Interview w/ Keith Cross: Let's Talk About Letterpress

If I know anything about letterpress, it's because of one guy—Keith Cross. I had the honor of having him as my professor while I was studying at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. I recently got a chance to interview him about letterpress. Check it out.

What role does letterpress have in today's graphic design world?

At the moment, it seems "letterpress" has hijacked the minds of graphic designers. If one looks through popular design publications like Print's 2010 Regional Design Annual or CA's 1st Typographic Annual one can clearly see the indelible mark letterpress is leaving on creative executions for print and web media alike. Likewise, there are small letterpress operations popping up across the map producing stunning print work.

At the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston I teach a letterpress class to day and evening students. I employ letterpress technology to teach designers about where their craft comes from, to help them grasp—literally grasp—the fundamentals of page composition and how, in a world of seemingly limitless choices, to make effective design decisions within limited parameters. There are important design lessons learned through letterpress. For example, it can't be escaped that letterpress is physical. It exists spatially and that is true from the 15-line wood type font right down to the last copper spacing in an 8 pt. line of Bernhard Gothic Light. When students come to terms with the time consuming and physical nature of letterpress it brings a greater appreciation to the complexities that yesterday's designers and printers negotiated. Some students roll their eyes and turn back to the familiarity of their smooth computers. Yet, for some, the tactile qualities of letterpress have an allure so strong that the computer holds little interest. Occasionally, students go out and buy their own equipment thereby becoming the devoted disciples of letterpress.

Unfortunately, I think the resurgence of "letterpress" we are seeing in contemporary graphic design—that is to say, images of hand-set type, type treatments that convey the texture of worn wood type, the use of typefaces from the age of hot metal, compositions that emulate the peculiarities of hand-set type composition, and let us not forget, actual letterpress printed material—could be a short-term phenomenon.

I don't think it will go away, completely. But isn't it curious that letterpress came back? There are more folks printing from hot-metal and wood type now than there were 15 years ago. Sure, in the long-term letterpress is only going to occupy a niche market in the printing industry and not all designers can get their hands on real type. All technologies have characteristics that divulge their use, and as we know technologies come and go.

Thankfully, for now, we are captivated by letterpress. It seems to breathe new life into anyone who feels the screen holds them prisoner. And yet, for those enamored with the freedoms that digital technology affords in design and printing, a love of letterpress may smack of Stockholm Syndrome. Therefore, if letterpress is to have a "role" in graphic design it should be to afflict designers with the compulsion to get their hands inky—to make and to create outside the RGB world and embrace the demanding confines of letterpress. What's not to love?

Would you like to share any fun letterpress project that you are currently working on or recently worked on?

My favorite project is an assignment in my class. Each semester students print an exchange portfolio whereby each member of the portfolio produces a piece around a particular theme and prints enough copies so that everyone gets one. The students choose the theme at the beginning of the semester. One semester a theme that was not selected was "Missed Connections" which was about choosing a post from Craigslist's Missed Connections section where folks post their secret crushes connections gone awry…then printing a poster about that post. The discarded portfolio theme morphed into an assignment whereby students had to choose a post and write a response. The post was set in a typographic word-cloud fashion where only certain words were emphasized for general context. Then the response was set in text type. The poster prints in two colors and gives students the experience of exploring out type collection, setting large-type compositions and also doing tighter, hand-set text sizes as well. The results are some fantastic type compositions and hilarious word juxtapositions.