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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Commercial Printing: Letterpress Is Thriving

I read an article about letterpress recently, sent to me via Google Alerts. The article was entitled “The Letterpress Thrives in an iPad Age.” It was written by Peter S. Green and published by Business Week early this month.

Multiple Copies of This Article

What I found intriguing was the number of times this article about custom printing has appeared, in blogs, online newsletters, etc., under slightly reworded titles, but always with the same lead paragraph appearing in the search engine results: five pages of Google search listings.

To me, this speaks volumes. People want the tangible qualities of custom printing work. In fact, people need the tangible qualities of print even more now because of the ephemeral (i.e., virtual) nature of the Internet.

The Gist of the Article

“The Letterpress Thrives in an iPad Age” describes the experience of several artists who come home from their day jobs (in some cases designing advertisements on their Macintosh computers) and either use their own letterpresses or rent them with other artisans within a group setting.

Why? They want to get away from the computer for a while, stop being wired-in, and create a marriage of physical art and physical communications.

According to the article, the market is there, too, noting that “Etsy, the website that hosts online stores for handmade goods, listed over 22,000 letterpress items in early April, more than triple the number a year earlier.” In addition, one artist described in the magazine article sells her work both online and in Anthropologie, an upscale women’s clothing establishment. Her custom printing products include greeting cards, wedding invitations, and thank-you notes.

Why I Think Letterpress Is Thriving

To add depth to the argument for the physical attributes of commercial printing work, another article I read noted that being 13 percent of the way through a book on an e-reader didn’t hold the same satisfaction for the reader as having read 40 pages of a 300-page book. There’s a sense of accomplishment that comes from knowing—in an analog way—that you have read a certain number of pages of a print book and have so many more to go.

My personal view is that letterpress is thriving for the following reasons:

  1. Our world has become increasingly impersonal and virtual.
  2. Letterpress has a more tactile quality than even offset custom printing, since the type and plates actually strike the paper and leave indentations (called “the punch” of the plate on the paper). The multi-level nature of the letterpress printed product combined with the all-cotton card-stock makes holding and reading such a printed piece a sensual pleasure.
  3. The artisans in the magazine article are approaching both the illustrations and type of the letterpress-printed items as artwork: more than just communication.
  4. Handcrafted notecards are very personal. They are far more intimate than a hastily written email note. (My guess would be that handcrafted writing implements—beautifully wrought ballpoint pens and fountain pens—might also be making a comeback.)
  5. The natural quality of the components of letterpress (the cotton of the paper and the metal of the presses) balance the artificial nature of computer images.
  6. The antiquarian nature of letterpress as well as its slowness balance the speed and perfection of cyber-life.

Samples From a Local Letterpress

I brought out my letterpress samples today to look for any qualities I had missed.

  1. I found a letterpress pizza in a miniature, printed pizza box. The pizza is a diecut puzzle printed in two colors on thick chipboard. Each of the six slices of pizza fits into its neighbor, and running my finger across the printed surface, I can feel the mushrooms and green peppers because the inking plates have created multiple levels on the surface of the chipboard. This is not just a sample of custom printing. It is a sculpture. And the strengths of letterpress reinforce its sculptural nature.
  2. I found a square letterpress invitation with a green heart hanging in a brown tree. The custom printing paper stock must be at least 16 points in thickness, with hills and valleys in the paper’s surface, much like stucco. The artwork and type are recessed into the thick paper as well as printed in a simple color scheme.
  3. I found a two-color Z-fold invitation. The all-caps headlines are actually blind embossed into the paper, as are the yellow water drops that form a background pattern. The complexity of the surface (its multi-level nature) combined with the simplicity of the black and yellow color scheme, plus the fact that screens are created with cross-hatching rather than halftones, makes for a powerful custom printing piece.

I think I understand the current appeal of letterpress.

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