The economics of creativity isn’t as easy as math would lead you to believe! Case in point is collaboration. When two creatives work together feeding off one another providing support and critique - the sum is always greater than the work of the individuals. That is why creative partnerships produce such profound and interesting work.
Drew’s ABCs Letterpress Limited Edition is produced by a partnership which follows this formula. BRED, is a collaborative design lab, established in 2006 by founding partners Ned Drew and Brenda McManus. Their collaborative studio-based research often explores contemporary issues in design with a focus on how education can influence the creative industry.
A large portion of the studio’s work is dedicated to self-initiated experimental projects, which provide significant opportunities to creatively explore design thinking, process and its value to design education.
In addition to their commissioned design work, Ned and Brenda are letterpress enthusiasts (and educators). For 20+ years they have been collecting and building a library of woodblock type and line engraved images. Which they recently used to great effect in producing a limited-edition book of ABC's inspired by their son.
Limited to an edition of 350. In its wonderful pages, the alphabet comes alive. The concept for the book was to expose the richness of diversity within typography and celebrate its differences.
Brenda writes “We wanted to bring to light our love of typography and our reverence for design history and letterpress. We whole-heartedly embrace the imperfections as it unveils the history of each letterform. By drawing out these unique distinctions and differences, our goal is to impress upon the audience that “we learn to see as we see to learn”.”
The book also serves as a tool for learning to read using colour and layout structure to guide the viewer through visual connections of word and image. It is an experience not limited to the young and Brenda astutely notes that “We believe there is no age limit when it comes to appreciating the beauty of letterforms and craft. Our perceived audience is ages 2-100.”
I love the freedom in its pages, the historical references to Dadaism and the quality of print so as a middle age woman myself, I absolutely identify as part of the audience! I think it is such a terrific undertaking and am delighted to be sharing it here! So I got in touch with Brenda and Ned to learn more about the production process, project and how working together made the outcome stronger.
Can you tell us a little about the presses - what did you print on?
We produced the book on two Vandercook Universal III presses.
To discuss our relationship to the presses, I think it is important to provide a little history. I am an alumnus of Rutgers University-Newark, were the presses live. Ned and I first met through the Rutgers community when he joined the faculty in the early 90’s.
We both shared a passion for the letterpress printing process, so our crossing paths and having joint access to a space where there happened to be two underutilized presses, really was the beginning of our creative partnership. We have been collaborating and creating unique projects on these presses, which we recently spent a summer refurbishing, for the past 20+ years. In 2017 the presses found new life and purpose when they were moved to Express Newark, a Rutgers University - Newark community collaborative art space where artists in residence work alongside faculty, staff and students.
Each composition is a joy. How did you go about curating each page?
First, thank you, it is always reassuring and wonderful to hear that others enjoy your creative work. The size and diversity of the forms within our collection, how they work into the collective composition of the spread, and how an image would work with the text as well as a compositional element, was the main focus of our discussions.
Essentially Ned and I were simultaneously curating our collection, developing a narrative based on the collection, editing, researching and illustrating images while composing the compositions for the book. This was the seamless and integrated process that led us to the final choices for each spread design.
In terms of our design decisions, because we have been collecting these artifacts for so many years, we first needed to understand for ourselves the totality of what we had to work with. We began by sorting all the forms into boxes by alphabet, cataloging our collection. Our next step was to print all the forms, scan in the proof sheets and start the process of composing our layouts digitally, then writing with the collection in mind. Although this book was produced using the very analogue labor-intensive process of letterpress, the computer played an essential role. It was a backwards process from what we normally do. We used the computer to create a digital sketch, compose the spreads and strategize how we were going to produce the book, working out the measurements as they related to the presses.
We devised a system of printing the spreads in the order of their color builds, backwards and with an underlining pica grid. This allowed us to build the forms on the press bed in a more time-efficient manner.
In using the computer to compose the spreads, it allowed us to divide the alphabet and work on several spreads at a time, it also allowed us to easily share files and react to each other’s design choices. By working in tandem, we were able to unify the visual vocabulary, make informed decisions based on the contents of the collection, and recognize areas of need (images we were lacking in our collection).
We ended up creating approximately 40 images with the assistance of a generous faculty research grant from Pace University, and having type high blocks produced to complete the compositions as most of our collection was letterforms.
Throughout this phase of compositional construction, there was a lot of going back and forth, focusing on basic design principles of contrast and scale. In the making of this book we were inspired by several of our design heroes, in particular Bradbury Thompson, Piet Zwart and Lester Beall. Bradbury Thompson’s work exhibited an energized and inspired usage of wood engravings, primary colors and animated image/word interplay.
