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    On Stern and related matters
    Saturday, August 09, 2008
    July saw the first simultaneous release of a digital and metal typeface, with the unveiling of Stern, a typeface designed by Jim Rimmer and released by P22. This first, quite possibly the last, such event of its kind, as letterpress continues its sad decline. And it is sad, not from some overly sentimental romantic view of the technology, or some Luddite anti-progress manifesto, but rather for the fear of the passing of a form of typographic aesthetic and level of consideration.

    The first book I read on typography was a facsimile of the original letterpress edition of An Essay on Typography, by Eric Gill. As a teenager I thought it strange that someone would decide to reproduce a book in such a manner, but put it down at the time to wanting to reproduce the illustration more accurately. Of course hindsight tells me that it was rather to do with trying to reproduce the whole aesthetic of the book intact. Yes, the publisher could have easily typeset it again, in all the accuracy of modern type, but the end result would lose something that belongs to the realm of the physical, not the digital.* That aesthetic you get from when a piece of inked metal is pushed into paper, rather than a thin film of ink being gently laid across it.

    A simultaneous release such as this is important, as it lets us acquaint ourselves immediately with the fundamental differences between the two technologies. We can look at previous metal faces and compare their digital equivalents, but often those latter editions are not created by the original designer. Even when they are, so much time between the editions has passed as to significantly influence the translation, whether it be through changes in fashion or convention, or the product of hindsight. What this simultaneous release gives us is an immediacy and authenticity to the translations across the media. It says, "This is me, this is your decision. See the differences, and decide which is right for you."

    I, like others, received the specimen. It was produced in both litho and letterpress, naturally. As you might expect, the letterpress edition was ever so slightly heavier, the way the type appeared on the paper less perfect, changing ever so slightly, being more three dimensional and interacting with the paper. The digital edition, blunt in its perfect sharpness – beautiful yes, but for slightly different reasons.

    I’ve heard people say that letterpress gives warmth, but I prefer to think of it as giving humanity. That the type’s interaction on a page is so dependent on the punch cutter, the caster, the compositor, the printer, the humidity, the papermaker and inkmaker gives it a humanity, not a warmth. Each adds their time, consideration, experience and craft to the process, dealing with tools that are intricately linked to their physical beings, influenced as they are by their physical and emotional environment. Differences emerge, but that difference need not be seen as divergent from the ideal, but more of an opportunity to add experience, solve problems, and show consideration. We are imperfect beings, and while it is laudable to strive for perfection, it is wise to realise that attaining it is not necessarily prudent, because in doing so we lose something fundamental to who we are, and what we wanted all along.

    Letterpress isn’t coming back to replace litho, and neither should it, but the lesson of Stern loud and clear is that it has a place and should not be allowed to die. The quality of offset lithography and the customisation and accessibility of digital presses have their place, but it is not as king and queen of printing to the exclusion of all others. I do not believe, however, that letterpress should remain the sole preserve of boutique printing. Books that are to remain in your collection for years deserve the careful considered humanity of the letterpress process and faces such as Stern, and I am sure that the poems that will benefit from this face for which they were designed will be served in exemplary fashion. But letterpress has other uses, should you, my fellow designers, choose to use it. Alan Kitching’s poster work springs to mind as a perhaps obvious example. So too does low run business cards (and be honest, most of them are). You would be remiss as a designer to not consider all reasonable options, but the sign of a good designer is the ability to assess that word reasonable, and remember it does not always just mean easy. And as for cost, how much do you charge per hour? And how much did that laminate cost? Or the hexachrome printing? Come to think of it, how may of those cards from the last run went to waste?

    Go forth, consider pressing ink into paper. Consider it not from dogma, but from what might just be worth the candle.

    *: how successful that particular approach was is debatable, feeling a little closer to photocopy than to letterpress, but it was at least an attempt to maintain authenticity.

    Copyright ©1999-2009 David John Earls and Yves Peters, with all rights reserved.