I’ve been nursing a vague urge to learn letterpress printing for a couple years, so I’m always excited when some new easy, beginner-friendly opportunity presents itself — like Kyle Durrie’s road-tripping Moveable Type, which teaches letterpress classes out of a bread truck, or John Bonadies’s LetterMPress, a Kickstarter-funded iPad app that offers a detailed digital simulacrum of letterpress printing. Durrie’s truck isn’t going to reach my part of the country for months, so I figured LetterMPress would tide me over quite nicely.
The app is highly skeuomorphic: almost everything in a real letterpress studio is photorealistically represented, from the scratched and worn metal plates on the press itself to the wood grain on the blocks of movable type, which are housed in a rustic-looking digital drawer alongside other tools of the printing trade. Even the press itself is operated quasi-literally: after selecting the ink color for the roller, you generate a digital “print” by swiping the knurled metal crank on the press.
It’s all so damned “lifelike,” in fact, that I found the app as frustrating and weirdly intimidating as being plopped alone into a real letterpress studio. Sure, it’s easy to explore the various drawers full of stuff like “quoins” and “furniture,” but what are they for? I have no idea, and LetterMPress doesn’t offer any intuitive hand-holding. (There is a Help screen full of text-based links to static tutorials, which is about as inviting as the manual for my air conditioner.) After clumsily stacking the letters “CAD” (plus a chunk of metal and a block of wood, both of inscrutable purpose) on the press bed, I rolled the digital ink over it only to discover that (duh) everything came out reversed. Then I gave up and played Angry Birds.
This isn’t necessarily a knock against the app: I brought expectations of a beginner-friendly teaching tool to LetterMPress, but that may not have been the intention of its creators. If you already know what to do with all the tools of the letterpress trade, and just wish you could make more prints without leaving your couch and renting studio time (or experiment digitally before heading to the studio), LetterMPress will probably make you feel right at home. As this Flickr set shows, the app is clearly capable of generating beautiful stuff. Maybe I’ll revisit it after taking a class or two at the Moveable Type truck later this year.