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Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection

June 22, 2016 – by Tyler

Over Memorial Day weekend, four of us Fireballers made the trek up to Two Rivers, Wisconsin to attend a workshop at  Hamilton Type Museum. Two Rivers, or T’Rivers as it's known locally, is a small lake-side town that just so happens to contain the only museum dedicated to the preservation, study, production and printing of wood type. The museum is a 45,000 sq. ft. facility, maintained solely by director Jim Moran, assistant director Stephanie Carpenter, and a slew of volunteers and enthusiasts, some of whom worked at Hamilton in its heyday.  We had no expectations for what the workshop would entail, but none of us could have imagined it turning out the way it did.

Jim Moran, the museum's director, first guided us through the rich history of Hamilton. Founded in 1880, the shop found its customer base in the plethora of newspapers published throughout the midwest, each of which needed Hamilton's type to set their headlines. Hamilton eventually bought out all of his competitors and soon had a complete monopoly on the wood-type game in the Midwest.

Jim showed us how the wood type is born from raw slabs of maple. First, technicians cut the maple into workable pieces known as half-rounds, which are then sanded down to the proper height known as “type-high” (.918” for those of you following along at home). From the type-high maple, the workers would cut the half-rounds into workable pieces depending on the dimensions of the typeface they were cutting. Those pieces were then routed by a technician, who followed scalable-patterns designed by the Hamilton staff. Then, the type would be refined further by hand to take care of those pesky counter-spaces. Finally, the sorts (a typographer’s term referring to the individual characters of type) were then subject to an intense burnishing, polishing and a very thin coat of lacquer. Jim proudly stated that Hamilton still produces wood type today if the project is right.

The Shipping Department

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Half-rounds waiting patiently to be made into letters.

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Ogling all the sorts.

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Ever heard someone say “I’m all out of sorts?” That comes straight from the pressman’s workshop when they ran out of a certain character.

After a brief introduction to letterpress printing, and a healthy dose of inspiration by resident artist Jim Sherraden (master printer at Hatch Show Print in Nashville), we were let loose to print what we pleased. We were all given the same setup and materials to work with: one table-top press, a few colors of ink and 20+ full cabinets of wood-cut characters and a few lead, photographic plates. Anything beyond that was up to us — we quickly got to work. Some of us had concrete ideas for our prints, but ultimately we were all there just to play with all that beautiful type. 

A selection of prints we made.

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Gettin' funky with some italics.

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Split-fountain experiments.

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Team work makes the dream work.

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In the midst of printing our posters, Mr. Sherraden invited us beyond the yellow rope of the museum to watch the re-striking of a mid-1900s poster for Reefer Madness. Tom and Ross were chosen to pull one of the prints, which was quite the challenge considering the sheer size of the print (more than 4' x 3') and the fact that we were surrounded by printers with some 90+ years of letter-press experience. No pressure...

Jim S. inking the plate.

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Blind registration ain't for the faint of heart.

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Note the mix of concentration and sheer terror on their faces.

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"Horrible?" Jim uttered in reference to the registration. We replied with a collective "Not at all!" As he was talking about the challenges of re-striking old plates like this, with no reference print, he uttered that we were after excellence, not perfection.

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We also learned that Matt carries the same phone as Jim Sherradan, who both prefer the old-fashioned flip over the new-fangled smart.

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...and that Fatso's makes awesome sandwiches.

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...and we're all very serious bowlers.

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Overall, we couldn't be more pleased with our experience. The workshop itself was far and beyond what any of us expected, and we all came back to Chicago with a new reverence for the craftspeople that preceded the era of graphic design. As designers and developers, we wear a lot of hats, but back when Hamilton was producing type people had specialities. Our jobs now demand that we are fluent in multiple programs and platforms, skillful in setting type, designing logos and developing websites, and the list goes on and on. I can't help but wonder if this is a good or bad thing, but I'll leave that debate for another time. One thing I can say for certain is that when I walked out of Hamilton on Sunday afternoon, I carried with me a renewed sense of pride and responsibility as a designer and maker.

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Goodnight, sweet prince.

Fleeting Moments

April 20, 2016 – by Matt

I'm sitting at my computer at work, listening to one of my favorite songs of all time: the live recording of Led Zeppelin's Since I've Been Loving You that appears on the live triple album How The West Was Won. It has been one of my favorite songs since I was in junior high. I went through a Led Zeppelin phase at the time, so I'm sure once I discovered this recording I listened to it over and over again — it has remained one of my favorite songs of all time. I think one of the reasons it remains special is because it is a song I don't hear very often. This particular recording doesn't come on the radio (nor does the studio version either), and it wasn't used in a car commercial campaign. If I ever hear this song it's almost certainly because I wanted to hear it and I put it on myself.

