Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Work and Other Symptoms of Modern Existence

I am a graphic designer. I am, specifically, a typesetter, using Quark and InDesign to lay out law and healthcare newsletters for a Manhattan-based orb in a solar system of book, newsletter, and electronic publishing. If you take a few steps back, my function is fairly mechanical: The jobs come into the inbox, I lay them out, get them to the editor, make corrections in one or more rounds, send the job to press (or to an electronic distributor), and archive the application file. I could teach someone the job in a week.

Most of my newsletters are monthly, 16 pages long, and uncomplicated in layout. We use the same design each time, and when tables or figures are called for, in the interest of speed we scavenge old layouts for recyclable charts and graphs into which we can plug new data. We get plenty of time to design new issues, and other than delays inflicted by the editors or the authors who submit the manuscripts, it's a fairly predictable process.

Perhaps this is why I am bored.

I have been doing this job since late 2000, almost 5 years, after editing in another department of this company for just over another year. Although we are slowly adopting InDesign as our layout software of choice, which will also allow our content to be repurposed (an awful word) for books, online use, reprints, and such and such, this will probably come with a lot of short-term frustration. The department with whom we will make this change in workflow handles such changes with suspicion and reluctance. Technology is not their friend. It will be trying.

Still, I know we will get through it. I will have a new skill on my resume. I will be "more marketable." Lovely, I can now be bought and sold on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange next to the pork bellies. Makes me want to rise in active punching. My great concern is, when this settles in, I will be just as bored. Same material in, same pages out. No opportunity to be creative or to learn the tools (Illustrator, Photoshop) that might allow me to branch out in such a way.

I spent a good chunk of last week thinking about how I got this itch at my last job. There, too, I felt like I had reached the outer limit of what I could achieve. I had mastered the demands of the position. I did not want to be promoted to a middle or upper management position, and I hated being a supervisor (I oversaw a group of four editor-designers) and especially the training aspect of it. That led me to seek out what became my current position. I was finally inspired to start looking after a very frustrating stretch of days that led me to write myself a letter, in which I summarized my reasons for wanting to leave and the emotions that staying in the position inspired in me. I told myself that if I no longer identified with those points when the letter got to my door, I would rethink things and put it down as a triple-negative biorhythm day or something. No dice. I ticked off each point and agreed all the more.

I want no part of managing my department. I was promoted earlier this year, but it was more of a formal recognition of five years of service and a retention move. More pay, but no revised or expanded management duties. Should be ideal, right? At this pace, by the time I'm 65 I'll be making mid-six figures and spend 8 hours a day pressing a single key on my computer like a space monkey. I don't have any interest in the sorts of things my immediate boss now does. She was the senior designer until she got a bump last year — and into a position that lacked both a job description and a formal title! She handles a lot of the newsletter-specific management tasks that her boss used to resolve . . . and that person is in such demand now from dealing with other departments and traveling, that my boss can't get things resolved as swiftly.

Perfect example. The out-of-house editor of a newsletter that has been lagging several months behind wanted to run a survey to determine what the readership (if there's any left) wants to see. She, being new to the publication, didn't know what this entailed. Neither did the in-house managing editor (there's no manuscript editor; I get the raw MSS whenever they drift in). My brilliant idea of having readers return surveys by fax was shot down when I learned the ed's fax machine shared a home phone line and wasn't always on.

Thus began two weeks' worth of wasteful back-and-forth emails attempting to resolve (a) the format of the survey, (b) how postage would be paid for, and (c) where readers would send this survey. Nobody wanted to take a solid position and potentially waste their department's money on postage. My initial design for the address page was rejected, then —when it looked like we might have readers send them back to our office — called back in. This has added a fortnight to the schedule of a newsletter that has been sitting in my outbox waiting to go to press . . . and I have also, since this whole saga began, received, typeset, corrected, and finalized for press the next issue of the pub. Did I mention that both should have gone to press in June?!

I have a strong suspicion that, when my boss finishes design school, she will bail on the company. The head office wants us to promote more often from within in situations like this. I am next in line. For the frustration I have seen befall this woman, I am not interested.

But dig this.

For 3 years, I was the designer on a twice-monthly accounting newsletter with a 2-day turnaround. To get it on press by deadline, I had to come in early, stay late, or both. It was also packed with charts and intricate tables, many of which needed to be crafted from scratch. I would receive files, set all else on my desk aside, typeset like a maniac, and swap proofs and corrections in a frenzy of haste and tension to hit that press time. I crafted pie charts before the sun flared up the glass-and-steel skin of Manhattan. I cursed at a balky computer in an echoing empty office while twilight spread ouside my window. I watched coffee carts open for business in the morning and greeted cleaning staff in the evening. Amid office parties, I put on headphones and blocked out the bleating of my co-workers as I turned poorly formatted Excel tables into well-groomed columns of data. No oversight, no submitting it to my bosses to inspect before press, no contact with my fellow designers, just me, a pile of text, and a tight deadline. It cost me innumerable hours of unpaid overtime and gained me the stewardship of a newsletter with a 1-day turnaround as a parting gift.

Typesetting duty for this title passed to another office at the beginning of the year.

I thought I would celebrate getting my life back . . . that I wouldn't miss it.

I do.

Something to keep in mind in case I flip the switch and let the rusted machinery of the job-search process grind into creaking motion again.

All right. Enough revelations for one evening, especially to myself.

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