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

7/15/11Follow @wroush

If you’re a follower of this column, you know that I write a lot about apps for the iPhone and iPad. It’s not just because I’m an Apple fan. It’s also because these revolutionary touchscreen-based devices are attracting some of today’s most creative developers, who are writing software unlike anything we’ve ever seen on other platforms.

One of the most stunning examples to date is a program called LetterMPress.

Released last week by Champaign, IL-based Bonadies Creative, LetterMPress is a $5.99 graphics app for the iPad that lets you create digital posters and cards that look as if they were made using wood type on an old-fashioned letterpress printing machine. But while that’s an accurate description of the app’s output, it’s a woefully insufficient summary. After all, if you just want to make graphics that have an antique look, there are dozens of desktop and tablet apps to choose from. What makes LetterMPress unusual is that it’s also a wonderfully faithful re-creation of an actual letterpress—a 1964 Vandercook SP-15 cylinder proofing press, to be exact.

To make a finished print with LetterMPress, you have to go through all the same steps a journeyman printer would: arranging type on the press bed, locking it in place, choosing ink and paper, cranking the carriage handle to roll the impression cylinder across the press. The app even has sound effects. Only in the final step, when you share your finished graphic, do you depart from the traditional letterpress process—at least, I’m pretty sure Gutenberg didn’t post his prints to Facebook.

Why go to all this trouble when you could just use a graphics program like Photoshop? Haven’t Adobe, Apple, and other companies spent the last two decades perfecting graphics software specifically to free us from all the old constraints of analog printing technology? Those are legitimate questions—and they go to the heart of what makes LetterMPress so interesting. If you ask me why this app isn’t just for typography geeks, but in fact represents a major milestone in mobile app design, I’ll give you three reasons.

1) LetterMPress’s graphical effects are rooted in the physical world of type, ink, and paper, which means you can make genuinely unique art with it—stuff that isn’t possible in other graphics programs.

The type used to create the World Wide Wade logo above.

To create the app, graphic designer John Bonadies started by collecting old wood-block type and art in a variety of fonts. (Donations collected through the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform helped that process along. Full disclosure: I pledged $10 to the Kickstarter campaign back in March, and received a free download of the finished app as a thank-you gift.) Bonadies and his collaborator on the project, Jeff Adams, scanned the type to create digital images. Creating a layout in the app involves dragging these images onto the press bed, then arranging or resizing them as you see fit. It’s all illustrated in the video on page 2.

Bonadies also made real impressions using the type, under varying degrees of pressure. Scans of those impressions serve as the patterns for the finished prints you make in the app. You can also choose from 21 different varieties of paper, all scanned from real sheets to ensure a realistic texture. The end result: prints produced using LetterMPress bear all the idiosyncrasies of the physical type and paper that Bonadies used, pockmarks and all.

Thanks in part to the vintage, handcrafted feel of letterpress prints, there’s a mini-Renaissance underway in real letterpress design. “Call it a reaction to the ‘perfect’ look of laser printing,” Bonadies wrote at the LetterMPress Kickstarter page. Thanks to the app, you don’t have to own a letterpress to match this look yourself.

2) The app powerfully highlights the strengths of the touchscreen interface.

It’s hard to imagine another scenario where direct manipulation of digital objects, without a mouse or cursor in the way, would be more natural and useful. In LetterMPress you move type and furniture—the spacers, locks, and magnets that hold type in place—by dragging with your fingers. If you want to make a particular letter smaller or bigger, you simply 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 Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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