LightSpeed Design System

Ben Pruitt
6 min readJan 6, 2017


Promotional postcard for ArtSmart, Toluca Lake, CA circa 1985. Created on the Lightspeed Design System.

I know what you’re thinking.

“Whoa, that is some rough Photoshop work.”

This piece of advertising ephemera was created using the LightSpeed Design System. Take a closer look. (Look past my mullett and Buggles tortise-shell glasses.) Obviously Photoshopped, right? Negatory. This was a couple of years before the Knoll brothers created Barney Scan XP. Hell, this was before nearly any design studio had a computer! Well to be honest there were computers out there: The Amiga, The Commodore 64, The AppleIIc. But those contained spreadsheets, text based or 16bit games, a calculator and a clock. Design and production for 4-color process output? Nope.

A bit of background

In 1985, here is what you would find in the design studio where I worked:
Letraset transfer letter sheets overflowing from drawers and desktops, always running out of vowels; X-Acto knives, rubber cement, hot wax, Spray-Mount, Bestine, Rapidograph pens constantly clogging, Rubylith and Amberlith in yard long black tubes, burnishers, white paper tape, white gouache and paintbrushes; Bristol board and tracing paper; a Lucigraph and a Typositor were also located somewhere in the studio, shrouded from the light, probably close to the camera room with its blackout-tube door frames; Vacuum frames; The stat camera was a key component and a competent typesetter was essential; Pasche airbrushes and Dr. Ph. Martins fabulous inks; tons of toxic chemicals in the darkroom. It was an involved convoluted multi-step process. I loved it.

But then I visited a computer convention with my boss and we saw the LightSpeed Design System. $160,000 worth of monitors, cameras, digital pad, stylus and film recorder. It was really something new and I wanted to play with it. Luckily for me, the boss was just as smitten with it as was I and being an agressive and obsessive early-adopter, he signed a lease on the show floor.

The LightSpeed Design System consisted of:
1. A Sun unix based computer
2. A Sony video camera mounted to a glass-topped backlit
imaging table with four lamps
3. A digitizing surface with stylus
4. One 17" CRT color monitor
5. One 15" monochrome monitor
6. Propietary “output device/film recorder”
7. One year of on-site technical training/support

Yeah, this was gonna change everything. A new paradigm. And I was at the forefront. Man, I was an All-Star.

We started a new division of the studio called ArtSmart. We created a promotional postcard series with various local artists. I only remember one specific artist (other than myself) that agreed to participate. Dave Willardson, who was and still is an all time favorite of mine. I certainly was nowhere in the same league as any of the other artists, but I was the master of the LightSpeed! We began promoting quick turnaround and offering multiple comp designs in less than half the time using standard techniques. We brought in clients to wow them with the latest graphic design technology. And it was a wow technology.

The postcard at the top of the page is the result of hours of playing & designing with the system. The image consists of a shot of me, captured using the included video camera mounted on a tripod, stock photo of the Sphinx, a shot of hubcap and a line art drawing of the earth. I got those other images into the system by using the imaging table and video camera. Then it was time to manipulate, scale, merge, blur, overlay and color adjust the various images. The system also had an extensive library of typefaces, almost 40 of them! It was exciting and I was having the time of my creative life. But nothing prepared us for the final output. The designs looked great on the onboard 17" color monitor but…

The problem was the final output. This was in the days when everything was print based; no home computers, no smartphones, no Internet and no laser printers. Print was how you reached people. Oh Lightspeed, you had such potential!

The first problem was using a video camera to input images into the system. Just let that process. Images were captured by a video camera!
Next problem was the proprietary “output device”. This was complicated, let me try and explain.

To capture your masterpiece for final output, you rendered your image in the system and then sent it to the output device. This was a black box approximately 12" square with a mount on the front that you would attach your SLR camera to, sans lens. One would need to manually trigger the camera with a shutter release and depending on the type of film used, you would get a 35mm negative or a slide. Our studio was also a photo lab, so we would just develop and print the images ourselves.

I believe crestfallen would be the appropriate word to describe our reaction when we viewed our first prints. Why was everything so damn fuzzy? Everything looked great on the color monitor, but what were we doing wrong? It couldn’t be the $160,000 machine! It had to be something we were messing up.

Being a full service photo lab, we had options. We used 35mm slides, 35mm negative, Kodachrome and Cibachrome. We threw everything in our arsenal at it with the same results. We had an 8x10 camera back, fuzzy. An 8x10 Polaroid back, different kind of fuzzy. Still I dreamed on; we can fix this.

At this point, we decided to void the warranty and break open the proprietary “output device”. This was not something we entered into lightly.
There was no telling what kind of complicated sorcery was inside the box. Imagine ordering a time machine online and when you open the box, it contains this.

Yeah, we were had. Big time.

Here is a rough approximation of what was inside that box.

Inside the mysterious twelve inch square black box was a 3" Black and White TV and a miniscule three color Christmas tree wheel thingy. So all that hard work was relegated to this for final output. And we wondered why our images were fuzzy. I recall having multiple interested parties tell us thanks but no thanks when we delivered the images.

Somehow, we did manage to produce one project to completion.

A pleasant young vocalist by the name of Bryan Duncan (riding on his uncanny resemblance to Michael J. Fox) released Whistlin’ In The Dark with this as its cover. Nice, yes? So eighties.

Thanks to the art director of Synchronicity for the color bars.

Eventually, ArtSmart was abandoned, the LightSpeed Design System was either returned or repossessed and I moved on to a new position at Cannon Films.

Film critic Roger Ebert said of Cannon Films in 1987:

“…no other production organization in the world today — certainly not any of the seven Hollywood ‘majors’ — has taken more chances with serious, marginal films than Cannon.”

But that is another story.