Design as Slow-Motion Train Wreck

I work with type—the kind of type actually cast in metal or carved from wood.

My design process involves taking a quick sketch or mental picture down to my press room, where I'll open drawers and cases, set type in a composition stick, move things around on the bed of the press and pull proof after proof. After a while, if I'm lucky, I start to get somewhere—usually after I've thrown out the sketch, the mental picture and several rounds of type.


In the many years that I've been involved, one way or another, in letterpress, I've had many conversations with designers about working with wood and metal type. Some of them start to take on a hallowed, reverential tone. Often one of us (not me) will get a faraway look in their eyes, and words like “wonderful,” “craft,” “art” and “beauty” start coming up.

I try not to give into the urge to snort a sardonic laugh. At this point in the conversation, I, like most letterpress people I know, will quickly trot out my excess equipment and ugly broken-down type, and try to make a quick sale before the mood fades—we all recognize the signs of someone who is teetering on the edge and who only needs a nudge to fall deeply into the dream of letterpress. It's not every day you get a chance to unload all those cases of Park Avenue and Ultra Bodoni.

And just as many other letterpress people I know, I have also happily cleared the dusty type and rusty presses out of the basements of many designers and experimentalists who have flirted with letterpress, only to come to the slow realization that it ain't all it's cracked up to be. Usually those people sit upstairs, slumped in a rocking chair, staring out the kitchen window with a distant expression, while a couple of sweaty, dirty, true believers haul the offending lead out of the bowels of their house.

I don't mean to say that letterpress isn't about art or craft or beauty—but those things can often come at the cost of many hours of almost soul-crushing disappointment and maddening frustration. Every successful letterpress piece I manage to pull off—every card or broadside or poster or letterhead or jam label—is almost always the end result of a few compromises, dead ends and workarounds. It's rare that my “vision” of a beautiful piece hasn't been ground under the heels of the many little failures along the way.


Often the “perfect” font is too big or too small, or won't fit in the measure, or is a figment of your imagination that you have been looking for, unsuccessfully, for years. On a computer, a couple of key strokes will take care of most problems like that. There aren't many designers these days who have to try to figure out ways to deal with the fact that the font they want to use doesn't have enough E's (that's where the expression “out of sorts” actually originated) or that a field mouse just had babies in the M quad compartment. Also, some early-19th-century display fonts were designed without figures and sometimes without punctuation. Many have been used so often (or pounded half to death, as I like to say) that the characters are worn, broken, gone or crushed to the extent that they are no longer type height and won't print. And of course, there's no way of knowing any of these things without actually setting the type first.

When I work on a piece, designing on the bed of the press as I go, a pile of failed attempts accumulates on the stone, lines of type that wouldn't work for one reason or another. I've learned to leave them there until after I'm done because I can make so many attempts that I'll sometimes forget which fonts I've already tried, and then reset the same line over and over in the same damned font. Maybe one part of my brain is hoping that this time it'll fit! Those who don't learn from their failures are doomed to reset them.

The letterpress person who hasn't found herself bent over a comp stick at 3:00 a.m. with tears streaming down her face just isn't trying hard enough.

I think that's one of the reasons why so many letterpress people have fallen for the false god of computer-generated photopolymer type—and although it saddens me, I can't really blame them. It takes a certain kind and depth of mania to put up with “real” type.


But having to work around the many failures has led to places I wouldn't otherwise have found. It forces you to try things and think in ways that you wouldn't have to if you could use any font you wanted in any size. The limits and frustrations and problems of trying to make the type work has sometimes led to beautiful, elegant solutions that I would never have found on my own. And I have rarely ended up with a piece that I didn't like more than my original concept.

The photopolymer crowd tends to write off us type fanatics as Luddites. While they opt for the clean, easy way out, we sweat and swear over wood and iron, going blind from fiddling with six-point thin spaces—our lead-stained fingers digging down into the crannies of old type cases, scrabbling through the dusty mouse turds to fish out the last comma, our breath smelling of type wash fumes and that spicy wood mold that infects ancient type cabinets, and our feet numb from long hours of standing on cold concrete basement and garage floors, only to run out of lowercase A's three words from the end of the paragraph. Yet we love every minute of it.