Long Live the Composing Stick!
This semester, I’m taking a letterpress class as a way to alleviate the pressures of my thesis—and to get away from the computer. The class is six hours every Friday, and it is definitely a different way of thinking. Sitting in front of the computer and creating something typographic is one thing, but composing it for letterpress is coming at it from a whole different direction.
In my class, we are not using plates. We are truly typesetting everything, using the composing stick, the ems, ens, the spacing material, the furniture, the brasses, and the coppers. It is an art, and I can often feel my brain stretching and grumbling in confusion and excitement.
For our first assignment, we were paired up and each given a letter, which we create out of type and various ornaments. All eight of us in the class are new to this, and now that we are about five weeks in, we’re just now getting to press on our letters. Figuring the math of how to make sure type meets up where it’s supposed to, getting the right sized lead, and creating flush edges are just a few of the issues we’ve been dealing with.
The job of the type compositor has largely been swallowed by the computer (and the designer). Typesetters are true craftsmen, and I must admit I have a new appreciation (and knowledge) of what typesetting means, as well as the amount of time and patience it takes.
I realize from engaging with letterpress and typesetting how wonderful digital technology is, and how much easier it makes life. Yet at the same time, I am coming to realize the history to be found in each piece of wood or metal type. The dings and nicks and cracks and quirks that begin to tell their own story—something digital technology can’t do. As David Jury writes in Letterpress: The Allure of the Handmade:
“While the process itself offers intervention, letterpress offers fewer typographical options in the detailed composition of type than the computer, if the designer were to venture beyond the software default settings. The occasional ill-fitting character pairs (typically Wa, Va, and Ta) are so ubiquitously part of the look of letterpress that today, instead of being considered wrong, they are commonly described as quirky, interesting, and friendly! Clearly, this is, in part, nostalgia. However, such a deeply embedded response can undoubtedly be a powerful ally to the typographer, advertiser, graphic designer, and private press.”
There’s still lots we can learn from letterpress, and lots of ways we can push back on it to propel design forward. It just takes a little more time and patience.