Letterpress Love

For college students, summer is a very beautiful thing. It provides freedom and an opportunity for a change of pace. It can offer a new adventure and a change of scenery to those who need it. It seems as though the possibilities of how those three blissful months could be spent are endless. Last summer, I could have studied abroad in Italy. Or perhaps interned at Pentagram in New York City. Maybe I could have put my three years of walking four miles to class everyday while carrying a 3 by 2 foot portfolio and 20 lbs. tool box and 25 lbs. backpack training to good use and climbed Mount Everest. I could have done anything. But I chose to stay in the loveliest village on the plains, my hometown of Auburn, to take a letterpress class at Auburn University. And I’m so glad I did. Here are some things I learned.

I gained a deeper understanding of how grids function within graphic design.

We talk the grid. We think the grid. We love the grid. Sometimes we hate the grid. But we all use the grid. No other practice of graphic design gives the designer an appreciation for the function of the grid like letterpress does. Letterpress consists of taking blocks of moveable type and locking them together into rows and columns in the print bed. Ink is applied to the type and the paper is pressed against the letters to create a print. The letters have to lock together just right for this process to work. There is a kind of harmony that is achieved when all the blocks of type come together just right. Learning to find that harmony has helped me in other forms of design, especially poster design and publication design. While designing on the computer, although there are no physical blocks that dictate where this element or that element will go, the principal of there being a reason for everything to be in the exact place it is in remains the same.

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I learned how to think about design forwards, backwards, and forwards again.

When creating a design that will be letterpressed, the design has to be thought through in every directional flipping possible. First I created a design as I normally would. But then I would have to mentally and physically flip that design in a different direction to accommodate the process of letterpress. And then I would think about my design forwards again to ensure that the outcome is correct. It is a dizzying process that taught me how to take apart a piece of design and put it back together again.

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I further learned the art of perseverance.

Like any practice, design often involves a long process of problem solving again and again until the solution is reached. I believe this value was instilled in me further during my letterpress class. In addition to the normal problem solving that takes place with any design, I had to learn how to solve that problem using oil based ink and wooden blocks. I then had to overcome the occasional inexcusable quirks of working with ancient machinery. The project that truly taught me the perseverance I was capable of was my wedding invitations. I learned that I could print 250 two color wedding invitations.  Twice. And 250 RSVP cards. And 250 thank you cards. Amounting to a total of one thousand five hundred press runs. I now believe that anything is possible.

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I learned that working with your hands is therapeutic.

Coming out of one of the craziest spring semesters of my life, my friends and family didn’t understand why I wanted to jump back into summer school. But there was another class I wanted to get out of the way and letterpress was only offered in the summer. And I’m so glad I took it. The weekends in the letterpress studio became a soothing getaway for me. I could come into the quiet room, play favorite music, and get lost in the project I was working on. I could take a break from the computer driven design world I was living in and not even look at a screen for hours on end. I could simply work with my hands and listen to the rhythm of the machine as I ran the paper through it. I could not stress about cleanliness and perfection. It was okay to make a little bit of a mess with ink. And the imperfections that came from the prints as they came off the press were beautiful.

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