Introducing Letterpress to the Digital World of Business Software

Most digital enterprises run team-building activities that often are not directly related to their core business, with the goal of freeing their employees from any work-related topic and let them focus on the team-building itself. Printing with letterpress – a very traditional creative technique – has to offer everything that is expected from a team-building event plus very unique additional benefits. It helps the team to keep a connection with the core activity of a design team and to understand the basics of (typo)graphic design.

When I joined the Design and Co-Innovation Center from SAP (DCC) I knew that, as designers within a large enterprise, my colleagues and I would do many hands-on activities but I doubted that one day I would be able to take my personal passion directly to the hands and the hearts of my colleagues: letterpress printing.

Let me take a step back and briefly tell you my story.

As a freshly–graduated communication designer of the Politecnico di Milano, one of the natural steps to take, with the aim to find a place in the visual design business, was to approach specialization classes and deepen skills and knowledge in specific sectors: that was how I decided to join a typography and letterpress class, to avoid being another visual designer selecting fonts from a dropdown-list with none, or very little, clue.

The 9pt Experience

It was 2007 when this choice led me to join other visual and communication designers, who had the same interest in typography and, within a couple of years, we co-founded one of the best known and appreciated letterpress studios in Italy, the Officina Tipografica Novepunti (9PT).

Since 2009, 9PT is a non-profit association based in Milan with the aim of recovering old machinery and typefaces in order to get them back working, rediscover a profession and try to educate the next designers’ generation, while collecting materials and experimenting.

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Over a period of five years, 9PT collected and saved a large collection of lead and wooden typefaces, and machineries from the last century: 9PT owns an Heidelberg Windmill, two fixed proof-presses, two more “portable” proof-presses and a pedal-press from the 19th century.

9PT regularly produces prints which get sold to promote the association and gather funds to keep it alive, to consent acquiring “new” materials and continue recovering machines. Most of the productions are limited series of posters about various topics, and sometimes the content comes from other associations or businesses that want to communicate their messages in an unique way.

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9PT hosted and still hosts dozens of letterpress workshops both inside its structure and within several italian universities and companies (Accademia di Brera, Freie Universität Bozen, Domus Academy and Future Brand amongst all).

Besides, 9PT is the ideator and promoter of the Letterpress Workers Summit, a one-week workshop that takes place yearly in Milan since 2012 and attracts printers and typo-lovers from all over the world (the last edition counted more than 30 printers!).

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Letterpress, design and enterprise software

This whole experience had a direct impact on my professional life. I was working for advertising, publishing and the web, I started to consider text and its expressive potential in another way: layouts for ads, logos, posters and web pages started to get typo-driven, while being keen on selecting just quality, reliable fonts in the digital field as well as in the letterpress studio.

Facing problems and issues due to the constraints of using old (and sometimes even broken!) machinery and materials fosters creativy while finding solutions and showed the way applied processes work. Something a nice, yet cold Indesign interface can’t really tell, since troubles are generally solved quickly while searching on Google.

The struggle for the result sometimes gets you sleepless and aiming for perfection teaches you not to give up: instead, it keeps you trying to tweak and fine tuning until the prints show you did it right. Most of the time the first layout on the monitor looks immediately pretty just because it’s clean and pixel-perfect. On the first print generally you can see just the half of the whole wooden letters printed and you’re just at the beginning.

Back to our days, after the first year within the Design and Co-Innovation Center from SAP I understood why this kind of experiences was important to our team and how they can enrich the team as an entity, the individuals as part of a group, and the company itself as a key-player in the change of design management and design-driven processes.

Our Letterpress-One-Day-Experience

In October 2014 I finally had the chance to take this experience of rough and genuine design work into our team. Close to Berlin, in the small town of Gransee, Marc Berger has a similar workshop to the one in Milan. He enabled us to use his machines and print there for one day.

After enjoying the on-site breakfast, when everyone wore their aprons and old (but warm!) clothes, we entered this stuck-in-time lovely workshop: it was necessary to get everyone up to speed with the basics of letterpress and hands-on typography.

We went through a quick introduction round and got to know all of the machines collected by the studio owner through the years and we were shown all of the fonts and glyphs or cliches we could have used in order to typeset our sentences.

