Hovering Around a Letterpress, for the Sheer Joy of It

More often than not, design involves some form of technology. Even within the span of time that I’ve been working in the field, the changes have been dramatic. I can remember, for example, the era of zip disks—now relatively extinct—as well as the rarity of a Macintosh computer with a color monitor. By contrast I now work on a laptop that weighs three pounds and has no disk/CD/DVD drive of any kind, a la cloud computing.

Along the road of technological advancement I’ve learned to adapt, adjusting my workflow or learning new software, orienting myself to new (or updated) program interfaces. It’s true that I’m often suspicious of the newest high-tech fads—there was a time I found the very idea of an iPhone to be presumptuous—however, I usually find myself changing out of necessity, efficiency or convenience.

Perhaps this is also why I still gravitate towards some of the more traditional forms of art and design. Nothing we do happens in a vacuum, after all; we revere the word “innovative” yet our ideas and work are inevitably rooted in the ideas and work of people who came before us. And because I am embedded in a culture that is constantly morphing and moving, there are times when stepping outside of the onslaught of digital clutter is a chance to return to basics with no command–Z to undo evidence of mistakes.

Though certainly “innovative” for its time, letterpress printing has become rare. How many of us can imagine setting an entire book like the Gutenberg Bible, let alone a few lines of text, letter by individual letter? I like to believe that there will always be people out there continuing these kinds of practices but in a world that favors fast and new, the labor-intensive method of printing on a press is not necessarily appreciated by the average person. Rather than leaving it up to others to worry about, however, I find myself among those who actively own the responsibility of carrying on traditions connected to the work we do as designers.

Last weekend I made a trip out to my alma mater in Ohio for a day of letterpress printing with good friends and fellow Kent State MFA graduates Miranda Hall and Andy Schwanbeck. In addition to teaching, Miranda and Andy have their own letterpress business, Big Press Little Press. The opportunity to use the facilities at Kent, however, was too good for any of us to pass up. Talk about kids in a candy store! The time passed quickly, though I think it’s fair to say that it was a much-needed retreat for the three of us as we sifted through drawer after drawer of type, experimented with colors and paper, printed for the sheer joy of the process.

As much as I value the control I have over details when I’m working on my computer, setting type by hand is a lesson in trial and error, of relinquishing perfection in favor of a technique that can yield unpredictable results. What better way for me to knock myself off of my own sanctimonious, typographic high horse than to try and create compositions backwards, my design instincts off-kilter as I do my best to imagine how the printed piece might look? Humbling, frustrating, glorious and gratifying—working with type in this way pays homage to the history of design and the level of skill and craft required by typographers and printers alike. I’m glad to be part of a community of designers that places value on what has come before in addition to what is yet to be.