Hands On History: Learning the History of Typography with a Letterpress Workshop

In recent years, educators have been encouraged to promote “active learning” in their classrooms. While this is heavily advocated in K-12 education, it is also making more appearances in approaches to higher education. Interactive learning or multi-modal learning is a teaching strategy that allows a topic to be explored through multiple learning styles such as through written language, oral language, visual representation, and tactile representation. Art and design educators employ these strategies in the classroom without needing to give it a new consideration as lectures, readings, visual displays, demonstrations, critiques, discussions, and hands on learning are already inherent to the classroom experience. However, as the field of graphic design becomes more technologically advanced, it becomes difficult to find time in the curriculum to slow down and utilize more tactile learning experiences in order to promote a new style of learning.

 

This case study shows how students at Lamar University learn about the history of typography by participating in a letterpress workshop. The history of typography is often covered in lecture-based courses such as “History of Graphic Design” or briefly discussed in studio-based courses such as “Typography.” By utilizing the tactile experience of setting type and printing a message, students gain a more well-rounded understanding of typographic history.

Supplemented by reading assignments, lectures, and a video describing the making of the Gutenberg Bible, students come into the one-week workshop with a basic understanding of type history. By actually getting their hands dirty and realizing the arduous task of setting just a short phrase, they gain a better appreciation for the craft. Additionally, students learn hands on about vocabulary such as leading by actually using pieces of lead to create more space between their lines of text. The slower pace of the letterpress process helps reinforce the content that is typically set in the fast-paced digital world.

As I detail this case study, here is some context regarding the typography course taught at Lamar University:

Course Details:

Title: Typography

Level: Junior

Enrollment: Varying up to 18 students

Majors: Required course for graphic design majors, but is occasionally selected as an elective for studio art majors

Prior Courses: Digital Imaging, Intro to Graphic Design, 3 Levels of Drawing, 2D Design, 3D Design, Color Theory

 

Before the letterpress workshop happens, it’s important to give students more content on the topic of type history. The primary textbook for the course is Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton and students are expected to read the first 32 pages, which cover the topic of type history. After the reading assignment is due, a lecture and discussion regarding type history is given.

In this course, students are also expected to learn the anatomy of type, and they are quizzed on important vocabulary. This introduction to important typographic terms allows the opportunity for reinforcement during the letterpress workshop.

Last, students watch a brief ten-minute video describing the process of constructing the Gutenberg Bible. Since most students are familiar with the historical significance of Johannes Gutenberg, the video adds a new dimension to knowledge they already had. The images in the video showcase the style of the original printing press used in making the Gutenberg Bible and show historical illustrations from the time period. A brief overview of the life, death and impact of Gutenberg’s work rounds out the production.

By this point in the lesson, students have learned about the history of type in a written, oral, and visual presentation and the last step is the letterpress workshop, which allows for a tactile learning experience.

 

The letterpress workshop requires collaboration with the LU printmaking professor, Xenia Fedorchenko. In the first day of this two-day workshop, she provides her expert knowledge of the letterpress studio and printing process. The initial lesson begins with a handout, brief lecture and show and tell by Professor Fedorchenko. She brings in her own sampling of artwork to give students the full scope of the history of broadsides, better known today as poster design.

Professor Fedorchenko then leads a hands on demonstration of the letterpress studio. First, she details the importance of safety and cleanliness, and then describes the layout of the studio. She discusses the type drawers, explicitly pointing out how the term uppercase came from the fact that upper case letters physically sat in the top drawer of the type case. She also describes how to set type, and can instill in students other vocabulary such as leading, by showing them how to add line spacing with pieces of lead. The next part of the demonstration is a discussion about materials such as describing the pros and cons of water vs. oil based ink, how to create transparency and how to create a smooth even application of ink onto locked up type. Last, Fedorchenko does a demonstration on the galley press. Throughout each part of the demonstration, students are asked to participate both through Q&A and through hands on assistance.

 

Once the demonstration is over, students are able to work on the assigned task: to create a composition made of type. They are asked to select a meaningful phrase and if the class is large, they work in pairs to create their work together. Each pair works on one composition, prints it, and then switches to make the other student’s composition. This allows better use of the studio materials and space as both are limited. The group is also encouraged to consider unique materials to print on. For instance, in these examples, a quote about music is printed on a sheet of music and a phrase about dreams is printed on a pillow.

 

In this example here [image missing], two students working together decided to collaborate and overlap their compositions and create a new, unique composition.

 

Some students are a bit more playful with their concepts, while others are more inspirational. Students respond positively to this opportunity for personal expression and it allows more room for exploration and experimentation than if they were given a client objective.

 

Following the workshop there is a pin up in class, but instead of a formal critique, the class discusses the process of letterpress printing. Because this workshop occurs in a very short time frame of two class days, it’s more important to focus on the student’s challenges, learning opportunities and improved knowledge of type. A discussion of overall composition and assessing areas for improvement is included, but the focus of the discussion is more about process and learning rather than outcomes.

Student feedback for the letterpress workshop has been overwhelmingly positive, which has made it a standard part of the typography course curriculum since fall 2013.

 

Student Feedback

What did you like about the workshop?

“It was nice to work with our hands as opposed to doing something computer based.”

“It was really fun choosing fonts and thinking differently than on a PC.”

  • Students particularly enjoyed the hands on aspect of the work, showing that while graphic design students must learn software and technology, they can largely benefit and engage in tactile experiences as well.

What didn’t you like about the workshop?

“I wish it was longer.”

“I didn’t like putting away the letter forms.”

“Crowded space.”

  • While it is a consideration to lengthen the two day workshop, the course focus must be broader than this one lesson plan. Students who really enjoy this process are encouraged to take elective courses with Professor Fedorchenko where they can further refine their letterpress skills.

Did you learn anything from the workshop?

“The interactive components helped me to understand the history of type.”

“I know more about how type developed and how it works.”

  • This reinforces students are responding to the multimodal learning methods applied in this course.

Would you recommend this workshop continue in the typography course?

“Yes, it taught me a lot and gave me an appreciation for the physcial work that goes into letterpress.”

“Yes! It was fun, it got us out of the computer lab, and it helped us learn.”

  • It seems that the computer lab can be a place where students feel restricted and need to branch out from in order to explore the wide variety of approaches to graphic design knowledge and skills. New opportunities for tactile learning experiences are being explored in order to provide graphic design students in all computer based courses the opportunity to “get of the lab” and approach their work in a new way.

Based on feedback and experience, each year this workshop is modified and improved to provide a better student learning experience. The benefits of the workshop outweigh the fact that time spent in the workshop does detract from other computer-based assignments. Students gain a better understanding of typographic history, learn a new process that they can expand their skills in through elective courses, and some even discover a new passion in letterpress that influences their future work and careers.

 

One response to “Hands On History: Learning the History of Typography with a Letterpress Workshop”

  1. John A. Hancock says:

    This is a really good project/lesson! Well constructed and thought out.

    I esp. like:
    #1) pre studio written, oral, and visual intro
    #2) getting into a hands on print studio
    #3) your topic of discussion afterwards

    Do you also get into a more modern print environment later in the course or in a follow-on class?

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