what you can do in a reasonable amount of time. As far as production goes, one needs to meet due dates. Period.
Defining Graphic Design & Typesetting
Q: Steve, you mentioned that in your on-the-job training period you were able to see some of the pitfalls of the production process. I'd like to break this down for the readers who are unfamiliar with this particular line of work. First, can you explain the steps of the production process with which you are involved?
Steve: Sure, Anne. Hitting the main stops ...
An author writes a book, and—without getting into any of the haggling over the writing and editorial changes—either a publisher accepts it or the author decides to self-publish. Then, assuming the design is all agreed upon and set up, a copy editor goes through the manuscript, mostly for uniformity of spelling and the mechanical aspect of the writing—grammar, punctuation, voice. After that, the manuscript is “keyed” into a word processor file.
At the same time, any art is created, either in electronic files for me to import into the pages I will create, or as hard copy which I will scan, size, and clean up and put into electronic files for importing.
I'm supplied with a template for the interior pages, the fonts for the job, textfiles, and artfiles. I open the template in a page layout program and import the text into the template. Then I place the art, balance facing pages so they begin and end at the same vertical height—except for chapter opener and last pages, of course.
Q: Second, what do you see as three of the major pitfalls in this production process?
Steve: First, underestimating the amount of time a job will take. Remember, delivering on time is the most important thing. Print dates for a book may be arranged a year or more in advance, I was once told. Even quality can be secondary to many clients.
Next, the files supplied may have something wrong with them. They might be corrupt, or created with a program or version of a program that is outdated or incompatible with what I am running.
Finally, there is the matter of the rare—thankfully—spontaneous corruption of files. It hasn't happened to me much, only two times that I can remember, but both times I lost over a day's worth of work. And not being a techie, I still don't know what caused the problem. Since it's such a rarity, I've never paid the steep price of having a computer mechanic check my system out, and assumed it was something in the files I was supplied.
Q: Finally, I am going to get really basic here—as much for my own benefit as the benefit of our readers. What exactly is typesetting? What exactly is involved in typesetting?
Steve: In simplest terms, it's the process of putting words and graphics on the printed page. In days of yore this involved placing or setting individual pieces of type—one for each letter, character (including punctuation), and space—in a wooden frame, tightening that frame to hold the type in place, inking those pieces of type (except, obviously, spaces), and bringing the type into contact with paper so that the ink is transferred to the paper.
Now imagine doing that process three or four hundred times—once for each page of a book or newspaper.
Q: But how does all this relate to modern, computer-based typesetting?
Steve: Well, interestingly, although the computer greatly automates this work, other factors come into the process with their own implications. For instance, consider that I import textfiles into a template from within a page layout program. This requires someone to “key,” i.e., type, the manuscript into a word processor program such as Microsoft Word to produce an electronic textfile.
I never meet any of these keyboarders. I'm always hoping they know what they're doing, not merely that they're accurate typists. A proofreader will hopefully pick up their typing mistakes. But the keyboarder must produce clean, uncorrupt electronic files that import into the template without a hitch.
From there, it's really just a matter of balancing space on each page so that, for instance, white space above and below equations, illustrations, and display heads is not too much or too little, and does not strike a discordant note in the reader's eye. Also, every two facing pages, a left hand page and a right hand page, must start and end at the same height, except for the chapter opener and end pages.
Q: Thanks for the mini-lesson, Steve. Could I ask what equipment you use for your graphic design work?
Steve: I took to the Macintosh computer platform for page design and layout, as well as art production, scanning, and correction because it's the simplest system to get up and running. I like to say that you plug the computer and its peripheralsmonitor, printer, ink cartridges, scanner, any external drives for storage or burning CDsin, plug into each other as necessary, turn the power on, and start working.
The learning curve for the Macintosh system is as steep as one makes it. Any desktop publishing software and processes I've been able to learn, I've learned via concrete projects. In fact, the longest stretch of the Macintosh learning curve is not for the computer, but for how to make programs do the things I bought then to do. I haven't moved up to the new OS X yet, as none of the clients for whom I work have it, and compatibility is the prime way to avoid any problems on the way from my computer to my client's and the printer.
Q: As a freelance designer, what is your main concern?
Steve: I think the most serious problem is getting paid. I've been fortunate. I've never had any design and layout clients try to dodge paying me altogether, although I did have one ongoing client that, before I bid them goodbye, became very erratic and often late.
Q: I've heard of instances where designers are asked to submit ideas for a project, and the “best designer” gets the job. Isn't that the same as doing work for free? How do you handle situations like this when they arise? And does it happen often?
