Blue-Collar Graphic Design

Gibbs Connors at Work

Gibbs Connors (image courtesy of Chevrolet)

‘Sign-Painting is basically blue-collar graphic design’

Gibbs Connors

What an apt description of the sign-making trade! That really sums it up. White collar graphic designers may battle carpal tunnel and neck cramps, but we of theĀ  blue-collar cover ourselves with sawdust and splatters of paint.

Sign-makers aren’t alone in our hands-on treatment of letters and colourful substances, however. There is another group of passionate and creative blue-collar graphic designers. Their industry – like ours – has also enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance in recent years. They use ink instead of enamels, and paper instead of plywood. I’m referring to the letterpress printing industry.

Letterpress Printed Gifts

Printed Items from Print for Love of Wood

In October, we received a small package in the mail. It was a letterpress-printed disc case, from Pristine Video Productions in Narooma. The case incorporated the logo we designed for them last June. Didn’t it look spiffy in a warm brown hue, pressed into some very natural-looking paper!

Letterpress Printed Disc Case

‘The Pristine logo seemed to suit itself to being printed in just one colour on a nice rustic brown kraft. The finished product looked like an effective little package!’ – Jacqui Sharples

It was printed in the UK by self-taught printer Jacqui Sharples of Print for Love of Wood. Since 2008, in a small studio in Lancashire, Jacqui has produced thousands of posters and printed gifts on a range of antique and vintage printing presses collected over the years. Jacqui says she loves the smell of ink, and describes letterpress printing as ‘addictive’.

Jacqui Sharples

Jacqui Sharples

She was once a white-collar graphic designer, doing work for newspapers and magazines, but it was the recession that brought that chapter to an end.

At first I was going to teach but print is in my blood and soon found myself bitten by the letterpress bug. I started my business whilst doing my full time degree and when I graduated I decided to take my business full time. You could look at it like I’m recycling my past in a way, except I’ve taken it back to it’s very roots…I feel so lucky to be doing what I love everyday. (The Art Market)

woodtype letters

(image courtesy of Claire Sutton)

I only used recycled stock so all my paper and card is carefully sourced and most of my inks are recycled from printers closing down. (Nook and Cranny)

I started off working from home with a small 8×5 Kesley Excelsior circa 1890, progressed to a garage, then finally in July 2012 I moved into my own studio in an old mill. My current setup is more or less what I’ve been dreaming of all along!

Letterpress Business Card

(image courtesy of Claudia Rose Carter)

I work using traditional methods of hand setting wood and metal type. Wood type being my true love, I enjoy the limitations it offers of only having a certain amount of typefaces and wood letters to choose from. It’s a very slow and time consuming process but very rewarding and makes you use your brain!

Print for Love of Wood Studio

Jacqui’s Studio (image courtesy of Claire Sutton)

With the advance of technology I can also use more modern methods of letterpress which allows me to work with small businesses like Pristine to produce branded products.
The beauty of letterpress is that you can produce small runs and by using polymer plates you can print almost anything without breaking the bank.

letterpress print

An antique Victorian plate, from Jacqui’s collection, and the the resulting printed image. (image courtesy of Paper Runway)

For photopolymer plates first you have to create a black and white version of your artwork. Each colour has it own plate and is run separately through the press.
In the case of Pristine I had to take the logo into Adobe Illustrator and change all the colours to black.
Most of the time this is very simple but the logo you guys designed consisted of hundreds of colours. When I converted it to monochrome, it just looked like a black blob. So, I had to eliminate some of the leaves.

tree of life logo

The Full-Colour Pristine Logo (Hundreds of colours!)

The plates are made by exposing a negative of the artwork on photopolymer to UV light. The plates are then washed out with water which leaves a raised image of your artwork.
Letterpress is best kept simple and using only one, two or three colours.

Unlike Colt Bowden, we will probably never have a letterpress of our own, standing in a corner of our sign-shop. But we look forward to collaboratingĀ on future projects with more colourful characters of the traditional printing industry!

Letterpress CD Case Recycled Paper

5 thoughts on “Blue-Collar Graphic Design

  1. I was introduced to graphic design in high school graphic arts classes in the 70s. My first palpable taste of printing was with California job cases, composing sticks and quoin-keyed chases dropped and locked into a vintage letterpress, hand fed with precut paper stock. Nothing more satisfying than a hand set type form, string tied, inked up and sent through the proof press to check for typos and nicked letters. I miss it tremendously. This post was a pleasure to read! Good luck Jacqui!

  2. Hey Pete. Thanks for sharing your printing memories. I remember printing lino-cuts on a grand old letterpress in the basement of our primary school. I loved how loud, smelly and complex the whole process was. Digital printing is so boring in comparison!

  3. My father in law Roger Palmer is an artist and printer, Did his apprenticeship in the old Rialto in the 1950s. He was the last owner of the hand-set radical Chiltern Press now owned by the National Trust and exhibited in Chiltern.. He was the last editor of the Federal Standard and Yackandanda Times which was the last newspaper type-set on this press.

  4. Thanks Meyer. Wouldn’t it be cool if there was still a hand-set newspaper? It would be worth subscribing just for that.

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