I recently started using Spotify, and I started a playlist called "Songs for Vibes", which is just an ever-rotating collection of the songs that I'm really digging at the moment. A couple weeks ago I put Since I've Been Loving You in the playlist, so I've heard the song at least several dozen times since. This is probably more than I've heard it in the past several years. It's still awesome, and it's still one of my favorite songs of all time, but it did just occur to me that listening to it for the thirtieth time in the past couple weeks didn't feel quite as special as it once did. I'm familiar with the experience hearing a song that you like and then getting burnt out on it by overplay on the radio/tv/internet, but this was slightly different in context. It felt strange.

This reminded me of another recent experience. This past Friday night I went to see Ben Allison play at the Green Mill. I was excited because I've been listening to his music since I was in high school, but I've never seen him play live. The show was incredible. The band was hot, the atmosphere in the Green Mill (somehow that was my first time there) was fantastic, and I lucked out on some seats right in front of the stage. To my great pleasure he played a few songs from my favorite album, the album that introduced me to his music, Cowboy Justice . It was really great to see these tunes I've been listening to for years finally played in person, with all of the variations and interpretations that happen when jazz is played on stage. Then they played a rendition of the Buffalo Springfield song Expecting to Fly . It was fantastic. I had never heard the original song, but this was something special. It was the song that stayed with me as I left the venue, and still as I lay in bed that night.

The next morning I promptly did some googling to try and find a recording of it — was it on a record somewhere? Was there a crappy phone-recorded version of it on YouTube? Nothing. Finally, I settled on listening to the original song by Buffalo Springfield, and it was also excellent. I liked it, a lot even, but it wasn't the same as that beautiful, simple arrangement that Ben and his group had performed the night before. I can still hear it in my head if I try, and I imagine I will be able to do so for a long time. This fleeting moment, the performance of this song that I might not ever witness or hear again, was singular. As much as that performance affected me, and as badly as I wanted to hear it again, maybe it's better that I don't.

Maybe there are some things that don't need to be, or maybe even shouldn't be archived. On the internet, or anywhere. There are certain moments that impact you in ways that go beyond what a record of that moment can convey. Maybe it's better they remain fleeting. This is not a new concept to me, but somehow in this new context it felt especially profound, and I'm trying to use it as an opportunity to remind myself that it's okay. That performance of Expecting to Fly will remain a special memory for a long time, but would it if it were in a playlist that I listened to every day? I doubt it.

I've removed Since I've Been Loving You from my "Songs for Vibes" playlist. I'll spend some time away from it, and return to when I really need it.

I wondered whether 
I could wave goodbye, 
Knowin' that you'd gone.

- Neil Young, lyrics from 'Expecting to Fly'

clarity

March 21, 2016 – by Kristin

We love to learn around these parts.

It's true. All manners of wild things. 

For instance: Alibaster recently learned to make beautiful benches with their own bare hands with a little help from our pals at Rebuilding Exchange.

Regard!

Nate's been tinkering with game development, you know, for mobile devices. (Ask him about Cats vs. Zombies.) 

Just last weekend, after 6 hours of listening, stirring and simmering, Dawn mastered the art of making decadent sauces.

Our lust for knowledge is powerful and all-consuming. So naturally, we've instituted regular "Lunch-n-Learns" at the studio. Every month, one of us leads a lunch-time workshop on any topic of our choosing. Could be related to our work, our passion projects, our pets , whatever!

Lunchin-n-Learnin, Showing-n-Growing

When it was Tom's month, he took us through the strange birth and evolution of political ideology in the Western world. Will schooled us in the terrifying and awesome power of Creative Cloud libraries. Tyler gave us a handy-dandy guide to clean living, including homemade recipes for all-natural cleaners and toiletries. 

Last month, it was MY TURN.  

As someone who spends all day every day thinking about words and the best possible way to mash them together at any given moment, I used the opportunity to talk about writing. More specifically, I wanted to give everyone some quick, easy tips for writing more clearly and confidently. 

I'm not trying to put myself out of a job or anything. Everyone here writes. Everyone everywhere writes. You write emails every day, I bet. Sometimes you fire 'em off, no problem. But maybe other times, it takes you an hour to phrase a question just right, you're not sure if you're making sense, or you get hung up wondering if you're using too many—or not enough!—exclamation points.

If that latter bit got you nodding along, good news pal. I've got some slides for you. 

Go forth into the week ahead and write like the wind, my doves.