While enjoying my daily design cup of tea, I stumbled on a new application in the pipeline for the Apple iPad. It’s called LetterMpress and described for potential users as a “virtual letterpress interface to create authentic-looking letterpress designs and prints right on their iPads.” As a graphic designer fortunate to have had hands-on experience setting and printing type with a letterpress while studying at the University of Arts, I am conflicted about this new application and what it means for the creative art form of letterpress printing. Technology can be viewed as a destroyer or a preserver when it comes to the arts. It is the classic duel of man versus machine.
The work of graphic designers today is often mass produced and we seldom have the luxury of time to get our hands dirty as our predecessors did. More and more frequently traditional design practices are turning to digital formats and it makes me wonder if graphic designers will have to mold into a new application as well. Must we robotically follow suit or should we strive to save traditional hands-on methods? Preserving the craft of letterpress printing by making it into an iPad app is like preserving books with the Kindle or Nook. The new LetterMpress app allows the designer to virtually go through a digital letterpress environment in the same way as a real letterpress:
You can place and arrange wood type and cuts on a press bed, lock the type, and ink the type and print. You are able to create unlimited designs, with multiple colors, using authentic vintage wood type and art cuts, as well as having the letters appear backwards in the press bed – and store your designs in digital galley trays. You can actually print your design directly from LetterMpress or save it as an image and then import it into other applications. John Bonadies, creator, plans to include 12 typefaces and 50 art cuts for the first version of LetterMpress. The way the software reproduces that good old fashioned aesthetic uneven ink distribution, funky textures, and idiosyncratic detailing is by manipulating scans of real wood type impressions. At a later stage, LetterMpress users will be able to get actual letterpress prints custom made from their designs by typesetters working with the growing collection.
While it sounds great, this app will not replace the feel and texture of working with a letterpress, nor offer much in the way of individual styling and personal creativity. As much as I would like to wholeheartedly embrace this new LetterMpress app, I fear we will lose the reverent feeling of being a part of a historical process. With today’s almost complete digital work flow for the graphic designer, it’s nice to be able to touch the type and feel it on your finger tips, instead of just clicking the mouse a couple of times.
Would Johannes Gutenberg, the father of modern printing, be pleased with the progression of the printing press and moveable type now to this new-fangled digital application? I don’t know. Luckily, the art form isn’t becoming totally extinct as there is still a community of letterpressers and older-school typesetters preserving the art of letterform and typography in their small, ink-stained studios. And I suppose one could argue that the new LetterMPress app could to grab the attention of people who don’t know a pica from a penny and possibly interest them in learning more about and gaining an appreciation of typographic printing and typesetting by hand.
Undoubtedly, designers have to look to the future. Maybe melding the old with the new to create a new art form for a new generation isn’t a bad thing. It worked for the digital photograph so why not the digital letterpress?