8 Ways Work Was Different in 1985

Richard Fanelli founded his firm, Fanelli McClain, in 1985. Here, he reflects on how dramatically the way we work has changed over the past 30 years. 

Just look at that adorable joystick. The Apple IIGS computer, made between 1986-1992. Image via the National Museum of American History's Flickr page.

Just look at that adorable joystick. The Apple IIGS computer, made between 1986-1992. Image via National Museum of American History.

I founded Fanelli McClain in early-’85. Since then, things have changed dramatically in the way we work and in the technology we use to get our work done. Here are eight now nearly comical changes that come to mind:

1. Fax machines seemed impossibly efficient

The Panasonic ‘UF 800’ fax machine, 1985. Image via Science Museum's Science & Society picture library.

The Panasonic ‘UF 800’ fax machine, 1985. Image via Science Museum‘s Science & Society picture library.

In 1985 we started to use the modern version of the fax machine. It allowed us to get information and graphics to our clients and vendors quickly without having to hire a courier to bike your envelope across town. Now fax machines are gathering cob webs in our offices but for some reason many forms today still ask for a fax number. As we all strive to go paperless, hopefully even legal documents won’t have to be faxed anymore.

2. Our computer had Steve Jobs’ signature engraved on the back

The Apple Macintosh (serial # 1) computer, from 1985. Image via National Museum of American History

The Apple Macintosh (serial #1) computer, from 1985. Image via National Museum of American History.

In 1985, many companies had some stand-alone PCs or Macs but few companies had networked computers and servers. Very few companies had e-mail and Al Gore had not yet invented the internet, so access to information came from books and libraries. Fanelli McClain’s first computer was one of the original Macs that came off of the Apple assembly line. It even had Steve Jobs’ engraved signature on the back. Boy, I wish I had held onto that historic piece of computer equipment. One of the first pieces of equipment that I bought was an IBM Selectric typewriter that had a feature that allowed you to quickly correct your documents. I thought that was great technology at the time.

3. Mavis Beacon taught us how to type

A 1987 version of "Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing!".

The 1987 edition.

I remember buying Mavis Beacon’s typing software to learn how to touch type in the mid-‘90s so that I could generate my own documents, rather than making multiple mark-ups and handing them to a secretary to produce. I wish my parents had forced me to take a touch typing class in high school. There are no longer secretaries in offices today, just administrative assistants, primarily due to how technology has changed the way we work. Maybe that is why there are so many typos in documents that you see since the secretaries aren’t there to proof documents anymore.

4. Emails didn’t pile up during lunch, pink slips did

The volume of correspondence and information we receive today via e-mail is mind-boggling compared with the dozen or so “While You Were Out” pink slips that you once received when you got back from lunch in the mid-‘80s. Today, we can sometimes spend hours processing useful and useless e-mails in the course of a day. This does not necessarily lead to increased productivity, but when offset by the speed of communication and the faster turnaround time for the production of deliverables, due to CAD and BIM technologies, we have become more productive in the long run. Also, expectations for the turn-around of deliverables are exponentially greater today than it was in 1985.

5. If you had to replace a broken ceiling tile, the new tile wouldn’t match the adjacent, yellowed ceiling tile

Sure, this was the '60s, but imagine what the ceilings at Sterling Cooper & Partners would have looked like by 1985. Image via this NYT article about Mad Men.

Sure, this was the ’60s, but imagine what the ceilings at Sterling Cooper & Partners would have looked like by 1985. Image via this NYT article about Mad Men.

It’s amazing that we are all still alive after the way we treated our lungs back in the mid ‘80s. People smoked in offices without giving it a second thought. You were lucky to have a smoke extract fan in your conference room. Ceiling tiles were a dingy shade of yellow from the cigarette smoke. If you had to replace a broken ceiling tile, the new tile wouldn’t match the adjacent, yellowed ceiling tile.

6. CAD what?

Design firms used diazo blueline printing machines, which gave off huge amounts of ammonia fumes. CAD was just becoming available in 1985, and it didn’t catch on in popularity until 1988. In the mean time, they came out with fume absorption boxes, but you still smelled the ammonia. The people who worked in the blueline print shops were exposed to the ammonia fumes all day long and walked around like zombies due to the health issues caused by these unhealthy fumes.

7. VOCs gave us migraines

Synthetic carpet was not off-gassed before it was shipped to the job site. It was installed using highly toxic adhesives with VOCs (volatile organic compounds). When we moved into our newly renovated office space in Arlington in 1988, I remember that everyone was getting migraine headaches due to the VOCs for at least two weeks.

8. We still specified vinyl asbestos tile and lead paint

We were still specifying vinyl asbestos tile (VAT) and lead paint back in 1985. We didn’t realize that we would have to abate this stuff in the future while wearing sealed white suites and respirators. What were we thinking! I guess that was right in line with our parents allowing us to play with little balls of mercury from broken thermometers back in the ’60s without a thought to the health hazards.

Things have certainly improved over the past 30 years when it comes to health and safety. Five people today can do the work of ten people in 1985 (and what happened to those other five people?). When I hear people say that all the major advances in technology have already been invented, I have to laugh. New technologies that increase productivity, reduce costs, and improve quality will continue to evolve. In another 30 years, we will look back at 2015 and wonder how we ever lived without the technologies and methods of 2045.

Do you have a tale of old ways of working to share for our “Nostalgia” column? We want to hear it! Send ideas to editor@workdesign.com

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