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I could not believe the eyes of my colleagues were shining like mine seven years before, the first time I ever saw a Heidelberg windmill letterpress machine working. This great example of technical perfection, with the taste and the shape of the past century immediately broke the ice and threw our laptops back in their cases, feeling like cold unanimated pieces of technology.

Right after exploring the workshop we started seeking for letters among the trays of the wood type collection. Thanks to a couple of hints and corrections everyone was able to typeset sentences in the right sequence, in order to get them  printed correctly afterwards.

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Suddenly, there was no Indesign suggesting the line-height, auto-correcting words or cmd+z to go one step back. All of that was replaced by the cold lead letters, the warm wood ones and the small proof-presses where the ideas started to get a shape.

Once the type compositions were ready and set on top of the proof presses, we enjoyed preparing the ink and roll it over the letters. Even this apparently simple operation needs the right attention to obtain the best results. Here’s when people started to get their hands dirty and enjoyed the smell of the colors and the sight of gradients melting the different inks and creating effects. It is not a Photoshop palette, it is just there: below your hands, and again there’s no cmd+z to take you one step back.

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After that it was enough to put the paper on top of the inked composition, roll the press on top of it and wait for the magic to happen.

Printing with letterpress can be challenging, especially with wood type that get easily torn by intensive usage: should that happen some letters can get a reduced height appearing to be weak on the prints. Fine tuning is a delicate and precise procedure that will challenge the most impatient, native digital colleagues.

Once everything works, repeating the operation to make more copies is going to be helpful in fixing the procedure in people’s memory.

The Value of Letterpress for a Design Team inside of a Digital Company

On the human side

Observing my colleagues going through the typesetting by putting the letters one after the other and creating a word out of some metal or wood pieces, was like observing a child switching from stuffed animals to lego for the first time. But this time the four groups had the responsibility of printing some posters to give our Berlin office a more personal look.

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Handling materials, colors, paper and discussing about forms, shapes, texts and anything else was like giving life and a physical counterpart to the everyday situations, when we mostly talk, compare, share and discuss about processes, virtual UIs and all those soft elements that deal with the experience of softwares.

We often talk and share views about the representation and communication of our design process and everything about communicating ourselves to the outer world: this time we had to experience a design process ourselves.

On the creative side

Reviewing, fine tuning, typesetting, correcting, changing letters, getting them on the very same level (to allow a perfect print) were all phases that we went through and that clearly made us feel and understand the importance in the details: letterpress printing is a process and each phase needs its time and accuracy to reach excellence and perfection. The same is valid for design itself.

This was the key-learning for most of the participants who never did something like this before: it was not just creating something with their own hands, but understanding a process, its rules, the necessary steps to reach perfection, and the importance of communication and collaboration within a two people team.

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The same key-learning needs to be extended to project managers and people managers in order to experience an applied design process and better understand the work of designers while enjoying a one-day offsite event doing something all together. Maybe this will lead them to produce better Powerpoint files as well!

On the team side

Having the common goal of providing some new posters for our grey office, helped us in finding the topics and improved of course our working environment. Instead of having some standard corporate print or even more standard-famous-masterpiece hanging on the walls, we now have a set of 7 prints that decorate our room. The cool thing is:we printed them and anyone knows how that print was created.

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Nevertheless, the ones who never did this before started to understand the value of the margins, letter spacing the line height and all of those characteristics that make a text a well typesetted text. There was typesetting before MSWord and fortunately there are digital tools that allow to get close to the accuracy and class of hand-typesetted text.

Summary

Letterpress nowadays is a passion more than a professional activity. Nevertheless some people on the globe still keep practicing and experimenting offering this traditional and dismissed technology a second life. These experiences are not exclusively addressed to designers or visual designers, rather they are a door opener for activating team-building sessions with clever and stimulating content.

Such experiences let participants experience technical constraints that instead of being a problem, foster creativity and lead to unexpected great results; all of us had such an experience. Most of my colleagues asked me to get them back there as soon as possible.

Letterpress printing activities can connect designers and non-designers within large companies and make them create together unique prints which are a great output both on the soft and the hard side: while work relationships and individual skills are improved, handcrafted letterpress prints are produced and remain as a collective production: something that belongs to the shared history of the team and that was an enjoyable experience.

