Creative Excursion #10: Letterpress

An evening of analogue typographic expression.

Written by Craig Berry
Designer & Writer

Grafische Werkplaats Amsterdam

Step away from the computer! No, actually please don’t, not yet anyway, this was just the title of the workshop we took part in at the Grafische Werkplaats Amsterdam (GWA) for the 10th VBAT Creative Excursion. For this workshop we delved into the world of letterpress printing: exploring typography using wooden and metal type, together with ink and paper and a whole lot of mess and fun.

We chose to do a letterpress workshop as it directly relates to our practice as creative graphic designers as on a daily basis we work with typography; either detailed and precise like an annual report or a financial form or more expressive and playful in logos and posters. Typography and fonts are crucial to what we do as the definition of graphic design is literally: “the combination of type and image for the purpose of communication”.

When we work with typography there is an almost infinite number of typefaces and fonts to choose from, every day type foundries, independent designers and everyday people are creating and releasing new fonts into the world for us to use. We also use typography on a computer where you can move characters around at ease, align words and edit and adapt letters to your heart’s content.

This is precisely why we chose to do this letterpress workshop. To explore a different method of working with typography. One that is not so easy. One where there are no undo, align or delete buttons. One where the typefaces and fonts you can use are limited meaning you need to be imaginative.

Letterpress, as a traditional analogue process, has become popular recently as it allows you to add value and tangibility to typographic work. People known for their letterpress work include the likes of Alan Kitching who uses a lot of colour, overlays and interesting angles as well as Anthony Burrill who creates simple and bold, perfectly aligned sentences on coloured stocks.

Alan Kitching & Anthony Burrill

The GWA in Amsterdam Oost has a large selection of both wood and metal type; generally wood type comes in large blocks which are very easy to work with. They move around and can be used to create expressive compositions. Metal type is a lot smaller and can be quite fiddly and difficult to work with and is usually used for setting large amounts of words like a page in a book.

Grafische Werkplaats Amsterdam

At the GWA we split into four groups and each thought of a word or short sentence/phrase/quote to work with, we were told that something short is best as it allows you to work with how it looks as opposed to what it says. Some words we chose to use include: “evolve”, “morph”, “go for it”, “yeah toch” and “ja precies”.

Grafische Werkplaats Amsterdam

In our small groups we gathered letters and began printing using the old and heavy letterpress machines, the group I was in got given the oldest and heaviest looking. The process of letterpress is quite simple, you place your wooden letter blocks (reversed) in the composition you want, lock them in place with magnets, ink up the wooden letter blocks and then using the machine roll a piece of paper over, transferring the ink onto the paper now reading the correct way.

Grafische Werkplaats Amsterdam

The nice part about this process and workshop was how happy accidents can happen such as overprinting: printing letters on top of another, colour blending: how colours blend together based on the strength of the ink and even how putting the paper in upside can create something unique and beautiful; something that would not happen on the computer.

Grafische Werkplaats Amsterdam

This is a very interesting short documentary about Alan Kitching and his passion for letterpress.

If you are interested in typographic expression, you might want to do this workshop, too. At GWA, you’ll be in the best hands for an evening of analogue fun.

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