All about iSensei, Master of Macs & Lord of the iOS
I know many of you are asking yourself:
“Who was this ‘iSensei’ dude??”
Well, he’s not posting any more (as of January 2013), but for the morbidly curious, we have decided to leave this data up for now..
AND, relevant to this site, a great lover of Apple products for over 25 years. My pedigree in this area is quite impressive. I kid you not. When I was living in San Francisco in January of ’85 they held the first-ever Macworld Expo, which I recall being a bunch of pitched tents in a parking lot. You know, like a Farmer’s Market? (Did I imagine that or was it a dream?) Anyway, a friend dragged me there (darn you, Ralph Johnson) despite my pleas that I was an arteeste and what did I care about *ugh* computers. Weeelllll, that all went out the window when I saw a demo of a first gen Mac (remember those little plastic boxy things with the tiny black & white screen?).
What was truly amazing was seeing this fellow showing off, get this, a page layout program! And it appears to have been the first. It was called MacPublisher and I never saw it again after this show. Now remember, up to this point, I and every other graphic artist/designer was only able to get type for a layout if we went through the following steps: we would write up explicit instructions on how we wanted the type to look (and we had to guess at what would be the results), then a messenger or you would carry the instructions and copy over to a typesetting house. And if you are lucky, there was one nearby. Remember, pre-email! And messenger’s cost $$. Then, the next morning, you would receive a package with a paper printout of your set type. You would then find out how well you described what you wanted and how well they interpreted it. If there was anything but the most minor thing wrong with it you had to repeat the process all over again. And, it was very expensive. The easy corrections consisted of using an Xacto blade (don’t ask) to cut out individual words or even letters from a piece of photo paper and try to get them to stick on an actual physical mechanical layout.
So, getting back to this chap at the Macworld Expo, the program he was demonstrating could control the words on the screen, change them into any font you wanted (that were installed on that machine, and at that time there weren’t very many, but hey), at any size, or any alignment. It was, I am happy to say, a religious experience for me. (Probably the only one. Praise Apple!) So, you see, this was a truly revolutionary change and, after seeing what else the program could do, I knew that this was going to turn the graphics and printing world upside down. Power in the hands of the creatives! Wahoo! I had seen the future. I must say though, it took me quite a while to convince other people of this transendent revelation. (This event occurred only a few months before I took the Design Director’s job at DC Comics in NYC circa 1985. More here.)
No, wait. I did see one more ‘miracle’ in my life. It was about 4 years later and I was attending The New Tools conference (RIP) in New York City, wandering around learning what the “next big digital thing” was going to be. Now, this is back when it was popular/elitist to refer to ourselves as “digital designers”, an obvious attempt to elevate ourselves over the common mass of ‘old-fashioned’ analog designers. It was a phrase I knew was doomed for extinction, since it was obvious to me – everyone else too, right? – that soon ALL design and most graphics were going to be executed digitally so why “ghetto” ourselves? But, I digress. (Oh, really!?) So I’m walking around the show, looking at strange new devices and software, when I stop to watch a demo of this application called “BarneyScan”. It was designed for high-end scanner operators to use to, get this, actually manipulate the color, hues, values, exposure, etc of a scanned image from within THE COMPUTER!
Again, you punk kids have to understand what it was like back in The Bad Old Days. There were extraordinarily crude (expensive) desktop/personal scanners available but they had VERY low resolution (rez) and were B&W only. (Guess who had one? Damn right AND I also had a B&W laser printer for the low, low price of $3000! And that was 1987 dollars, which would be a quadrillion dollars in modern moolah. Sorry, back to my tale.) So, this software could manipulate the image right before your eyes! Again, this is when, if you needed any photo or illustration manipulated, you sent it out to a photo house, hoping they would interpret your vague/uncertain expectations correctly. A veritable crapshoot. Expensive, yadda yadda. But, the punch line on the story IS… that this piece of software was the first version of what would ultimately be called Photoshop! (didn’t see that coming, did ya?) Talk about a Game-Changer.
