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Letterpress brings the digits back into the digital

By James Boyd-Brent

 

James Boyd-BrentThe graphic design program has just opened a letterpress and polymer plate studio--acquired recently from publisher Greg Britton--next door to the Surface Design Studio in McNeal Hall. We have 50 cases of lead type (but we're looking for more!) and a Vandercook SP-15 cylinder press, a Vandercook proofing press, and an Ostrander Seymour iron hand press, circa 1896.

 

The reintroduction of this predigital design technology into our curriculum reflects our program's belief in the continuing value of the handmade in the design process. Contemporary design practice and design thinking continues to draw on the influence of the endlessly engaging possibility and surprise of the handmade in our lives.

Polymer plate printing--digital text or image files are made into plates that can be hand printed like letterpress--allows design students to work back and forth between digital and nondigital design. In letterpress printing, all the senses participate in the design process: the sight of the letterforms, the hand cranking of the press, the texture of the paper, the hissing sound of the ink on the rollers, even the smell of the ink. Students can experience the direct feel of how the point size of their lead type literally affects the gravity of their typographic design.

 

Far from being anachronistic, nondigital design processes are central in the world of digital design. Letterpress brings the digits back into the digital.

 

James Boyd-Brent is an associate professor of graphic design.