Ann Lemon, a former student and now Assistant Professor at Kutztown University, asked Jill and I to do 4 talks (consecutive Mondays and Wednesdays) to groups of about 25 of her students about letterpress, showing some of our work, and giving some advice about developing a creative process.The students, typically sophomore level, were enrolled in Ann’s “History of Graphic Design” course and many were taking beginning typography which fit nicely into the discussion with our work.

We thought we would write about the work we showed that might help them remember what they saw and thought we would start with an image from our website of some of the stuff that makes up the letterpress process.

1. copperplate of a tailpiece: a triangular graphic element typically used at the end of the last column of a story or book. We had this one made after scanning one in the type collection of a friend.

2. advertising cut: a zinc cut of a 24-bottle case of Coca-Cola bought on eBay.

3. leading: thin pieces of soft metal used as line spacing. Shown is 18 pica (6 picas = 1 inch) x 18, 12, 6, and 2 points (72 points = 1 inch).

4. wood type: Gill Sans (W), Kabel with circumflex (O), Cheltenham Outline (O), and multi-color chromatype (D). WOO came from eBay and the D was part of a 60 job case purchase from a collector.

5. reglet: thin wood spacing. Shown here is 20 pica x 12 and 6 points.

6. steel furniture: spacing typically used to fill in larger areas than leading or reglet. Shown is 20 pica x 5 and 2 pica.

7. ampersand in the middle is 96 point Caslon Italic metal foundry type (our largest metal type). We also have 72 and 84 point purchased from a letterpress friend.

8. copperplate of our Lead Graffiti logo started by scanning an 1885 British banknote and fooling around in Illustrator for a month.

9. composing stick with metal type: the composing stick is used to arrange type and spacing in a very solid rectangular shape that can be locked up for printing. Garamond 72 pt (M), Melior Italic 60 pt (E), Neuland 60 pt (T), Rubens 60 pt (A), and Outline 60 pt (L). Garamond was bought as part of a full run of roman and italic 14 - 72 point weighing approximately 1,700 pounds, Melior bought from a letterpress friend, Neuland through the LetPress listserv, Outline on eBay, and Rubens from the estate of a collector.

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We decided to base each of our talks on one of 4 topics that we’ve found to be bottlenecks to creative thinking, especially to younger design students. Each talk will include Lead Graffiti 4 projects (different for each group) and will end with a student “Projet” from the classes of Porter Garnett, director of the Laboratory Press at Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie-Mellon University.

• Know the answer before you hear the question and then reword the question.
• Rage against the default in as many times and ways as you can.
• Fight any urge to take the easy way.
• If there is a rule, there is usually a smart way to break it.

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Letterpress example #1: Roland Hoover “Lifetime Achievement Award” certificates

Roland is a real letterpress hero of ours. The chance to do something important FOR him was a real honor.

A few years ago we had bought a big run of Garamond metal type from him. The type was in galleys (metal trays) and as we put them away in our studio we were printing each galley of type as documentation. As we were doing this we took 1 sheet and overprinted each of the galleys onto the sheet (about 8 layers).

We decided to use the overprint as a thank you to Roland which you can see below. We often love disturbing the readability of type and this was a good outcome.

In 2010 the Chesapeake Chapter of the American Printing History Association wanted to honor Roland with a Lifetime Achievement Award. We jumped on the opportunity to do the certificate for the occasion and thought we would utilize the same overprinting using the Roland’s Garamond.

The border of the certificate reads “The Chesapeake Chapter | of the American Printing | History Association’s Life | time Achievement Award”. It took a while to get the type spaced evenly. We printed the border by rotating the locked-up type 90° and printing it 4 times. The first three runs are dark grey with the last run being in solid black to achieve a semblance of readability. The outside type is Roland’s Garamond. His name was in Neuland.

A year or so later a former student, Vince Straszewsk, emailed me with a request to help with a certificate for a graphic designer friend that had passed away. A group was forming an award in his name. The only rule was that the certificate needed to include the words “Explore every possibility” which was his design mantra.

