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Lessons to be learnt from the printing days of old

April 19, 2011

The more I think about it I have realised that one of the major problems we have when designing presentations, or indeed documents of any kind is that it is just too easy.
It is too easy to add in useless or excessive decoration in your powerpoint, or use 15 different fonts of all colours and styles in your word doc. The fact that it is so easy to throw together a design combined with the fact that there is a complete lack of guidance on the part of Microsoft and co. in terms of what is good design practice and what isn’t can and does lead to truly horrific results.

Of course it wasn’t always so easy to design a document.

I recently visited the National Print Museum in Dublin, and despite what you might be inclined to think it really is more fun that it sounds. Well it might not be “fun” but it is certainly interesting.

As I wandered around what struck me first is that printing anything – even recently enough in the grand scheme of history – was a hard business. Rather than simply hitting a couple of keys on a computer and pressing “print” you had to do some hard work.

  • First you had to acquire your letters, a big box of them, which came as freaking LEAD BLOCKS.
  • Then you had to assemble these blocks manually, all in mirror image,
  • All the while taking care of spacing, alignment, sizes etc manually (no “align left” function here)
  • And once you had done all of that you could print your block of little lead blocks onto paper using a printing press.

Achieving more than simple letter printing was another Herculean task of its own. If you wanted to add colour, font variation, shapes and pictures well… you were in for a long day at the office. You really had to be sure that the elements you wanted included were important to the overall design because adding superfluous bits and pieces was going to take time, a lot of time (and lead).

Design back then was slow and intentional, everything had to be thought out carefully and clearly before production even began on a piece of print work. New elements were added only after deep thought on the subject and were not merely placed in the design on a whim. I think it is this process of careful consideration and thoughtfulness that we must all consider when creating our documents. I am of course not saying that we should design our presentations or documents exactly like they did back in the days of lead block printing. But the principle of designing things in a well thought out and intentional manner where all elements must prove themselves valuable is a good one to keep in mind at all times.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark Meinema permalink
    April 21, 2011 8:13 pm

    This really boils down to the notion that the more constraints/limitations you have, the more creative your solution will be. Whether it is limited time, resources or lead 😉 you will be more creative because of it!

  2. April 14, 2014 8:18 pm

    I’m glad to have done the “old-fashioned” typesetting using the lead type back in my junior high school “Printmaking” class (circa 1983). It really taught us a lot about typesetting and the long, painstaking process to create the simplest things like a business card, which I still have some samples of, by the way.

    Aside from things being “too easy” these days, the other thing that’s missing are the tactile features of products that were produced with the old printing presses. You just can’t replicate the characteristic relief of lead type that’s been pressed into paper, and the way the ink wells up in the contours, for example.

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