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3 Ways Letterpress Still Impacts Modern Life

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
art & design

 

In the time between when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press (around 1440) and, oh, 10 years ago, letterpress printing has had quite a roller-coaster ride. The technology that revolutionized the dispersal of information was a necessary – albeit clunky and expensive – piece of equipment for the advancement of the written word, and for hundreds of years, it was absolutely crucial. Then came the myriad developments in automation and, later, digital printing, and soon the denouement of Gutenberg’s invention was in full-swing. By the 1980s, letterpress was at least one foot in the grave.

Until, of course, letterpress came back into fashion, thanks in part to Martha Stewart (seriously, she’s credited in part with bringing it back).

Now, letterpress is dictating both analog and digital design, as old-school fonts and typesetting practices make their way onto printed materials and websites. But even in the lull between letterpress’s first heyday and its current revival, the language and style of this method of printing still influenced our daily lives. Best practices, nomenclature, and the design of the digital page all still reflect the typesetting rules set in place during the early days of the printed word.

 

Here are a few examples:

Language. Ever wonder where “uppercase” and “lowercase” come from? Why, it’s from the good old days of type, of course. According to the Glossary of Typesetting Terms, those names come from the original arrangement of type in the drawers where letters were kept. The capital letters were stored in the upper case, while the small letters, which were needed more frequently, were in the closer, lower case.

Similarly, the term “slug,” which is now used to describe a headline or a URL in digital publishing, originally meant a piece of lead that joined pieces of moveable type.

Speaking of, yes, that’s where the name for Moveable Type, the content management system, got its name.

letterpress printing

Image via the Library of Congress

 

Type. Though there’s no shortage of legible, beautiful typefaces today, creating type back in the day was definitely a chore. William Caslon, a gunsmith and type designer, created typefaces which we still use today, and influenced other famous type designers like John Baskerville, of Baskerville fame.

The high level of craftsmanship required to make letterpress fonts, which was necessary when working with such an unforgiving and sometimes cumbersome medium as letterpress printing, still influences modern day design and typesetting. Type Designers are a highly skilled bunch, past and present (especially today, given the need for print and web fonts).

Layout. Because the printed word has been so dominated by the news media, it’s no surprise that some of the design elements from the days of real printing presses carry over into modern digital news. But Baskerville also changed the way we view a page; In an attempt to make copy more legible and attractive, he’s credited with widening margins and adding spaces between sentences. Though this meant printers had to use more paper to convey the same amount of information, this practice also gave the eyes a break.

Today, we space out text and lines all the time, both for ease of reading and because, well, we can.

Letterpress, of course, also influences daily life in the most obvious way possible – it directly spurred the proliferation of written text, which can be traced to the many digital ways we communicate today. The many advancements in printing may have made books and other texts more affordable and accessible, but were it not for the first generations of the press, the world would probably look quite different.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.