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(Pictures By Mauro Rego SAP DCC)

 



How to make a Letterpress Hands-on Experience real
 

  1. Find a letterpress studio
  2. Define the scope of the workshop

  3. Convince your colleagues and manager
  4. 
Set an agenda

  5. Brief participants
  6. 
Define the sentences to be printed

  7. Make it real

 

1. Find a letterpress studio

Organizing a one-day-letterpress-workshop without owning the space and the materials is quite a challenge. During the last edition of the Letterpress Workers Summit I got in touch with several printers and typographers from all over the world, among others there was also Marc Berger, owner of Edition Schwarzdruck.

Marc was happy to help and offered his studio and all of his equipment to enable us experimenting and realize our prints. Nevertheless Marc shared his knowledge and support to allow each workgroup reach great results.

Marc Berger is a book and graphic designer based in Gransee, one hour away from Berlin, who used to work as a typesetter and printer before and after the Wall fell. He also worked  in Italy in Veneto, where he printed artist books with Giovanni Mardersteig. Marc knows the techniques, has the skills and loves to print and experiment while sharing his great and unique collections of machinery and typefaces. Inside Marc’s workshop there’s probably one of Germany’s largest selection of wood typefaces, organized and collected to allow anyone to experiment and feel the unique experience of the letterpress. Beside that Marc owns two large format machines, one Heidelberg windmill, two fixed proof-presses and three “portable” ones.

2. Define scope of the workshop

Based on the budget and the location you should take care of making an exact estimation of how many people will fit the space and the machines available. A good ratio is two people per machine, to allow creative discussion, technical support and give the chance for everybody to actively do something. Another important thing is to define what kind of artifact will be printed and this of course depends on the duration. For a one-day workshop posters are always the good choice.

3. Convince your colleagues and manager

This is probably the easiest part of the whole process. Showing samples of experimental prints and pictures of previous experiences will allow a direct communication and quickly evoke the desire of getting back in touch with this old but lovely materials. Of course for getting it approved by your managers it would be good to come up with a rough but bold plan with a clear input (budget) and output (outcomes). Another fundamental aspect is to raise interest and ensure that your colleagues really want to do it (but I am sure this will not be hard at all).

4. Set an agenda

It could sound obvious but it is not: setting an agenda for such an event is fundamental. Most printers around will tell you: you know when you get in (the studio) but you’ll never know when you get out. That is why it is strictly recommended to begin early in the morning and to enjoy the whole day among letters, inks, paper, and machines. The more detailed the agenda, the better participants will understand the process they will go through. 

5. Brief participants

Brief participants and show them in advance the tools, machines, technique etc. Don’t worry, you will not ruin their surprise, you will instead raise their interest while avoiding to waste time on site. Another important discussion is about the end-results and a good tip would be to define already a final paper format. TIP: Keep things cheap, think in advance about nice frames you can buy for a good price. I chose some Ikea 30×40 cm (7€ / piece) that allowed us to define in advance the paper format and to frame our masterpieces with a real tiny budget after!

6. Define the sentences to be printed

You do not want to get into the letterpress studio without any topics or ideas. The focus of the workshop is not much about printing clever or nice sentences (which are always welcome), but more about experiencing the expressive possibilities that letterpress offers. Time spent “thinking with machinery” is wasted, so have those sentences ready.

7. Make it real


During the workshop have fun, take  part actively to the experience and get your hands dirty, so that the others will do the same. Lead by example, facilitate and guide the most inexperts and try to be sure to have a precise number of copies as a target for any group. Remember that anyone should receive a copy of any poster printed (or whatever artifact you decided for). For 8 participants, a good number of prints is twenty per subject. It means that you’ll have a copy per participant, one for the team space, one for the printer that hosted you and ten extra that you can address to your manager to say thank you or keep for internal networking and make presents out of them.

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  • Moritz Gekeler   3 years ago

    I have to say, it was an awesome experience and I can recommend anyone to go for a similar experience when thinking about a team event. Especially for non-designers it teaches you a lot about typography and layout in a fun way.

  • Gloria Costa   3 years ago

    Really nice experience, I wish we can do it in 2015 in Heidelberg! Thanks Alessandro for sharing this great story!