New digital life for printing on an old letterpress. Photo: Norman Posselt

Erik Spiekermann makes a deep impression by marrying new to old

A print run of 2,500 books employs cutting-edge methods to bring new life to a medium he’s long loved.

For Erik Spiekermann, it came down to the color of black and a kiss of type. He had already finished designing a book for Louis Rossetto, one of the founders of Wired magazine and a long-time friend. During that time, he’d also been perfecting a new method of modern letterpress printing with a small team of colleagues and experts in Berlin.

When he told Rossetto about this work in 2016, Rossetto asked Spiekermann if his novel, Change Is Good, could use the new printing method. After more testing and a run of books for the publisher Suhrkamp Verlag, Spiekermann said yes. They launched a Kickstarter in August 2017 to fund a limited-edition version of the book, which was a rousing success. In November, Spiekermann and colleagues printed 2,500 copies.

Letterpress isn’t an easy choice in 2017, and Spiekermann didn’t underestimate the effort to print a short run of a 448-page book, even on a classic, well-maintained Heidelberg sheet-fed cylinder letterpress. There’s something missing in offset printing, he says. Even when letterpress printing doesn’t bite heavily into the paper — he generally prefers the traditional “kiss,” or light impression for most of his book work — it still has some dimensionality.

“We print with enough impression to get the deep black, but without the impression showing through on the verso [reverse],” he says. “The deep black is the thing that everybody notices and that is what we also tell everybody as the main difference between watery offset and letterpress.” The type on a page is palpable, the blacks are blacker, and each book is unique, even when produced en masse.

From a press sheet of P98a Paper, an in-house magazine of essays.

Spiekermann is a renowned graphic designer, known for a wide array of projects across a 50-year career: bold advertising work, corporate design systems, and book design and book writing. He instructs readers on typographic principles in his co-written title Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out How Type Works, which improved the typographic knowledge of a generation. Somewhere in there he found the time to co-found a digital type foundry, too. His ITC Officina Sans and Officina Serif are among the most widely used typefaces for business in the world.

His work ethic and strongly held opinions are well known. But at 70, technically “retired,” he’s just poured more than a year and about $180,000 (€150,000) into trying to reboot letterpress book printing with modern technology. He calls his group’s approach “digital letterpress.”

Rossetto’s book, Change Is Good, has a nice resonance: it’s a novel about the dotcom revolution and implosion of the late 90s and early 2000s. The novel was the first large-scale test of Spiekermann’s workflow, and it went well. But he can’t predict whether others can duplicate the method he and his colleagues have pioneered.

Putting the digital into letterpress

Letterpress fell out of fashion after nearly five centuries, from the mid-1400s to mid-1900s, when two photographic-based processes supplanted it. Letterpress is a relief method, in which raised type and image blocks are lightly inked and a press pushes paper against them.

By contrast, offset printing, using photo-sensitive flat thin metal plates, is planographic, or flat. The metal plates are exposed and developed, and retain areas that retain ink where printing should appear or reject ink where it shouldn’t. When attached to an offset press, the plates rotate through baths of water and ink, and then contact a rubber blanket, onto which the intended printed image offsets. The rubber blanket then rolls in turn onto paper, creating the final printed piece.

The three kinds of printing processes (Image from Ben Dalgin’s “Advertising Production,” 1946, via Legion of Andy)

Offset paired neatly with phototypesetting, which replaced cast metal and carved wood type with letters exposed onto high-contrast paper. This phototype would then be cut up and assembled onto a layout board with illustrations and halftones, and photographed as a single piece onto film, which was in turn exposed onto an offset plate. As printing shifted digitally, designers could eventually deliver files which would laser etched onto plates directly, saving both manual and intermediate exposure stages.

Even before the digital printing revolution, letterpress and other relief methods had become nearly infeasible for commercial use, because the industry that supported all the pieces had imploded.

Spiekermann knows about this transition quite well. In the late 1960s in what was then West Berlin, he was a hand compositor who started collecting letterpress equipment. “[T]ype cases were literally being thrown out of windows in Kreuzberg, an area full of printing presses,” he told a biographer in the 2014 book, Hello, I am Erik. He assembled a letterpress studio piecemeal and taught himself to design and print.

Initially, he gave his work away to artists and musicians, but his posters and other pieces eventually became part of how he and his wife at the time cobbled together an income from various jobs. He and his family moved to London in 1973 for a job, leaving his gear behind. In 1977, he had it packed into a truck and brought back to London to set up a new printing operation. While in temporary storage, however, a fire broke out and ruined all the equipment. He moved on.

