LetterMPress: An iPad App That Brings New Meaning to Movable Type

7/15/11Follow @wroush

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use a pinching or spreading gesture. This is the one major respect in which LetterMPress departs from an actual print shop. In the physical world you’d obviously need whole sets of type carved in different sizes to achieve the same effect. But why provide drawer after drawer of virtual type when it’s so much easier to pinch and spread? (If only the real world worked that way.)

Bonadies and Adams have also gone to great trouble to make objects in the app feel solid. The individual pieces of type knock into each other with a realistic clicking noise, and you can push around whole rows of type like children’s blocks. In fact, as you slide things around on the press bed you have to be careful not to knock your layouts out of kilter. (I guess that’s what the furniture is for.)

3) While LetterMPress teaches you a lot about how a real letterpress works, it also exposes something important about software. Specifically, it provides an antidote to the process of abstraction that has obsessed builders of productivity, publishing, and graphics software for the last couple of decades.

When programmers reduce an object, task, or idea to a representation, then hide away the details in code, they are engaging in abstraction. As standard desktop productivity, graphics, and publishing software has matured, it has also become more and more riddled with abstractions. A simple example is the scrollbar in a document window. The position of the knob or grip within the bar is an abstraction representing your current location in the document. Such abstractions usually add power—but they can also add obscurity. The Kindle e-book reader is a good example: because font sizes (and therefore page lengths) can vary on the device, it reports your progress in the form of an all-but-useless “location number.”

This LetterMPress poster was made using three separate impressions, one for each color.

With a physical, printed book or newspaper, of course, your location in the text is so obvious you don’t need a representation at all. And that’s the beauty of LetterMPress: it couldn’t be more literal. Most tasks in the program can be accomplished entirely without abstractions. What you see really is what you get.

Examples of literal design in tablet-based software aren’t rare: in Apple’s music-creation program GarageBand for iPad, for instance, the controls on the virtual synthesizers and guitar amplifiers look and act like old-fashioned analog dials. Examples like this are enough to make you wonder whether abstraction is always a virtue, or is often just a shortcut. Maybe we’ve just been waiting all this time for computers and interfaces powerful enough to represent the physical world without graphical abstractions.

Okay, enough philosophizing for this week. The bottom line: LetterMPress is groundbreaking app that any designer, artist, typography fan, history buff, or general iPad aficionado will want to own. I used the app to make this week’s special “World Wide Wade” logo, as well as the poster at left. You can see a whole Facebook gallery of LetterMPress creations here. Happy printing!

Here’s the official LetterMPress overview video:

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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