Piet Zwart’s work encouraged a layering of typographic elements and sense of typographic playfulness. And Lester Beall’s work motivated us with a keen sense of contrast through size, shape, direction and color. All three of these design luminaries brought together complex resources to develop work that is simple yet complex, visually dynamic, as well as brilliantly balanced. It was with this inspiration in mind that we evaluated our design choices and how we would work with our collection.
Once we agreed that we resolved our “rules” for evaluating our design, our final step was looking at the spreads in the format of a book to ensure individual spreads were visually dynamic but also shared a visual cohesiveness and structure to feel unified as a book.
How did your son Drew respond to the finished book (and was he involved in the production process?)
He loves the book. We are not sure if he fully understands the scope of what we were doing or why, but he is very proud that his name is on it. He loved getting to “help” with the process and loves printing (mostly because he knows mom and dad love it). He did get to pull some prints which he was super proud of. We have noticed an explosion of his interest in drawing and creating narratives/books. It could be coincidental, but we like to think exposing him to this process has played a role in his new found love of visual expression. I think revealing the making process of anything really changes how you experience that object. But, honestly, his biggest joy was getting to serve as the “police” for the print room. He even designed and made badges for everyone printing.
What roles did each of you play in the collaboration and how did working together enrich the work?
The process was very immersive, so it is difficult to really define specific roles. There were so many points of inflection and decision-making along the way that we had to be in constant discussion throughout the process.
We were both acutely aware that every choice we made would have an impact moving forward, so in order to pull off a project of this magnitude, we had to be on the same page every step of the way or pause the process until we hashed things out. From the start, we both had a shared set of parameters that were defined by the limitations of the machines (size of the press bed) and the collection themselves (an eclectic collection of type and image). These limitations were actually very useful–they really helped us establish a point of departure, a defined paper size, format and understanding of what we could and could not do given the collection.
Like I mentioned above, we scanned the proof sheets and divided up the alphabet and started to experiment using the scanned type and images to build compositions digitally. There was a lot of back and forth on this phase, sharing files and evaluating the layouts until we agreed upon some tighter parameters such as the text we would use for our nonsensical sentences (using only words of the particular letter this was also driven by the images we had for each letter), typefaces for the smaller text, and the placement and structure of the type to establish the grid for the book.
Deciding which typefaces to use for the content was defined by a few factors. We knew we wanted a historically relevant font to reference modernism. Helvetica was a consideration (I like working with Helvetica, Ned not so much) as we knew we could get access to the type.
But Akzidenz-Grotesk was our preferred typeface–we both agreed it had more personality, and we both really love it for this project. However, we knew it would be more challenging to get access to the hot metal type to print.
It took some creative research within the letterpress community, but Ned was able to get in touch with Rainer Gerstenberg of Frankfurt am Main, Germany, (thank goodness for Google translate).
Rainer had the matrixes on loan from the Museum fur Druckkunst (Museum for Printing Arts) in Leipzig, and he could reproduce the type for us.
Once we knew we could have the hot metal Akzidenz-Grotesk type produced in the sizes we needed, we quickly settled on the addition of Palatino italic, as it was a classic, historically relevant typeface we had and we agreed it would provide a nice contrast.
In a lot of ways, the collaboration on the design of the book was the easiest part because the collection really informed a lot of our decisions. In contrast, dealing with the unforeseeable challenges and complexities involved within the process of printing the book proved much more difficult. This was probably our biggest test to date in terms of collaborators and as a couple. There are so many variables to keep a vigilant eye on at any given time during the printing process that stress levels elevate very quickly and often. We knew it was going to be a big project, but once we started we quickly realized the true magnitude of the project and that we really would sink or swim together. The physical and mental demands were pretty intense. We moved into a friend’s apartment in the building where the presses live for five weeks during the summer and ran the presses day and night splitting our printing schedules between day and night shifts while also balancing shared time parenting. Hands down it was the most challenging five weeks of both of our creative careers.
I think the thing we are both really proud of is how we were able to push through the process and come through on the other side without having to compromise our design, our vision, our goals, or our relationship for this book, in spite of the challenges we faced. We trusted ourselves, each other and stayed true to our vision through it all, no matter how stressful and painful it was at times. I feel we both really grew both creatively and as collaborators through the adversities. If you can negotiate a solution and maintain a relationship under the stress of extreme mental and physical exhaustion, you can negotiate anything. With the completion of this venture, we have learned how to better navigate our own limitations and have gained a great deal of confidence in our creative problem-solving skills (although we both agree a much smaller, less complex collaboration may be the healthier choice for our next exploration).
