The Great Divide

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how the 2016 election and subsequent political turmoil has felt. Prolonged full-body anxiety? A persistent emotional rash? Stuck forever in the loopy section of a rickety old rollercoaster? I was feeling a type of fear and anxiety I’d never really experienced before. Every article, every comments section, every perilous trip down my twitter feed, sent me further into cold sweats. Making work that wasn’t in some way political felt trite and gratuitous — I kept thinking, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for one more goddamn person to letter hustle.”

Photo by Tom Tian.

Concept

With Typeforce on the horizon and my political anxiety reaching a fever pitch, I brought in a half-baked idea to my studio mates at Delicious. Now in its eighth year, Typeforce is an exhibition of typographic works based here in Chicago, founded and curated by Dawn Hancock of Firebelly and Ed Marszewski of the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport. It’s an annual highlight and absolute madhouse, and I thought potentially the perfect venue for something like this.

Most mornings Tyler, Jason and I were the first three in the office, and increasingly often, we would find ourselves in a similar conversation about another weird article we’d come across. Blatantly false and widely spread think pieces were popping up faster than they could be tallied, and more worrying, they were backed with immense conviction. No amount of fact-checking could limit their spread, and worse still it felt like social media algorithms were being programmed to keep differing opinions away from us. It kept coming back—how do you speak truth to people who don’t share the same definition of truth? How do you bridge that great divide?

Sketches for The Great Divide
The submission sketch — crunchy and Delicious.

It was an idea I couldn’t shake, and one that eventually led me to sketch up an idea for a cut paper piece that would be layered to reveal a kind of dense typographic topography. Using snippets from fake news, hate mail, and whatever dark fan fiction Breitshart dreamt up, we’d build a maddening texture that felt as chaotic and overwhelming as my morning news digest. And so, with a hope and a prayer, we submitted the project. And to our delight, we were included in the lineup!

Thanks, fake news peddlers!

The Real Deal

Tyler and I grabbed lunch the Monday after the lineup was announced, and worked up a schedule backwards from the opening. A little more than four weeks and a mountain of work stood between us and the big day. We were organized, full of falafel, and excited.

After a little bit of trial and error, we came to a fork in the road. While we could continue as planned and construct the entire piece from paper, it was becoming increasingly clear that doing so would be a tremendous risk. The fear of going through all of this printing, cutting, and building time to have the piece wilt was just too big—coupled with the realization that we’d have to make some less than appealing design decisions to make the structure sound. So, with the curators’ blessing, we decided to print it on plexiglass, a huge leap of faith from the Printshop, who, I should add, were more than willing to tackle it. While Tyler went about ordering plexi, I brought my type sketches and layout into Illustrator, and we both dove head-first into the weirdest corners of the internet to pull headlines for the news texture. And with that, I handed the piece off to the more than capable hands of our printshop, and likewise, Tyler will take the writing from here.

The digital design.

Production

The sheer size of each panel pushed our screens and press to the absolute max with a 40” wide flood of ink—not to mention we printed all 24 layers using the same three screens over and over. In addition to the size, we had to print each layer backward, in reverse order on the underside of each panel of Plexi. Talk about a mind-bender. Our bigger press, Tatiana, was outfitted with a custom jig to hold each layer of Plexi in the exact place until every color was pulled. We pretty much registered each layer blind since there was really no way to use registration marks in the design. First, we went through and printed all of the red layers using the same transparent ink, then went back and printed each opaque color over top to create our layered effect.

In order to make this thing happen in two weeks, we needed to be extremely organized and systematic with how we approached the printing. Having only 3 screens large enough to print the design, we could put down a maximum of 6 layers a day. Our days in production looked like this: expose and print 3 layers, reclaim and let screens dry, throw a fresh layer of emulsion on each screen, let them dry, expose the next few layers, print those layers, repeat. Once we were set-up on press to print a layer it took 15 minutes total, but with 24 setups most of our time was spent waiting and balancing our regular workflow with this special project.

Once we had the printing down, the rest went so smoothly it’s hard to believe it even happened. As a printmaker with a few years and a lot of mistakes under my belt, I fully expected some silly slip-up to set us back, but because we put together a strict system and order of printing, nothing went wrong. When you looked at each layer side-by-side, they looked pretty similar (even in the digital file), but by dedicating a drying rack to this piece and labeling each layer number, we were able to work our way up the rack and print every layer in order. More than once Kyle confirmed our layer order and orientation, but once all the red was down it was easy to see how the opaque layers matched up.

The production machine at work: setting up our guides, mixing the perfect transparent red, and printing our maddening fake news texture.

The trickiest hurdle in printing these 24 layers was only having one shot per layer. We pulled test prints before each real impression to make sure the screens were burned correctly and leaving clean impressions, but when it comes to the Plexiglass, we had to trust in the press and let it do its thing. Each layer did not print 100% perfect, but knowing that it wouldn’t we were prepared with a paint brush and the appropriate ink color to touch up the impression as soon as it was off the press.

The Frame

With the panels printed and protected on the rack, we could start with building the frame. We brainstormed a number of ways to go about building and ultimately hanging the piece, all the while being conscious about the amount of wood we used.

Essentially, every frame was constructed like a giant shadowbox. For the sides and front of the frame we sourced a high-quality pine and used spare cedar planks from our office renovations for the spacers between layers.

We wound up losing a day or two with mis-cuts and other projects, but that’s bound to happen and with all hands on deck, we were quick to identify and rethink problems on the fly.

Engaged in the great war against sawdust.

The bulk of the time spent building the frames was around finishing the wood. Once we’d constructed the outer shell for each frame, it was just a matter of nailing in spacers and dropping in each layer of Plexi. To top it all off, we built a top frame from pine, to secure the front layer in place. By the time we’d started the second box, we had our process down to a fine science and had everything tidied up between client projects.

Installed photos graciously provided by Tom Tian.

The Great Divide

Delicious is a collaborative studio, made up of illustrators, designers and printers, but we don’t often get to go all-in office-wide on a project like this. This piece let us showcase the skills of our whole team, and we couldn’t be more pleased with how it turned out. And while we endlessly mocked this up, ran tests, and collaborated on its production, we couldn’t see the final piece until it was all finished. This meant relying on the trust of our team to see our project all the way through.

We also printed a limited edition run of 18x24" 3-color edition of the piece on French Paper’s unbelievably sexy Butcher Blue. 50% of the proceeds will be donated to the ACLU, who continue to fight hard for the rights of every American. You can purchase one here, and see more detail shots of the piece on the Delicious Design League site.