Decomposing Room

When I worked at The New York Times, there was an office upstairs we called the Decomposing Room. I think about it often.

My kids find it inconceivable, but it is true that there once were no computers. And that was also true at the newspaper where high-tech meant setting hot led type and, later, cutting and pasting—I’m not talking about right-clicking the mouse—then splicing wide format film. All those things, of course, are dead and gone. Extinct.

But, not everyone got the news.

Which is why The New York Times had a Decomposing Room. The old-timers, who back in the day, did it all by hand may have seen the headline, “Things Are Changing,” but they did not bother to read the story. Instead, they kept doing what they were doing in the only way they knew how.

The rest of the world passed them by as they were still learning to turn on the Linotype CRTronic 360 photo-typsetting machine. But, because they were valued as long-time employees and were protected by their union as lifelong members of the Communications Workers of America, those old guys, who once did the all-important newspaper composition work, had become relegated to spend their days “decomposing” upstairs.

I got to know many of them, and there was no reason for them to do nothing other than “decompose.” They still had so much to offer. So much they could have done, so much they were capable of learning. Instead, they spent their days searching for typos in the daily paper while drinking coffee and trading stories about the Gilded Era of the industry.

Today, I think about the Decomposing Room because it feels a lot closer now than it did back then. And, I don’t ever want to be sent there myself.

No matter our age, aptitude, or ability, we should all take measure from time-to-time, asking ourselves if we are setting a course that will land us in the Decomposing Room someday. Are we staying current? Are we keeping up with the times, continually pushing ourselves to learn?

Henry Ford nailed it, I believe, when he said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” My grandma, Ammu, who is now 97 years old, is younger than some of the twenty-somethings I know. Despite their relatively few years roaming Planet Earth, their thinking has already become rigid and calcified, while hers remains nimble and adaptable as she continues to grow and learn from the world around her, plowing through one book after another. The New York Times would not have assigned Ammu to the Decomposing Room.

The world is now changing faster than ever. We all know that; it’s not front-page news.

But, what are we doing about it? Are we still messing around with CRTronic 360’s, or are we developing current skills? There’s nothing wrong with understanding history and where it is we came from (if more graphic designers knew what a page bleed is and why it exists, the world would be a better place as far as I’m concerned), but we can’t stop there. We have to keep going.

We have to keep moving, learning—growing.

If we don’t—whether the candles on the cake indicate we are “old” or we are “young”—we will be destined for the Decomposition Room.


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