Steve: This is a pet peeve of mine. I see it as a cynical attempt to prey on freelancers—usually the inexperienced ones trying to get a foot in the door of a very competitive job market. I guess it's possible that some new business, young and hungry, might see this as a way to establish a working relationship with edgy, young and hungry artists. But I question whether anyone who takes pride in, and values, the work they do, should even want to work with someone who'd print or publish or promote an artist who thought so little of his work that he'd do it potentially for free.
Q: What have you personally found to be the most effective way of landing a contract? Do you submit proposals? Cold call? Wait for someone to call you?
Steve: By now I must have over a thousand résumés “out there”. But I no longer snail mail work inquiries. I only answer ads that have e-mail addresses. And I only look for work online. I'll do “cold call e-mails”, usually once a year, to every publisher with a listing in Writer's Markets that contains an e-mail address. I'm not saying I know that this is the absolute winningest way to promote oneself and find clients, but it's the way I've found makes the best use of my marketing time. I've gotten some long-term clients this way.
Q: What are some of the challenges you have dealt with while starting your own graphic design business?
Steve: Well, really, just the never-ending battle to find that next project and the next new client. In my case, having a full-time job that pays very nearly all our bills is a cushion that I worry sometimes prevents me from really needing to promote myself successfully so I can put food on the table. It concerns me that maybe I'd be better at finding work if I were desperate. But I don't dare put myself in a position where I'll find out.
Q: What one factor do you consider most important for growing a small business?
Steve: By now I guess it should be obvious that for me the challenge is to continue working. Right this moment I'm going through a drought that's a combination of—I'm told—a post-September 11 malaise in the kind of publishing I specialize in, math and science, and a more personal situation in which I've put the production manager at a book packager (that was one of my steadiest clients) in a snit.
So I guess personalities and others' insecurities are another thing one must contend with in running a successful freelance business.
Looking to the Future
Q: Steve, you said that you have a full-time job unrelated to this work but you also take your freelance work very seriously. Are you considering doing this as a full-time freelancer someday even though you currently appreciate the cushion a full-time job provides?
Steve: Actually, when I was younger, I fully planned to be a writer. When I was not quite five years old, I wrote my first story. By the time I was 21, I'd written two-and-a-half bad novels. And then I ran out of things to say. (Except that lately I've thought of writing a one-act play that takes place in the afterlife, in which Mao, Moe (from the Three Stooges), Karl Marx, and Groucho Marx discuss all the really important issues in the universe.)
But right now, my full-time day job is in civil service: I'm a court clerk. I've tried to parlay this into design and layout work on books of legal writing. For instance, I've contacted the American Bar Association in Chicago and offered them my services. We've exchanged a number of e-mails, and they've expressed some interest. So perhaps something good will come of it.
I actually hope to retire from civil service—maybe in about six years—to freelance full-time. In my situation, freelancing “on the side” works on many levels. My day job provides security right now, something my wife and I simply need to have. It also allows me to never be desperate to take work that doesn't pay decently or that I don't want. (One kind of work that I no longer want is to “doctor” a project, taking over in the middle of it, when it's going badly, and making it work. Sometimes this means redesigning on the fly, or just correcting a million little bad things, like the size of a zillion superscripts in equations in an engineering textbook.)
Aside from Anne: ah ha! Steve, this is one area in which we are quite different. I really enjoy the challenge of cleaning-up a job when others have given up!
I have a healthy respect for writers. My sense is that as a book designer, my job is to create a page layout that brings an author's words to the reader in the clearest way. In designing a book's cover, I want to convey some sense of what a book's about, but I think it's more important that I simply make potential readers want to open the book and start to read it. After all, the whole point of graphic design, book design—and web design, too—is to convey thoughts and expression to the print page or web page.
Q: In order to be successful in life or in business, one must have long-range plans. What is your next goal?
Steve: Simply to grow my business each year to where I have enough in the way of net income to retire from my job as a court clerk, my wife and I can sell our home on Long Island in New York, and we can move to the Marin County area in northern California to be near my stepdaughter, her husband, and our two young granddaughters.
Q: What must you do to achieve this goal?
Steve: Realistically, increase my income by at least 30% each year for the next six years.
Q: Thank you for taking part in this interview, Steve, and I certainly wish you luck in reaching your future goals. If anyone has questions for you, how can you be contacted?
Steve: You're quite welcome, Anne. I can be reached at
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Wednesday, October 09, 2002 14:50