“It is an invasive and drug-resistant species that may never be eradicated.” How Helvetica ate the world.


Since its launch in 1957, it’s become the go-to type for company logos and transport hubs, making it one of the most widespread designs of all time.


This article by Jacopo Prisco tells the story about how the ubiquitous typeface survived oblivion partly because of a canny name change and partly because it was so… well… boring. Other contemporary faces, like Gill Sans, Futura, and Univers have so much more zizz, and yet Helvetica, and its demonic spawn Arial managed to survive and thrive to the point where “it’s like air…you have no choice”.

In 1968 it became the American Airlines logo American, which remained untouched until 2013 — one of the most enduring corporate identities of the 20th Century. It ends up — sometimes with minor variations — in countless company logos including those of BMW, Crate&Barrel, Fendi, Jeep, Kawasaki, Knoll, Lufthansa, Mattel, Nestlé, Panasonic, Scotch, Skype, Target, Texaco, Tupperware, and Verizon. NASA paints it on the side of the Space Shuttle. The US government redesigned its tax forms with it.

And of course Steve Jobs included it on the Macintosh in 1984.

Anyway, read the article.

How Letterpress Printing Came Back from the Dead | WIRED


As a point of information, people like Patrick Reagh in Los Angeles in the 1980s pioneered polymer preproduction, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that it was good enough for typography, which was about the same time that access to foundry type became scarce. 

While photopolymer, laser cutting, and 3d printing has been a welcome shot in the arm, we should also attempt to preserve the techniques, machines, and knowledge of traditional letterpress. Industrial ecology is a necessary part of cultural memory and maintaining our links to the past. 
At the time of the Boer War, wood engravings were competing with photography in the English newspapers. The engravers’ attempts to compete with the fidelity and tonality of photographs led to expertise and techniques that would be nearly impossible to achieve today, now that the knowledge of these tools and techniques have been lost.

Homage to the Yeats sisters and the Cuala Press

WB Yeats’ sisters, Susan (Lily) and Elizabeth (Lolly) were important cultural figures in their own right – having brought William Morris’ arts and crafts movement to Ireland and, through their Cuala Press, published some their brother’s most important work. I created this poster for Yeats Day 2017, and the LillyLolly craft trail that took place on the final weekend.

The illustration is of the Cuala Press premises on Lower Baggot Street, which they occupied between 1925 and 1942. The 1925 date comes from Gifford Lewis’ The Yeats Sisters and the Cuala Press, but Lewis didn’t say when they left – only that the press was located on Palmerston Road when Elizabeth died. Fortunately, Ellen O’Flaherty at Trinity College Dublin’s Manuscripts & Archives Research Library was able to retrieve TCD MS 11535 and cite some information that helped determine the likely date of the relocation.

The premises is now occupied by a restaurant, but there doesn’t seem to be any blue plaque indicating the building’s historical importance. One day, hopefully.

Bloomsdsay poster

Bloomsday is an annual celebration of James Joyce’s monumental novel Ulysses. The novel is set on 16 June 1904, and the first modern commemoration took place on that day in 1954, when Flann O’Brien, Patrick Kavanagh, AJ Cronin and others gathered (and failed) to commemorate the journey of Leopold Bloom – the novel’s main character the the novel’s main narrative plank.

Since that first commemoration it has evolved into a much loved tradition. Here is a video of the printing of a Bloomsday poster at Barking Angels Press, for the organisers of one of the local celebrations that take place throughout Ireland.


In 2014 I went to the Milltown Institute in Ranelagh, an old suburb close to the centre of Dublin, to collect a lovely old standing press. Established by the Jesuits in the 1880s as a school of theology and philosophy, it is still a teaching institute today. The Jesuit Library once had a full bindery, and though the library is still full operation, the bindery closed many years ago. The library slowly found good homes for the most of the equipment and sundries and I got some of the last pieces, including a few boxes of type, book papers and I didn’t know what else. I just grabbed a few things a saw lying around, since main purpose was to transport this 300kg book press back to Leitrim in my Skoda Fabia.

Last week I opened one of the boxes (a Henry Wintermans cigar box). Here is what was inside:

Fr Tom Counihan Memorare

I felt very moved and humbled thinking about the last time anyone had looked at this type and set it in this box, the hands that touched it, the ink it carried and the hands that wiped the type clean. I had a sense of reverence for this object – probably seen at the time in 1982 as an unremarkable piece of work like many many others – that was the product of human hands at nearly every stage. And my reverence for the object was the only way I could pay respect to those hands, and I felt a little sadness thinking that in this digital world such objects and experiences are becoming impossible.

Here is a poem by the American poet Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) called Hands, that also captures that same idea I think:

Inside a cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara
The vault of rock is painted with hands,
A multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men’s palms, no more,
No other picture. There’s no one to say
Whether the brown shy quiet people who are dead intended
Religion or magic, or made their tracings
In the idleness of art; but over the division of years these careful
Signs-manual are now like a sealed message
Saying: “Look: we also were human; we had hands, not paws. All hail
You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters
In the beautiful country; enjoy her a season, her beauty, and come down
And be supplanted; for you also are human.”

The Tao of Letterpress

In letterpress printing, you take letters, sculpted from brass and cast into little lead statues, and assemble them one by one into a line of text. You fill in the lines with spacing – also made of lead – until you have a solid block of type. You then secure this block inside a metal frame and place the whole thing on a printing press. The shapes of the letters, like the tops of mountains, are the highest points of the block. The printing press applies the ink to the letters, and then the paper, transferring the image of the letter to the paper.

This is how ideas were spread, minds delighted and incensed, revolutions proclaimed and peace enshrined for over 500 years, from its invention in the 15th century until the middle of the 20th. The joy of letterpress is not only that it invokes the greatness of history and civilisation, but that it does so by being so simple, ordinary, mechanical an activity. Assembling type is repetitive, almost tedious, as you pick, look, and place the letter in a tray called a composing stick, often discovering that it is the wrong letter (p’s look like q’s when setting type and it is important to mind them). If you finish setting and only then discover the wrong letter, or worse that you’ve left out an entire word, you have to surgically pull the whole thing apart and start over.

And the drudgery doesn’t end there. After all, if your block of type was perfectly flat, your paper perfectly smooth, your ink perfectly consistent, your rollers even, and every one of a hundred other conditions were just right, your output would be faultless. But in letterpress, as in life, none of these things are ever perfect.

And that’s where the skill, the art, and the mystery of it begins to emerge – in your own mind as well as in your hand and eye. You prepare, you test, you discover what’s wrong, you make corrections, you try again to compensate for faults that are largely intangible and undetectable except in their effect on the output – the printed page. You might even be the problem. You’re running the rollers too fast, you’re applying too much ink when really the problem is you haven’t set the rollers high enough.

But eventually you and your machines make peace with one another and you begin to act as one. And out of this union a thing of beauty is born. Letters, whose shapes resonate back to the hands of medieval scribes and Roman columns, on paper as sensual as a bed sheet, with ink as black as coal. And beyond the physical beauty are the words and pictures and what they convey, from simple poems to texts both sacred and profane.

It is all these things – the pain and the delight of them that makes letterpress printing a glory, and why so many printers today have these words (written by Beatrice Warde in 1932) on their wall:




First published in Make Believe: A Journal About Craft And Creativity