Where to get that spark to begin your typo­graph­ic design

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