Does Letterpress matter?

Francis Atterbury, November 2011

I’ve been trying to think of a reason why it might be a good thing to learn about letterpress. And I think I’ve finally worked it out.


White space

It’s nothing to do with the way the type impresses into the paper whereby the slight raised ink levels around the character’s edge create an almost imperceptible three dimensional element to the work. Nothing to do with the simplicity of production and low waste levels. Nothing to do with the way choices of typeface, character spacing and font sizes remain with the type designer and punch-cutter rather than the person at the keyboard. No. It’s all to do with what isn’t printed.



In letterpress, to create a space between words, between lines and between pages you need to use physical pieces of material. You can’t merely press the space bar, type a return or drag a text-box. You have to think about it and select a thin, mid or thick word space (other spacing choices are available). You must decide just how much leading you want between the lines and how much margin around the page. I have to say you’re very unlikely to want one point leading – if you’ve ever tried to cast one point leads so it’s not all roses. My point is that the white space on the page becomes an equal partner to the printed matter.

I believe that thinking about a page in this way greatly aids legibility and pleasure for the reader and thus helps meaning. If you are involved with setting type, think of letterpress as a kind of National Service. You may not enjoy it much at the time but you’ll become a great deal tidier.


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