Introducing Letterpress to the Digital World of Business Software

Letterpress nowadays is a passion more than a professional activity. Most digital enterprises run team-building activities that often are not directly related to their core business, with the goal of freeing their employees from any work-related topic and let them focus on the team-building itself. Printing with letterpress — a very traditional creative technique — has to offer everything that is expected from a team-building event plus very unique additional benefits. These experiences are not exclusively addressed to (visual) designers, rather they are a door opener for activating team-building sessions with clever and stimulating content. Letterpress printing activities can connect designers and non-designers within large companies. Such experiences let participants discover technical constraints that instead of being a problem, foster creativity and lead to unexpected great results. Letterpress activities make them create together unique prints which are a great output both on the soft and on the hard side: while work relationships and individual skills are improved, handcrafted letterpress prints are produced and remain as a collective production: memories of an enjoyable experience, something that belongs to the shared history of the team.

Letterpress, design and enterprise software

A small foreword about me
As a freshly–graduated communication designer of the Politecnico di Milano, one of the natural steps to take, with the aim to find a place in the visual design business, was to approach specialization classes and deepen skills and knowledge in specific sectors: that was why I decided to join a typography and letterpress class, to avoid being another visual designer selecting fonts from a dropdown-list with no, or very little clue.

This experience had a direct impact on my professional life. I was working for advertising, publishing and the web, when I started to consider text and its expressive potential in another way: layouts for ads, logos, posters and web pages started to get typo-driven, while being keen on selecting quality, reliable fonts in the digital field as well as in the letterpress studio.

Facing problems and issues due to the constraints of using old (and sometimes even broken!) machinery and materials fosters creativity while finding solutions and showed the way that applied processes work — something a nice, yet cold Indesign interface can’t really tell, since troubles are generally solved by a quick search on Google.

The struggle for the result sometimes gets you sleepless and aiming for perfection teaches you not to give up: instead, it keeps you trying to tweak until the prints show you did it right. Most of the time the first layout on the monitor looks pretty immediately just because it’s clean and pixel-perfect. But on the first print you can see only the half of the whole wooden letters printed and you know you’re just at the beginning.

Got ink?

Back to our days, after the first year at the Design and Co-Innovation Center from SAP I understood why this kind of experience was important to our team and how it can enrich the team as an entity, the individuals as part of a group, and the company itself as a key-player in the change of design management and design-driven processes. I knew that, as designers within a large enterprise, my colleagues and I would do many hands-on activities, but I doubted that one day I would be able to take my personal passion directly to the hands and hearts of my colleagues: letterpress printing.

The Value of Letterpress for a Design Team inside of a Digital Company

In October 2014 I finally had the chance to take this experience of rough and genuine design work into our team. We went through a quick introduction round, got to know all of the machines collected by the studio owner through the years, and we were shown all of the fonts and glyphs or clichés we could use to typeset our sentences. I could not believe seeing the eyes of my colleagues shining like mine seven years ago, the first time I ever saw a Heidelberg windmill letterpress machine working. This great example of technical perfection with the taste and shape of the past century immediately broke the ice and threw our laptops back in their cases, feeling like cold, unanimated pieces of technology.

On the human side
Handling materials, colors, paper and discussing about forms, shapes, texts and anything else was like a physical counterpart to our everyday situations. We often talk and share views about the representation and communication of our design process, virtual UIs and all those soft elements that deal with the experience of software. But this time we had to experience a design process ourselves.

On the creative side
Reviewing, fine tuning, typesetting, correcting, changing letters, getting them on the very same level (to allow a perfect print) were all phases that we went through and that clearly made us feel and understand the importance in the details: letterpress printing is a process and each phase needs time and accuracy to reach excellence. The same is valid for design itself. This was the key-learning for most of the participants who never did something like this before: it was not just creating something with their own hands, but understanding a process, its rules, the necessary steps to reach perfection, and the importance of communication and collaboration within a two people team. We came to understand the value of the margins, letter spacing, the line height and of all those characteristics that make a text a well-typeset text. There was typesetting before MSWord, and fortunately there are digital tools that allow us to get close to the accuracy and class of hand-typeset text.
The same key-learning needs to be extended to project managers and people managers in order to experience an applied design process and better understand the work of designers while enjoying a one-day offsite event doing something all together. Maybe this will lead them to produce better PowerPoint slides as well!

On the team side
Having the common goal of providing some new posters for our grey office helped us find the topics for our prints. Instead of having some standard corporate print or even more standard-famous-masterpiece hanging on the walls, we now have a set of seven prints that decorate our room. The cool thing is: we printed them ourselves and anyone knows how that print was created.

Final team picture at the end of the workshop