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