Letterpress Culture: Engendering Sustainability

The culmination of our research was the creation of an insight-driven opportunity map that illustrates how the letterpress community might create sustainable best practices for press training and ownership that encourages preservation of the craft. The opportunities included:

1. The formalization of an apprenticeship, or licensing, program

2. Toolkits and workshops for business planning

3. Space planning guides for optimizing productivity

4. “Open Press” programs that create relationships within the local community

5. A public awareness campaign that educates people about the art and craft of letterpress printing

Download the Opportunity Map here.

Week 9: Final Models (J)

Based on feedback from Professor Siniscarco and fellow design management students, I have revised my models. In general, these models were simplified to reflect universal letterpress culture vs. specific reference to Igloo in Worthington. I’ve also color-coded each model consistently to represent roles of an apprentice, journeyman and master type functionality.

The most visible change is a move to a radial diagram to illustrate how there is a steep initial learning curve for letterpress skills when learning to set up print jobs. The revised models are here.


Week 8: Affinity Mapping and Insight Report (J)

This week my time at Igloo was very limited. I stopped in one day to take some additional photos of the space to support of the research and for reference purposes. I also brought my daughter along so she could redeem her coupon for a letterpress bookmark—a reward for participating in the Worthington Library’s summer reading program (below). The giraffe bookmark is one of Allison’s favorites and she mentioned that she has been printing that plate since she was a kid. Talk about a passion for letterpress.

Allison was printing 3D posters (below) and she let my daughter turn the handle on Vandy #4 to make a print. Pretty great to watch your 6 year-old letterpress for the first time.

IMAG1322    IMAG1192

Affinitization and insights were the focus of our team’s research this week. After three rounds of affinitization patterns began to emerge from the data that support the following insights:

1. Letterpress has an apprenticeship-like model
2. There is a need to balance systems ad creativity
3. Letterpress print shops are very self-reliant
4. There is a need for flexible work space
5. Owning a plate maker is a significant advantage
6. Network and community are essential to letterpress shops

This is the resulting Affinity Diagram that supports the insights above.


These insights, informed by research and affinitization of the data, support opportunities, “how we might. . .” statements and potential design ideas and scenarios in the Insight Report attached here .


Week 8: Affinity Mapping and Insights Report (Amber)

This week we faced the task of grouping our data using an affinity map and then mining insights.

I began by transcribing my notes onto Post-It Notes using a color-coding system:

> Pink indicated a direct quote form or personal fact about Casey McGarr

> Teal indicated information regarding influencers, networks and diffusion of information throughout the letterpress community

> Yellow indicated information about letterpress equipment and processes

photo (5)

After transcription, I began to group like ideas together. As I grouped them, I also tried to place them on the affinity map in proximity to other related concepts—creating a pseudo Venn diagram that connected ideas that shared commonalities or impacted another concept. Finally, I labeled the conceptual groups in order to create a conceptual map for organizing insights.

photo (6)

You can read my Insights Report below. I submitted seven insights:

  1. Letterpress is labor-intensive
  2. Much of the available equipment is unused
  3. Starting a letterpress studio is expensive
  4. Leaving a legacy is a key concern for owners
  5. Peer communities are not bound by geography
  6. Educated clients make the best clients
  7. Artisan owners preserve the craft

Benson Insights Report: abenson_projectpart6

Week 7: AEIOU Framework & Model Making

This week I transcribed all of my semistructured interview and remade my working wall using the AEIOU framework. By color-coding the elements to Post-it notes I was able to move the data from the interview transcriptions to the wall. I also cross-referenced the quotes used within the framework by color-coding them in my Word docs to better track primary source information. I also cut up all of my contact sheets of images and positioned them within the framework while also bucketing them into several sub-categories. Below is a photo of the working wall.


Next I began to incorporate observations and secondary research conducted from information gleaned in the primary research process. A great example of this is making connections to a list of mentor’s from the Minnesota Center for Book Arts that Allison mentioned during our interview.

mentors     closeup

As I was pulling content for the wall I also kept notes on potential thematic elements or patterns of connected thoughts from the interviews that developed. These were used to inform the development of a draft versions of a Venn Diagram about Apprenticeship at Igloo, an ecosystem model for developing the craft of letterpress which includes practitioners from Igloo and Influencers referenced during interviews and shadowing observations. I also experimented with a positioning map that plots the relationship between level of craft development and perceived time to complete tasks associated with letterpress. A process book showing the draft models, sketches and research elements is found here.


Week 7: Model Making and Clarifying Information

Much of my field work was done within one long day shadowing Casey McGarr. Because I had the bulk of my data early, I got a head start on my model making. However, I did realize that there were gaps in my information as I began working on my models. One example is when I began making an equipment acquisition timeline. There were certain pieces I remembered from the shop, but hadn’t written down specifications. This was a great experience in using rapport that has been built to conduct more robust research. McGarr quickly responded with full details of his acquisitions. As I create my final models, I will incorporate this clarifying data.

Here are links to my working models.

Equipment Acquisition at Inky Lips Press–this is a model that I have more robust data for now and will be adjusting.


Anatomy of a Letterpress Print Job–Here I breakdown one single letterpress job and layer the tasks over a spatial map of the Inky Lips Press studio.


Mapping Letterpress Influence–This model shows McGarr’s key influencers within the letterpress community and attempts to gain insight on how these relationships are formed between operators.


We also created tag clouds out of the aggregated content from the love letters and break-up letters. We may conduct further text analysis on those before our final submission to tease out more insights.

Week 7: In the field at Igloo Letterpress

In the field at Igloo Letterpress this week I observed Wade, one of the staff running a poster for the local, Worthington Farmer’s Market. This is the last in a series of three color posters designed by a local designer, Will Ruocco. I’ve added a link to his Web site in the Letterpress Links.


Wade was laying down the second ink color, a light green. There was a high spot on one of the corners of plate and it was gathering ink. The rollers had been adjusted in that area when I had visited previously and further adjustment was needed to raise them to fix the problem Allison walked Wade through the process and it was resolved. When I returned later, the rollers were being replaced. When I asked about the frequency of replacement Allison said it had been about a year since they were changed out, but good rollers would have lasted almost three years. There was a brief conversation between Allison and Nicki and bout whether it was worth it to use less expensive rollers because they only last a third as long, but are not a third of the price.


Allison was printing book plates on the Heidelberg windmill press that morning as well. Operating the press required the use of both hands and a foot to keep it running. The press uses air suction to lift paper sheets then a windmill arm quickly moves the paper into position, the paper is inked by the rollers and then the windmill arm moved the paper to a stack of sheets on the other side of the press while the next sheet was picked up. A video of the press in action is linked below.

I also interviewed Nicki, the book binder and of the letterpress operators, at the shop about what skills where needed to be a successful letterpress printer. Nicki was able to offer insightful, detailed information on the experience of becoming a printer and the ongoing skill development that she is fostering.