How did Drew’s ABCs build your creative confidence and feed into the commission work you do for clients?
I think there is nothing more terrifying yet rewarding then believing in an idea and going all in, without any real guarantees of how your journey will end. You have to bet on yourself and each other when you collaborate. That is one thing we both feel really strongly about and probably the main reason our relationship as creative collaborators works.
With that said, there is a good reason it took five years from idea to production with this project. The timing and commitment we knew it would take, was never right. In addition to maintaining our studio and creative practice, we are both design educators. Balancing teaching, administrative and professional responsibilities with an incredibly time-intensive, self-initiated project is rather difficult. However, I think we both realized if we were to wait until the timing was perfect, we would never do the project. We soon realized through our discussions that we had to make space for this project. It was scary knowing we were going to invest a lot of time and resources without knowing how it would play out. We believed in what we were doing, but we had no way of knowing how others would respond to the project—that was slightly terrifying.
The nature of our collaborations, which often involve letterpress, are very time and labor intensive, and even though Drew is still young, we felt exposing him to the process would be a way for us to really integrate our personal and professional life in a purposeful way and that was important to us both. So, when we made the decision to go all in, we knew we were making a huge commitment that was going to profoundly impact our life balance and relationship. We had faith in each other, but most importantly, we really believed in the value of creating this artifact, this object. We sensed the project could expose a new audience to our shared love of history and typographic craft within a book form, a medium that engenders intimate learning experiences that foster dialogue. Something we as parents have a deep appreciation for.
With Drew entering Kindergarten, we really felt driven to do the project. He was at an age where he could connect with and benefit from the book we were producing. He was starting to read, recognize and question differences in letterforms, and he was able to bridge more complex concepts like word and image relationships. His curiosity and questions were a big influence in our design approach for the book.
It challenged us to explore various learning processes as well as the role design could play in aiding that development and growth.
We realized there were so many things we take for granted around the richness, beauty and diversity of our everyday environment. Seeing the world through the eyes of a child is such a great reminder that every experience is a learning opportunity, children have the natural instinct to question everything—it’s how they make sense of their world. I think one of the greatest gifts Drew has given us through his tireless curiosity is the reminder that we “learn to see, see to learn”. This phrase was coined by Pamela Horn of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in a recent meeting we had and it has become our mantra for this project—it is what we hope to reinforce in others through the book.
We are both avid believers that the process of printing via letterpress makes us stronger designers. The process dictates a series of subproblems at any given point that really test one’s ability to creatively problem-solve, engaging many different types of thinking. It forces you to slow down and work through each of your actions, there are no short cuts—every action has an impact on the next, so you have to engage in and sharpen your spatial, compositional design skills as well as strategic and analytical thinking to succeed.
For each composition you have to physically compose it in parts, upside down and backwards and then have to make sure those pieces all align in the manner in which you intended, one layer at a time and in the correct color build. There is no “command-Z.” For each spread, composing the forms, registering and printing 200 sheets (2 spreads multiplied by six different press lock ups) took approximately a week to produce. So, if something goes off plan, you are faced with having to work through it—it becomes a new problem to solve. You learn very early on to be flexible as no matter how thorough you think you are being challenges will arise, and you have to learn to trust that there is always a solution, no matter how daunting the problem at hand may seem. This is where your confidence grows—if you don’t build and nurture that trust in yourself, in your collaborator, in the process, then you will fail. The experiences and growth that happens in working in a process like this carries forward when you change mediums—you are conditioned to be more detail-oriented and to think through all aspects of your work. It strengthens a bond with your creative mind and ability to effectively work with others—it’s like an intense boot camp for the creative thinking and process.
What challenges were there along the way?
There were so many challenges it would be impossible to list them all. And I am not sure if I can mentally handle reliving them. The phrase “pain points” is the perfect way of wording this question as it so adequately describes the experience. I think that is in part why the process is so addictive—it is such an intense process and you really feel like you have earned your results. There is such a deep appreciation for the final artifact that few processes can match.
From the start we struggled. Our first goal, which we naively thought was simple, was to have a commercial printer print our grid (trim and fold lines) evenly spaced from all four edges of the paper with two grids printed on each sheet (two up). If it was printed with the measurement of all four sides of the paper perfectly evenly, then it would allow us to effectively print two spreads up on one sheet and guarantee both sides would register perfectly, and it would simplify the final production of trimming and folding the spreads. It took two separate print runs and a lot of conversations back and forth with the commercial printer, and in the end, we still had to live with a slight measurement shift of the grids on the paper.