Spiekermann tells me he didn’t touch letterpress in a substantive way again until 2010, when the letterpress revival was well underway in America. He’d acquired some presses for homes in both California and Berlin in preparation for “retirement,” but ultimately set up a full-scale studio in Berlin in 2013. It’s dubbed p98a after its location at Potsdamer Street 98a.

He and his colleagues have assembled an array of letterpresses and a collection of type as well as a Linotype hot-metal typesetting machine, and regularly offer workshops and welcome visiting printers. They own both powered and manual machines, including clam-shell (platen) and hand-fed proof presses.

A locked-up form of wood and metal type and a photopolymer image on a Vandercook proof press bed.

Printers originally used proof presses only for pulling test prints of type for proofreading and correction before it was printed for real on high-speed presses. But because they are simplified presses with large, flat horizontal press beds, they have a small learning curve for beginning printers with supervision. Changes can be made quickly on the fly, making them great for artistic work, and most are large enough for posters and larger waybills.

But you can’t effectively print a book on a hand-fed proof press. Well, you can: I just finished printing a book on a classic proof press, a Vandercook, and the limitations can be overcome. But my project involved just 100 copies of a 64-page title, printing 16 sides of eight sheets. Rossetto’s book is larger in every way.

For registration, consistency, and speed, you need a large, motorized press with an automatic paper feed. Spiekermann says this kind of book production only makes sense with sheets large enough to print at least eight pages per side for a 16-page press sheet that, when folded and cut, creates a medium-format book — in this case, with a finished size of 6 1/2 by 9 5/8 inches (16.5 by 24.45 cm). To this end, Spiekermann works with friends at an allied studio, Der Lettertypen, who among other presses have an 1950s Original Heidelberg Cylinder that offers the necessary mechanical automation and takes paper of sufficient size.

Pages are arranged (or “imposed”) so that eight appear on each side of the press sheet.

That solved the printing side for book-length production, but not the type. The only practical way to set enough letterpress type today would be through a hot-metal composition machine, like the Linotype p98a has in its shop. However, Linotypes were designed for newspaper-quality work, not books, and limitations in its available type designs show it. And while he could have found or hired Monotype composition, a book the length of Rossetto’s would require inordinate amounts of time and money to set, and requirement room to store and manage thousands upon thousands of pounds of metal. It’s not practical.

Rather, he wanted to combine old and new: marrying the quality and nature of letterpress printing, its tactile nature and density of ink and control, with the flexibility of digital design. This marriage relied on technology that already existed, but couldn’t fit his needs. So, being Spiekermann, he invested a substantial amount of his time and money to bend the technology to his will.

Plastics!

Spiekermann turned to a kind of plasticky substance to produce plates for letterpress printing. He was relying on the evolution of a technology developed over decades for flexography, or “flexo,” used for printing plastic films, wallpaper, corrugated cardboard, even ceramic tiles — things that generally aren’t compatible with offset printing. Flexo is a relief method, like letterpress.

Flexo plates rely on a substance called photopolymer, a resin that’s light-activated. It’s coated onto a substrate of plastic or metal. Create a digital design, output it to a high-contract negative — black and clear, no intermediate tones — as you would in the not-far-back days to make an offset printing plate. Sandwich it with a sheet of plate material in a vacuum frame, expose it to ultraviolet light to selectively harden those areas of the resin, and then wash out the unexposed parts.

Voila! A letterpress printing plate. It just requires a metal base —which can be magnetic in order to pair with metal flexo plates — that’s the right difference in height between the plate and the standard 0.918-inch/2.33cm (“type high”) distance to properly ink and print material on a letterpress.

Letterpress printers trying to keep the art alive with scarce and diminishing supplies of type started experimenting with photopolymer plates in the 1980s, when the washing stage required solvents. It took off in the early 2000s after the industry created a form of photopolymer resin that could be washed out with water, making it feasible for shops and individuals without the ability to handle hazardous chemicals. By the late 2000s, letterpress service bureaus started producing it for hire.

This kind of film-exposure photopolymer wasn’t precise enough for Spiekermann for book work, for a variety of reasons. A dwindling number of shops can produce the high-contrast film from an imagesetter or filmsetter, and it’s not cheap, especially compared to unexposed photopolymer. Due to variables of film chemistry, film output density can vary across a day or between different days, affecting the consistency of type and image output. Even the contact exposure in a vacuum frame adds variation.

