Graphic designers have been bending over backwards for years, pulling all the stops in order to turn a message into communication. We’ve spent hours finding the right typeface, fussed with tiny increments in size, introduced refinements in OpenType fonts containing hundreds of ligatures, alternate characters and content-sensitive positions.
And now ”letterpress” is back. Suddenly we’re happy to take a lowercase l and use it for a figure 1 because that particular typeface doesn’t have enough figures? WTF? Wood type sucks when it comes to kerning because you would have to cut away bits of the letter itself in order to achieve “perfect“ spacing. There are no half sizes, let alone fine increments in letterspacing, unless you want to spend hours inserting slivers of brass or thin paper to refine a line of type. The material defines not only how you work but also what the result will look like. If you only have a large wood type font in one size, you run out of certain characters very quickly. So you’ll pick a smaller size which will have more of each character or you’ll choose another typeface altogether. If that doesn’t help, you’ll change the message.
The typographic system of letters and spaces – horizontal and vertical ones – has been refined since Gutenberg first invented printing with movable type almost 600 years ago. The whole system is one giant grid systems that can be divided and multiplied in myriad ways. Pages will always look good as long as you work within the constraints, time being one of them. If you spend too much time tweaking the system, things will look mannered and inappropriate. Modesty is a virtue when working with well-defined but finite elements and tools.
You need to know what quads are, spaces, reglet, furniture. You learn to use a composing stick, chases, cases, hacksaws, pincers, awls, spanners, screwdrivers and heavy lifting equipment. You’ll be working with dirty rags and virgin white paper, inks, grease, machine oil and petroleum. And you’ll find out that the work isn’t done until all those materials are back in their proper places and that cleaning up can take almost as long as setting up without being any fun. Everything you touch is either very heavy or very delicate. Or both.
You’ll never have the right size type, never enough characters and you’ll always run out of the right size paper just a few sheets from the final print. At the weekend. Mistakes will manifest themselves in loss of materials and too much time spent in the shop. But there is nothing like setting up a forme (yes, with a silent e at the end) from bits of lead, steel, aluminium, brass and wood – a very messy sight, as these materials have all been around and aged differently – and then running a clean white sheet of paper through the press and over that colourful forme. Suddenly and quite magically, there is a message: words on paper, exactly where you wanted them.
You know what it took to compose the words into the forme, with all those bits of metal in between. (No return key here and no tabs either; the white space isn’t.) The dear reader doesn’t know, nor needs to. But she senses that this message is the result of a physical process, made with things that have been touched by many hands. The process communicates itself. It doesn’t get in the way of the message, it enhances it.
Photos: Norman Posselt