It certainly was the motivation for me, in 1990, to leave my cushy (not really… comfy maybe) job as Design Director for DC Comics and go back to freelancing. I loved working at DC but this digital revolution was having a profound effect on me and the management at DC was, well, not equally enrapt. I opened, with a little help from my friends, (and you know who you are), the illustrious Brainstorm Unlimited Inc. Graphic design for comics, magazines, books, CDs, film, packaging, promotions and whatever we could convince people we could do, whether we could or not! We had no choice -by choice- but to become as digital an operation as was possible, and it WAS a stretch in those days, believe me. You ever try to transmit a 30 meg file to a service bureau over a 2400 baud phone line?!? I hope not, for your sake. Took a hour and, if it hiccuped halfway through, you started all over again. But we were determined to make this work, damn it. (Persistent, not smart) The very idea of sending digital files to be output as printer’s film was rad-i-cal. (We were a ways off from direct digital to print, yo.)
Computer equipment was expensive and balky. A 17″ monitor cost… well, you don’t want to know. And a 1 Gig external hard drive??? Could buy a house for that now. Small house but still… One of the most challenging assignments the studio had was producing a huge, hi-rez digital file for a ‘1-sheet’ (i.e. Lobby movie poster – 27″x40″). Well, why was that a problem? Right? Computers at that time really couldn’t handle 50-100 megabyte files. The Macs barely had 8 megabytes of RAM, not gigabytes, mind you. Still, we made it work and broke some new digital ground. Even the companies we worked with (FineLine Films, HBO, Children’s Television Network, Xerox, etc.) didn’t have their logos in a digital form. When we did videocassette packaging, there wasn’t even a digital VHS logo (but that seems appropriate, in retrospect). So, I built what logos I needed in FreeHand (a vector-based design program which I liked a lot better than Illustrator, but Adobe bought it and buried it so as to leave it’s own Illustrator program last man standing). Not a wise business move as I didn’t get paid for digitizing those logos but I learned a lot in doing them and dammit, it was all going to be DIGITAL, even if it killed me. Almost did. I had years of fun (seriously) seeing how far I could push Photoshop, Illustrator and FreeHand. QuarkXPress refused to be pushed. It would just sit there and dare you to have fun.
Besides the creative work itself, there were many fascinating sidetrips. For a while, my business partner Mark Nevelow (Hi, Sparky!) and I did a regular column for Step-By-Step Electronic Design (a spinoff of the venerated and apparently long-gone Step-By-Step design magazine). See? Even then (’93 or so) iSensei was doing “how to get the most out of your Mac”-type articles — and I didn’t even know I’d become iSensei!
Another digital tool in its infancy (or maybe pre-birth would be more accurate) was voice recognition and control. Mark had arranged for the manufacturer (Dragon, I believe, or its predecessor) to let us road test their new software and microphone for controlling your computer and capturing dictation. I was in Heaven. This was like freakin’ Star Trek! I could TELL my Mac to ‘copy’ or ‘paste’ or launch programs. There was only one HUGE catch: you had to train the software by speaking every command you wanted to use three times each, so it could get a handle on how you spoke EVERY command. And it would reject certain iterations of the same word or phrase because they sounded TOO different from the other two. But, the real kicker was: it was buggy as hell and would frequently crash, corrupting the file that stored all of your training so you would have to retrain it All Over Again from scratch! And I did many, many times. I was that enamored of the concept. Still, there was paying work to be done and like a lot of convenient ‘time-saving’ software, especially 1st generation versions, they could be tremendous time-WASTERS. We thanked the company for the opportunity and returned everything they had sent. I am slightly ashamed to say, that even today, with voice recognition having 2 decades to be refined, I still have a hard time getting it to work properly. Many people I know swear by it, so it must just be me it hates. I will say that I get great results from the dictation now built into the iPhone, iPad and the Mac. Granted, it’s only for short phrases, but I’m amazed at how well it does it. I don’t text now, I just talk! So, Beam Me Up, Scotty!