We thought the border idea deserved another shot. Just this time we would use red, yellow, and blue color, with the required text on each side. The border type is Neuland and the inside is Garamond Italic.

Takeaway: Helmut Krone, one of my favorite couple of historically important art directors, once said to me, “You need to know the answer before you hear the question. Then all you have to do is reword the question to fit your answer.” I use to talk to my students about having ideas “on the shelf.” You constantly look for them. What could you do with this? How might this be applied? You get a picture in your head and then you put it on the shelf, to call down later when you need a solution. Doing the pieces that have little obvious value, because you can do so many of them and because they don’t carry much pressure, can offer important leaps in creativity in some future project.

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Letterpress example #2: Boxcards - These are notecards that we make every so often where we print on the actual packaged goods boxes that much of our food, beer, and softdrinks come in. We had always liked printing on cheap chip board, as we liked the industrial quality of it.

Printing ink is quite transparent except for the metallic ones. We got the idea of not printing the type, but printing everything but the type.

Once we had a booth at the National Stationery Show in NYC and a group from Boxcar (where we have our photopolymer plates made) stopped by the booth. We had about 30 of these cards hanging in the back of the booth. With the large type and the fact that they all have a similar visual quality, they recognized that these cards had been printed from their plates, but you could see that they just couldn’t figure out where all of the color was coming from. The plates only print the background of the type. We just let the color show through from whatever is on the card stock to fill the type.

Additionally, we showed the “Truth Beauty Now” business cards which we printed on the same kind of stock.

Takeaway: You can often take something you know and just turn it backwards or inside out. Look around you for problems to solve. No money, then don’t spend any. Think about what bothers you. We ended up selling around 3,000 of these cards to shops and online.

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Letterpress example #3: TdLG / Breakaway Peloton Rubberbands

You can get the long story about this poster by clicking here.

During our Tour de Lead Graffiti project we would often describe the relationship between the peloton (the main mass of cyclists) and the breakaway as having a rubberband tied between them. We decided we would illustrate that point by printing with rubberbands.

We had nails driven in strategic places to overlap the type, stretched some wide rubberbands across the sheet, and printed them. Then we moved the rubberbands to different nails and printed them in a second color. There is extra packing under the rubberbands to keep the nailheads from printing.

Takeaway: Listen to yourself. A lot of time you have something good to say, but you need to get past the fear of saying it.

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Letterpress example #4: “I found the one my heart loves”

The bride wanted to use the Song of Solomon verse that said, “I’ve found the one my heart loves.” In playing with the size of it eventually the line got large enough so the word “loves” was centered in the last panel. Everyone knows about a couple carving their initials in a tree like “JC+RN.” That gave us the idea to simpy say Hannah loves Jeremy on that final panel instead of the standard invitation design that says, “The parents of…” It was a nice way to single out the bride and groom from the rest of the invitation and at the same time find a new way to design a wedding invitation.

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Letterpress example #5: Projet

This is a student project from the Laboratory Press at Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1927. We think typographically it is about as nice as anything we’ve ever seen. And it is done with handset metal type. This would still be really hard on a computer if you knew were you were going. When working with handset metal type you would have to be constantly retrying various ways to get lines to come out evenly. Getting the sloping bottom of the text is killer hard.

Notice the way the top 2 lines fill the width of the page. And then the next two lines. The work on the tailpiece at the bottom is very well constructed with the ever-narrowing measure. Simply a stunning piece of handset metal type.

Then we showed James Victore afternoon diversion poster, “Any technology-aided shortcut robs you of the work.” We really believe this and it would often be nice for schools to not provide student designers with so much technical support.

James Victore said that really well with, “Any technology-aided shortcut robs you of the work.”

James does a wonderful set of podcasts that you can get to here. Google him as there is a lot of good advice he gives.

We gave away the TdLg and Victore poster to the two students who asked the most interesting questions during the Q & A after the session. A good group with a reasonable number of questions which was nice.