Monday, July 25, 2011

Mainstream Wood Type

I originally heard about Hamilton Wood Type when the Typeface movie came out. Now they're partnering with Target to make some tshirts.

I love having another glimpse inside this wood type museum, but honestly, I'm a little torn on this one. On one hand, I'm thrilled that Hamilton is getting attention (and presumably compensation) by a big name like Target. It will help to ensure their long-term survival, and that's important to me. And then there's the other hand:

Though it's not all clearly detailed in the video, it looks like they found some images they liked, printed them, and then will scan and resize/recolor the images and laying out the design electronically. Don't get me wrong, that method absolutely makes sense for large scale production.

But in case you're not as obsessed with wood type and letterpress printing as I am, let me explain a bit more: the texture of the wood type and the fact that it's old isn't the only thing that's interesting.

Before modern conveniences like digital printing and incredibly helpful design programs, you had two options for producing printed materials: either choose the typeface and font size that a printer had on hand, or have your own specially made. If you can just resize and tweak the image on your computer, are you missing the point of working within the confines of available type?

The person manning a letterpress printing press was (and is today) mixing and applying the inks by hand. So if you ordered a print one day and the ink looked bright and lemony one day, but the next day it looked like old mustard, instead of saying "wow, what charming handcrafted variation," you'd probably be saying "this isn't my brand color, what am I paying you for?" (Were there sticklers for brand consistency many years ago? I'm not sure, but we'll roll with it.)
So if someone can just change colors and adjust textures on their computer, then why start with wood type in the first place? I enjoy the potential for imperfection and variation that comes with letterpress printing, but why did Target go to Hamilton if their project wouldn't really be using letterpress or the wood type in a meaningful way?

I suppose my complaint (if there is a complaint worth making) is that these tshirts are portrayed as having the authenticity of a handcrafted object, but are as mass-produced as any other clothing item in a big box store.

What do you think? Am I way off base here?

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