Last one from the Dawn of the Digital Age: As any of you who were involved in using this equipment back then knew, Apple went through a pretty rough patch of road. Bland, beige Macs, with odd designations (what IS a Performa, anyway? Faster than a Quadra? Who knew?), a stuck-in-the-past Mac OS 7 and most amazing of all, there were Mac CLONES running around! Shocking, I know. I myself owned one from Power Computing. The point is, the most exciting thing on the horizon for Mac fans was what Steve Jobs (we all know he is, right?) was creating at NeXT Inc. Sleek, black cubes with an entirely modern OS (NeXTstep) and software, built-in email and networking (ahead of the rest of the world, as usual). Gorgeous looking with a very sophisticated UI (User Interface). I can tell you this because somehow my devious partner managed to get us a loaner for one-long holiday weekend. Needless to say, I was at the studio for almost 3 days straight, playing with this thing, putting it thru its paces and trying to decide it was worth the leap for $10,000 (which we didn’t have but we liked to bleed, remember?). Although very seductive and promising, that cake wasn’t fully baked. Lacked too many essential programs, and it was still buggy. Back it went on Monday but I’m glad I had a chance to play with would fairly soon be integrated into the next generation of Macs and its OS when Steve triumphantly returned to Apple in ’97. Good thing too, because not long before that, I closed up shop and accepted a position back at, you guessed it, DC Comics.
I have to admit, I was a little shocked upon my return to the halls of DC, as I saw Macs on the desks of all the editorial and creative/design folks. Given the “it’s only a toy” attitude when I left 6 years earlier, it was a very welcome sight. And most all thanks must go to the Design Director who had been hired a year prior, Georg Brewer. (and no, that’s not a typo. Thank you, Georg.) We soon pooled our collective Mac goals, knowledge and tremendous influence to go about Macifying the entire company. OK, maybe not quite that ambitious but…
Next I was compelled to take over DC’s rather sad-looking website. This was a great challenge as it A] forced me to happily learn everything I could about the construction and power of websites (remember, it’s 1998 or so) and B] see the many ways it could be integrated into numerous systems in various departments around the company. Well, some of the latter challenge was more painful than fun, as people traditionally tend to reject change, especially when it involves their job and someone else coming in the door announcing “this is what has to happen”! Oh, I was on fire and managed to piss off a lot of people who didn’t share my particular vision of the company’s future. “But it’s always been done this way!” I could die happy never hearing THAT argument again.
This led to rebuilding the Creative Services dept under me into a digital version of itself to meet modern business needs. Here’s where I throw out serious kudos to the Man with the Plan (and the execution) Ron Perazza. Yo, Ron! We ‘kindly’ pushed for a digital solution to manually intensive chores in a number of departments. Some of it was accomplished, much still was off in the future.
One of my proudest moments came in 2007 with the creation of ZUDA Comics, DC’s first original material online imprint. Now THAT was a blast and a ton of hard work. Fortunately I had many smart, skilled and dedicated people working for me that could do the heavy lifting! Right, McCullough? (insert Winky Face emoticon) It was a huge challenge to build an entirely new way of buying and publishing comics from scratch. And within budget. And within time limits. But we made it. Time-wise, at least! We bought wildly inventive series and met equally wild creators (and you know who you are, Shelton). This was no doubt, a career highlight.
Sad to say, like many independent publishers, we weren’t making anywhere near enough money to continue, let alone grow. Tip o’ the Hat to my old boss, Paul Levitz, for his continued support of this revenue-less but worthy venture. You rock. New management from WB in Burbank was moving in and they had a different vision for DC’s digital comics so in 2010 our noble experiment was put on the shelf.
There was a lot more going on digitally in my world, at home and at work, throughout those years, but I’ve already gone WAY beyond my 500-word limit, no? With the end of 2010 my tenure at beloved DC came to an end. Time to move on! And now, this site is being moved on from also. New fish to fry… and are they yummy! Take care all.