To pull off the production of the book, we knew that we were going to need help running two presses and that the total printing process would take months (it was 7 in total) to complete. We also recognized that it was a unique educational opportunity we could provide, so we enlisted a small army of design students from both Pace University-NYC where I teach, and Rutgers-Newark where Ned teaches. Opening the experience to students was something we both felt was an important opportunity—most of our collaborations focus on the educational value and merits of immersive creative processes as a learning tool. With that said, as anyone who teaches knows, bringing students into the process involves a lot of energy, patience and time. Some of the students had been exposed to letterpress before, but for others it was their first experience. We assumed most would run away once they got a sense of the reality of their commitment, however to our pleasant surprise, all became completely enamored with the project to the point where we had to ask them to scale back their commitment because we had too many helpers.
For our students, we conducted a series of crash course workshops in all aspects of printing, from type-setting to color-management, to making sure all of those involved were up to a proficient skill level to print. There was always one of us on press with the students to oversee and ensure everything was on track—we were both aware that opening our collaboration to students would only be successful if the quality of work did not suffer. Although in a lot of ways this added even more stress and complexity within the process, I don’t think there is any single experience that was more satisfying and rewarding then witnessing the bonds that developed amongst the team and the growth in confidence and skills of everyone involved from working towards our shared goal. We are immensely proud of and grateful for our team.
As a way of giving back to the students, we ended up expanding the project to allow for each individual to contribute in a creative manner to the book. Each student chose a letter of the alphabet from our collection and designed a wrap for the book/poster. Each student worked within an established system so that the posters would complement the book yet stand alone. I served as the art director and worked with each student on the design and development of their posters. This is an ongoing process as coordinating and printing all the posters will take time.
Being in the thick of the production process with the students also provided a number of learning experiences for Ned and myself. As I mentioned before, challenges arise and you are faced with thinking on your feet to resolve without compromising the design. I think the greatest lesson learned is to trust no matter how vulnerable the process makes you feel. Trust yourself that your ideas have value and you can work through the solution, trust your collaborators, you chose to work with them for a reason.
I will end with one very poignant example of trusting your collaborators. Our greatest fear throughout this process was finding a typo. Both Ned and myself are dyslexic and both of us are acutely aware of the challenges this can pose for us working in this process without a spell check feature/option. Due to this fact, we were both obsessive about checking spelling throughout the process. If you look at and obsess over the spelling of a word enough it begins to look wrong even when its correct. I cannot tell you how many times I looked up the word “tomato”. Naturally our instincts were to really control this aspect of the project to ensure there were no mistakes.
Each spread started with us printing the text type as all other elements played off of its alignment. This was by far the most stressful component to print mainly because you have no visual reference to align your type with and mistakes can easily go unnoticed at this phase. You have to measure constantly to ensure nothing shifts as you progress as a line of small type on a large blank sheet can really challenge your perception of alignments. There are details like the dot on the eye suddenly stops printing or an “e” prints uneven or you discover you used the wrong size spacer and the baseline on a word ever so slightly starts dancing. If you are not vigilant you will discover your mistake two or three prints later and at that point it’s too late. Naturally obsessive spell checking was part of this process, however, even with this we discovered a dreaded typo at the conclusion of our printing. Even though this served no comfort, the typo was such an incredibly common typo that both spellings (the incorrect and correct) are often used (apparently when we spell checked we were not aware of this and unfortunately came across the incorrect spelling).
The thought of reprinting a spread was really deflating. We were both trying to come to terms with a solution to minimize the cost of time and resources without sacrificing all the work we had put into the book. So, after a week of back and forth trying to come up with the least invasive solution, one of our amazing students just casually says “why don’t you print a letterform over the word to mask it?” It was such a simple and obvious solution that we had somehow over looked. I think we were so focused on the pain of the situation we couldn’t clearly see what was right in front of us the whole time. In that moment, it was an affirmation to trust in your collaborators, you chose to work with them for a reason. Happy to say problem was solved.
What paperstocks and Inks did you use to produce the document?
We used Mohawk Carnival Vellum Yellow 80C and Mohawk Via Vellum Scarlet 80C for the cover sheets. The fly sheets are Mohawk Britehue Vellum Red 60 Text and the interior sheets are Mohawk Loop Silk Coated White 70 text.
The inks we used are rubber-based Van Son Inks—PMS 123, 199, 284, Metallic Silver and Black.
Where can people buy this book?
The book can be purchased through our website or by contacting us at email@example.com. We are in the process of scheduling some events where the book will also be available so keep an eye out for announcements via our Instagram, facebook page and website.
And how can people connect with you and stay abreast of your future work?
Social media is the best method of following our work and inquire about collaborations. We are always looking for interesting projects/people to get involved with and build creative collaborative opportunities.