How to design an awarded letterpress printed book.

Creating a book from scratch using analog processes and binding every decision to the concept.

Ricardo Dantas
May 27, 2019 · 6 min read

After more than 10 years collecting letterpress presses, type, and paraphernalia, Rúben Dias (Ruben Dias) invited me to help with Tipografia Dias in 2015. Since then we’ve seen it grow to its most activity ever, we’ve been printing posters, cards, giving workshops and altogether trying to contribute to the preservation of printing materials and Portuguese printing history.

Existing as an extension of our Editorial Design studio Item Zero we have been using the workshop as a place of exploration, grabbing the roots of typographical composition, immersing ourselves in white space balance and dueling with typography history research.

We got challenged by the author, Hellington Vieira, to a new brief, designing and producing a whole letterpress printed book. It was a graphic novel telling the story of a piece of lint [Fiapo] that got away from its cloth and started an adventure alone, exploring love, loneliness, and self-care.

Fiapo character in one of the illustrations from the book.

The whole narrative and character immediately brought us a sense of lightness, delicacy, and naivety. So we put hands to work using this concept as the main premise.

Lightness noun
1. The quality of having little weight. 2. The quality of being gentle or delicate in style.

Having mainly two tasks at hand to explore, we created a layout that would involve this concept and at the same time help us out with printing speed and logistics, and also define and apply production methods that would convey the same concept to the object.


After immersing ourselves in the workshop, searching through cabinets and cabinets and making proofs of the text typefaces available, we ended up realizing that we’re even more conditioned than we thought initially since most of the movable type was already extremely worn off and some type families didn’t even had a very broad range of characters of each letter. We eventually betted our chips on a simple serif font (Garamond style), that had a very clear imprint and wouldn’t run out of sorts.

Trying to transmit this sense of lightness, and giving the illustration the big role in the book, we defined a layout that not only would be easier to assemble and dismantle but also, as we rotated the paper on the press, we could print the chapter pages.

Having the layout optimized so we could print every type of book layout, introduction, chapter, illustration plus text or just illustration, it becomes way more agile to print and faster altogether.

As in many other printing techniques, in letterpress, the printing cast or mold is mirrored to achieve the intended print.

The chosen type helps to give a soberer impression of the history, pulling it apart from a children's book which is not the intention of this book. The illustrations made into zinc plates managed to be introduced at the same time as the type in the printing process. Dueling simultaneously with layout decisions, we also had to think the book as an object, taking some interesting decisions that would shape it as a whole.


Following the concept of lightness and clarity, and after conceiving such a clean and white-space driven composition for the book inner pages, we had to decide on a paper that would also convey this notion of lightness…

Choosing a high grammage paper but with also high bulk, we could have a big book with seemingly high thickness, but by grabbing it, you might realize it feels lighter than you initially thought. Also, the highly textured paper contributed to this sensorial experience by introducing one more level of detail into the object already filled with the textures brought by the ink and by the modest pressure of the type and zinc plates against the paper itself.

Binding was another challenge; not only we had the question of having bigger illustrations spreading across two pages, that would give us some problems at imposition, and fitting the different booklets together, but we also wanted to give this sense of continuity and clarity to the story that the fold between pages just wasn’t contributing to.

Opting for an unusual method of binding such as lay-flat binding, with back to back glued spreads we could achieve this notion of continuity and also have as an object a book that lays completely flat without mid-spread interruptions.

But then comes an issue to deal with, following this solution, gluing together the spreads, we eventually end up with a cover and back cover actually thinner than the inner pages.

In order to solve this problem we introduced a large flap, that not only would give the book more thickness in the cover, front and back, but would also give a sense of beginning and ending to the book since the flap hinge would surpass the book block.

As an end note, we developed a signature that conceived all this naivety from the concept while using one more analog process. After the binding process, the book spine became very bumpy and full of character. Using a rubber stamp with this signature, we could give a final touch to the object, as so to identify the book in a shelf, but also attribute one more little detail that would perceive the whole minimalist and delicate experience to the user.

In the end, we got a very sensorial object, with all the delicacy and lightness that we conceived as the main goal and concept of all this endeavor, it was simple but rich, with a very tactile sense.

Photography by Luís Espinheira

After submission, “Fiapo” ended up receiving an Honorary Mention at 2018 Portuguese National competition “Prémio Design do Livro” held by DGLAB — General Direction of Book, Archives, and Libraries, and also entering 2019 shortlist of 50 books in “Best Book Design From All Over the World” competition held by Stiftung Buchkunst, all for which we are so grateful to.

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Ricardo Dantas

Written by

Teacher at | Editorial Designer at | Type Designer at | Porto City Host at

The Startup

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Ricardo Dantas

Written by

Teacher at | Editorial Designer at | Type Designer at | Porto City Host at

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

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