Learning Through Letterpress

Dirty hands = happy minds

July 2022
Leo Sims

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In our student days many of us at TM benefitted from projects set by design studios – the external perspective and timescales really offer the opportunity to re-consider how you’re working and what you’re working towards.

I was fortunate enough to be able to return the favour with a group of MA Graphic Design students at Camberwell College of Arts. A far cry from an ordinary day’s work as a graphic designer, facilitating an educational brief gave me an inspiring insight into how we all learn.

Originally envisioned as a design sprint, the TM brief required students to inspire and support their local community to respond to the climate crisis. The nature of this community was left open-ended; fellow students, local community groups or neighbouring residents were all up for discussion. However, as in the real world, there were some strict constraints on production and time. Unlike most situations in the real world, the only production method we allowed was letterpress.

Split over two days – a week apart, our visit began with a brief summary of the inspiration and history of TM. Following this, the brief was set to allow the students to decide on their audience. Given recent revelations concerning Camberwell’s recycling and waste management, the students chose to target their fellow community at the university, as they felt they understood the issues and audience there best, and that the final outcomes would have the most impact. With that decided, we headed down to the letterpress studio, an inspiring space in the bowels of the old university building.

With the prolific use of digital technologies to produce and communicate ideas today, it was understandable that many of the students had never used letterpress or other forms of relief printing before. Far from diminishing their enthusiasm, this meant that they approached the process with energy and from a fresh perspective. Whether experimenting with different ways of combining pigments on the letterforms, or repositioning glyphs without reinking to produce shadow effects, the students were quick to try new techniques to bring texture and depth to the printed letterforms.

After a few hours of experimentation (facilitated by the very helpful studio technician), students gathered in their groups and were asked to present their work for discussion. As they had been largely focused on trying out a new process, the conceptual development of their responses was only beginning to take shape. Despite this, it was interesting to see how the media and its limitations really informed the development of their core ideas. Some of the themes discussed were those of repetition and habit, circularity, and a more visceral, human representation of the climate crisis.

At the end of the first day, the technician explained that the studio was available for them to use and when he would be there to support. We gave advice on how responses could be developed, and students were asked to prepare for the final review one week later.

As they presented their outcomes a week on, it was clear that the students had done a lot of work to develop their initial ideas. Their concepts were coming to life, and it was great to see that they had experimented in terms of media use, for example by printing on waste stock collected throughout the college, and inking found objects to create patterns and backgrounds. While this experimentation was inspiring, it was also clear that the technical development of some of the outcomes still required work. In many cases ink was applied too thick, or glyphs were hand printed (not set in a press), leading to smudging. This is of course understandable given the short timeframe and lack of existing experience in the medium, though it did emphasise a point the technician had made to us privately before all the students had filtered in; most of the students had hardly visited the letterpress studio in the interim days.

This took us by surprise, surely students would relish the opportunity to get away from their computer screens? Though as we talked through their work with them, it was obvious at times that their creative process had relied heavily on the machines we had sought to get them away from. Perhaps this, combined with the time constraints of other projects, was the reason many of them had not spent enough time at the letterpress studio to allow their ideas to be succinctly realised. Fortunately, their tutor was very supportive in helping them identify next steps to develop their outcomes further, so the process did not end that day, even if our involvement as TM did.

Following the review, we went upstairs to the shared MA studios to give a final presentation of some of our more recent work, touching on some of the challenges we face day to day in the studio. We tried to share some of our learning on balancing socially and environmentally conscious design with factors such as material constraints and budgets, giving the students (many of whom were keen to respond to the climate crisis in their work) examples of some of the compromises we have had to make.

Aside from the joy of getting my hands dirty with movable type, running the brief provided a humbling insight into the difficulty of challenging students to think creatively, while also preparing them for the world of work as graphic designers. In an industry often dominated by computer aided design, the ability to use software to communicate ideas is crucial. Though in a landscape where many other forms of communication and interaction also occur digitally, I think it is even more important for designers to use tactile processes to develop and represent ideas by challenging the way we think.

Many thanks to the students and staff at Camberwell College of Arts for giving us the opportunity to share this learning experience.