Just as platemaking shifted in offset from film-exposed plates to computer-to-plate direct exposure, so did the flexo world shift to “imagers” that burn away photopolymer material. The result is faster and more precise, doing away with film chemistry entirely and intermediate step. (Some imagers pair the burning stage with the exposure stage, reducing human intervention.)

Spiekermann looked into these systems, which can cost from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. He found the flexo imager’s parameters didn’t meet his needs for book printing, especially for registering multiple colors. Undaunted, he purchased a $60,000 model from Laser Systems Hannover, and has been working with them and mechanical geniuses in-house to modify its hardware and firmware.

They added additional suction and cooling to handle the quantity of material removed and width of plates being exposed at once. “We customized the laser mechanically, hacked the driver software, had the magnetic base made, and special ink and rollers, and then tried and tested for a few months. Threw away a lot of paper and plates,” he says. The specialized base cost $6,000 alone (€5,000).

Despite the cost of research and development, Spiekermann says creating photopolymer like this is much cheaper and enormously faster than using the film method, while also offering the consistency he needs.

It puts typesetting back into his studios, alongside the hundreds of cases of wood and metal type, where he can press a button and “set” the type that go on his presses.

Learning the ropes for an old process

Shifting to letterpress required changes in the book design. “For letterpress we always go down one weight to allow for that slight squeeze and use the regular weight,” he says, aside from the blackness of the ink. (Modern typefaces may come in several weights in a range across thin, light, regular, medium, bold, extra bold, and heavy, or using a corresponding gradation of numbers from 100 to 900.)

He used a 6-point line above the page numbers (a “rule above folios” in design jargon), which they hit hard with black ink. Some of the type in the book, like FF Real and Fira Mono, he designed with Ralph du Carrois.

Along the way, he and Daniel Klotz, the main printer and platemaker, have had to learn more about printing books. He says neither he nor Klotz were trained as printers, and while some letterpress presspeople remain in former East Germany, they aren’t interested in the work, as they’re all near retirement. When I first spoke to Spiekermann in September, he had just spent a recent Sunday in frustration. He tried adjusting every variable and couldn’t get a result that matched the quality he needed. They eventually did, at a later date.

Spiekermann notes that despite the automation he’s relying on, this scale of letterpress involves a large amount of physical work. The shop occupies a small space, and they have to shift 29 palettes of 1,000 sheets of roughly 20 by 30 inch sheets around — one for each signature. “If you’re tired, you pay less attention,” he says, and, suddenly, “you can run a complete page upside down before you notice,” and have to reprint the entire signature. However, each page is a uniquely made interaction of plate and pressure — not an art book, he says, but a new category that will be meaningful to own, yet not a precious object. “It’s kind of half handmade.”

A proofsheet in two colors from P98a Paper

He handed the bookbinding off to a Leipzig firm, which created a die-cut slipcase, and a die-cut and foil-stamped cover in two versions, depending on whether a backer got in early or later in the project’s funding period.

Spiekermann sees his effort to make digital letterpress something reliable, repeatable, and affordable for runs of books around a few thousand as a way to keep letterpress vibrant at a bigger scale than the purely craft level. “There are plenty of presses around, but hardly anybody who can still run them. We hope we can not only save them, but make them useful again,” he says. Germany lacks a letterpress craft movement, which is thriving in the U.S.

He says, “Printing from movable type was invented in Germany, we had lots of foundries and manufacturers of presses and other equipment and I think we owe it to our history to keep not only the machines going, but — more importantly — the craft.”

Copies of Change Is Good start shipping to Kickstarter backers shortly, and Spiekermann and his colleagues already have digital letterpress books scheduled to print for months ahead. For now, they have a unique process, but they hope it doesn’t remain so.


Freelance writer Glenn Fleishman writes about technology, typography, laser-cutting, and much more for the Economist, Fast Company, The Atlantic, Wired, and many others. He letterpress printed a book as part of his stint as Designer in Residence at the School of Visual Concepts in 2017. An ebook that contains all the articles in the letterpress edition plus four more of the same is now available for purchase. You can download an excerpt.

He wrote London Kerning in early 2018 about type design, letterpress, and signage in London, visiting two remarkable type and printing archives in that city that trace England’s typographic history.


Some of Glenn’s recent research and reporting on printing, punctuation, and typography: