The creative spark needed to create a design can be elusive: there’s a myriad of ways that you can start those juices flowing.

In terms of the printed word, Acejet 170s blog showcases wonderful examples of design: crucially covering a long timeline. Have a look at this great and often-updated site. There’s sure to be something to kick off your creative streak.

Looking at what’s produced by modern letterpress, you can use the photo-sharing sites to search for letterpress. The images can often link to form a chain of useful images that might not be immediatley letterpress related. I’d start with the Flickr letterpress tags.

Finally the library at St Brides houses a wonderful collection of information related to the printed word. Plan a visit and make sure to set aside plenty of time!

Notes on Design

This time, rather than simply dole out mere instruction, I’m asking you to embark on a continuing process of self education which requires you to observe, think and analyse.

All design — architecture, engineering, town planning, or that of the printed page — is fundamentally the division of space in response to intelligent analysis of identified problems in order to achieve defined aims and objectives.

Take an empty space such as a sheet of paper, Make a mark on it, whether by drawing a pencil across it or dropping a contrasting strip of something on it … and the previously demure rectangle will take on new character-you have changed its visual dynamic.

Sectioning in a certain proportion, with a particular quality of mark may create a sense of calm, but another division with a different mark might imply pent up energy.

We live in a culture dominated by still and moving pictures which shape our lives by triggering emotive responses; ask yourself why and how they do this. Take time to analyse the composition of those you see in books, magazines and newspapers, especially the advertisements which combine visual and verbal (typographic) messages. Question the spatial organisation; analyse it and, when you understand it, make matchbox size diagrams, as you might make written notes on a text.

Some wit — an American academic, perhaps — defined literature as the wilful messing up of the alphabet. By using type to appropriately divide our page, we can visually enhance whatever message the ‘messed up’ letters declaim. This ability will result from practical experiment and being constantly prepared to ask “what if?”-and concentrated analysis of the resultant trial sheets. Just the same as analysing the composition of pictures and ads but objective analysis of your own work is much harder!

For explorative exercises the simpler your equipment the better-a ream of cheap paper, some ink, a palette knife, a hand-roller and, if possible, a press with a horizontal bed such as an HQ Adana, galley or repro. proof press, Albion, Columbian, etc.

Inking and shifting the type and locating the paper can then be purely intuitive and sheer tactile fun! but then, pin up or lay out the printed sheets, switch on the conscious part of your brain: analyse and compare. Aim to understand how the various sheets differ in their sensory impact and question how their differing visual structures achieve this. Initially restrict yourself to one typeface at a time and just concentrate on how, with its its solo voice, you can organise the space to create differing visual sensations.

Regard all your printing as similarly explorative; never stop asking “what if?” When you think you are ‘getting the hang of it’, start to think out the design of your contribution to the [Oxford] Guild’s 25 year project [Now complete: BBB].

To ease the achievement of good inking and impression and perhaps overcome a shortage of type those with table-top Adanas, etc. should think in terms of blocks of text around half the area of the chase or less. You can, of course, fill the page by printing it in two or more ‘bites’, but around 24ems x 18em measure (4″ x 3″ wide) leaves generous margins on an A5 page. In a classical layout with larger margins at the outer or fore-edge and foot of the page this can look sumptuously elegant. Alternately, however, you might arrange a similar area of text as either a tall narrower, or a short wider column. From your experiments you will recognise the ‘theatrical’ potential of shifting such an area of text to divide your page in a less ‘comfortable’ but more expressive proportion.

The medium can thus enhance the message-and it’s more fun than merely copying convention!

You might like to consider placing certain categories of information in constant positions, page by page, in which case you should start by designing a suitably proportioned grid. This newsletter is based on, but not entirely constrained by, a simple grid of three equal width columns-a ruler and coloured pencil can reveal all! Were I to fecklessly spread the same content over four pages — indulging in what my 1960s boss decried as ‘the paper-wasting style’ — it could be less cramped and more exciting but the subs might then need to be raised to pay for it.

Thankfully our little books need not be constrained by such mundanely boring economic considerations.

This guide kindly contributed by John R Smith of the Old Forge Press. Originally appeared in the newsletter of the Oxford Guild of Printers