In the early 80's (when I was a kid) my dad worked at the New Zealand Herald. One of his responsibilities was phasing out 'old' technology - to test, develop and install newer (& more efficient) plate making and press technologies for the newspaper - it was around this time that my fascination with print media and its evolution began. Today I move between technologies - My Mac keyboard is discoloured and stained by my inky fingers as I jump from typesetting with metal and wood in my backyard print pavilion to the design and typesetting of books in a digital environment for my clients.
I believe the tension between technologies and understanding how new-can-inform-old and old-inform-new is incredibly exciting.
When I first discovered the work of Novo Typo's Mark van Wageningen my heart skipped a beat - Mark practises typography (and type design) in the space where analogue and digital meet. His work seeks to 'reverse typographic history' by taking 21st-century digital fonts constructed with pixels and Bézier curves back through mechanical processes toward analogue 15th-century outcomes.
At the time Mark was working on Bixa (his polychromatic woodtype project I profiled in TYPOgraphJournal vol04). Bixa was his first polychromatic face to be available in both digital formats and an 81.2 mm moveable font for letterpress printing.
Dutch authority on type Jan Middendorp points out that this phenomenon of contemporary designers investigating “out-dated” technologies, like letterpress, is growing. “The combination of digital design and offset printing is simply too precise. Too sterile and flat. The third dimension is missing. Of course, it is possible to take type and illustration into Illustrator or Photoshop and give them a worn surface or a rough edge; but that is just as artificial as the transformation of a razor-sharp digital picture into something fuzzy from days of old by clicking an Instagram filter. It sure has something, but no soul. To see one’s own letterforms really come alive, with real depth, overlapping colours, and a subtle imperfection that is both unpredictable and soulful, analogue printing is a very nice tool indeed.”
Mark's most recent project (Launching 17 March 2017) is also a collision of old print and new graphic technologies. Mark designed Ziza to change how type designers think about form and colour. Another polychromatic design, this time modular and interlocking. Ziza relies on the depth of layered colour to build its robust forms. Chromatic typefaces on smaller font sizes are an interesting challenge for the designer, the typecaster and the printer. Mark commissioned new (mechanical engraving) matricies, before the 36 Didot point (13.5 mm) font (born in beziers) was cast in a hot liquid mix of seventy percent lead and thirty percent tin and antimony (by the Westzaan Type foundry's Monotype super caster) as shiny new sorts for composition!
The Ziza moveable type system for letterpress is designed to be layered with 2-3 impressions in different colours and styles per character. As the leaden characters meet the paper, the ink is gently squeezed down the beard of the type. The irregularities of this process give the printed typeface a warm, human and ‘imperfect’ feel. Each printed instance of these digital letterforms highlights the potential of analogue craft to enrich digital media. This project is a genuine triumph of old and new!
To showcase the system and the potential of polychromatic type in contemporary design and print, Mark created the Novo Typo Colour Type book. Produced as a limited edition of 750 copies. 3 x pms offset + 2 pms letterpress, 104 pages, hardcover, size 16.5 x 24 cm. (Published by the Buitenkant. ISBN 9789490913656.) Mark's proofing of the book was exhaustive. He rejected and perfected the registration many times over to achieve the precision that Ziza demands.
The Novo Typo Color Book promotes a new wave of polychromatic type, it looks at the legacy of multicoloured typography in print and speculates about its future possibilities in digital environments. The book celebrates craftsmanship in print and high-quality production.
In its preface, Gerad Unger points out Hollywood movies are no longer produced in black and white film and urges type designers to free themselves from thinking in these restrictive monochromatic terms. Typographers have more advanced technology at our disposal than ever before, Unger deems this a 'Golden Age of Design' with software making design practice simple and accessible. So he encourages us to experiment and embrace possibilities, to advance our thinking (rather than just produce more of the same).
This is critical (and colourful!) time we are in; our work should reflect that vibrancy, and polychromatic type enables us to do exactly that.
The photos in the slide show above document the creation of the physical type supplied by Ronald Steur of Stichting Lettergieten 1983