Two days ago a not unexpected, but saddening nonetheless, message arrived. Design Tools Monthly, a pioneering publication, is no more, after an astonishing life span of 21 years.
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, and 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 Even if the content had been useful, it would be out of date very soon, as the programs were advancing rapidly.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 24 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 20 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.
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 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.
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 … 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.”
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 Snyder 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. We’ll be there again in late November/early December, and 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.