Digital/Material Relationships: CSM Letterpress Workshop


Upon entering the CSM Letterpress Workshop I felt like I’d gone back in time. A stark difference to the aluminium MACs and flat PCs in the digital printing space set just on the other side of the glass partition. With the smell of ink and wood, textured colours, and sounds of the American south playing overhead the workshop’s atmosphere fills your senses. After this first wave of nostalgia had passed, it soon became apparent that the workshop was anything but stuck in the past.


Run by specialist technician Helen Ingham, the space and its machines are used primarily by BA Graphic Design and MA Communication Design students – offering the opportunity to work with type in a way that digital tools do not allow. A graphic designer herself, Helen became interested in letterpress prior to completing her MA in Communication Design at CSM. For her postgraduate research and major project she decided to delve deeper into the possibilities provided by letterpress – undertaking an internship at Hatch Show Print located in Nashville, Tennessee – after realising that every poster for the music she loved was printed by them.

"Helen the Riveter" - Specialist Technician Helen Ingham

“Helen the Riveter” – Specialist Technician Helen Ingham

Although there is little to no presence of digital technology in the space, letterpress is far from a rejection of the possibilities proposed by digital technology. There isn’t a digital/material dichotomy in the workshop; it is a space where the two are working together. As she was setting type for signs to be printed for last weeks degree show, Helen explained that the process of physically setting the metal letters for print allows a deeper understanding of on screen typography. The thought and placement required in setting the type adds another dimension to the designers understanding of layout, negative space and even math. In having to prepare what will be printed more abstractly, or backwards, than its digital counterpart, the print is first a 3D object that you must manipulate and experiment with. This extra layer of consideration or abstraction is what Helen and those using the space say can enhance the use of digital design tools.


A prime example of the digital/material relationship is illustrated in third year BA Graphic Design student Soo Kyung Kim’s work. After using the workshop previously, for her final project she wanted to explore how having a letterpress outcome would influence her process in designing a new typeface. With that objective in mind Soo designed her ‘Locho Sans’ typeface, the characters of which were then laser cut onto wood blocks to be used in printing the final design in the letterpress workshop. From concept to print, the entire process took one month and is the first time a project of its kind was designed, built and printed in CSM Kings Cross.

Wood blocks of Soo Kyung Kim’s 'Locho Sans' typeface

Wood blocks of Soo Kyung Kim’s ‘Locho Sans’ typeface

Soo Kyung Kim with a final 'Locho Sans' print

Soo Kyung Kim with a final ‘Locho Sans’ print

With the rise of digital technologies the letterpress workshop serves not as a way of holding on to the past but as an additional element to our creative toolkit. As 3D printers are revolutionising the digital/material relationship in practices such as architecture, letterpress also marries the two for visual communicators. The future of the practices taught at the college are constantly being addressed – as Caroline Christie recently underlined in an article describing the way first year BA Graphic Design is responding to the evolution of digital platforms – and with a deeper understanding of what technologies already exist, students will be better prepared to push the boundaries of their subject areas. As Helen explains,

In pushing the older technology to it’s limits we are learning about the process, which in turn allows us to plan our work better and make stronger design decisions – both digitally and otherwise.

Students in the workshop agreed, in using letterpress you are far from rejecting digital tools but are instead developing your relationship with the way you see, appreciate and work with them.


BA Graphic Design:

MA Communication Design:

Helen Ingham, Letterpress Specialist Technician:

Soo Kyung Kim, BA Graphic Design:

Print & Digital Publishing in BA Graphic Design:

All images by Lu “Leo” Qin