The zen of wood type: In praise of accidents

[Joey Hannaford] In my experience, I believe that in the process of designing there is nothing better than a really good accident. In fact, I have adopted this as my modus operandi both in my own work and in working with my students. There is an inescapable component of play to this sort of working process, one that I have employed for such a long time I sometimes forget to recognize and honor the magic of it.

With juggling all the pressures of pleasing clients, profitability and meeting deadlines, I need to remind myself more often of how important (and ultimately how amazingly productive) it is to remember to take time to play.

To embrace this way of thinking/working, the first step is to trust the process, which is to say, to cultivate a welcoming attitude toward accidents. Then:

2. Intentionally create circumstances for accidents to happen.
3. Recognize good accidents when they happen.
4. Exploit the “accident” into a finished piece.

In my career as a lettering artist, I am often called upon to create something that “looks” casual and spontaneous. When satisfying this sort of request I often write out the words hundreds of times using a variety of tools. One of the tricks to this is to write the words out enough times that I stop thinking about them. When the mind wanders, the hands can do magical things! After I emerge from this imposed trance of repetitive writing, I can then review the sometimes chaotic results and choose the version with the best “spontaneous” energy. I then use this as the basis for a finished result for the client.

Student work using wooden letterpress type. Bottom right: Detail of poster assignment created digitally after a “play” experience in the University print shop.

I also teach graphic design at the University of West Georgia and have recently begun implementing a similar process with my typography students. I take them to our small letterpress shop with the goal of introducing them to directed play when working on their typography projects. Technically perfect prints are not the point, so I don’t bother to burden their play with instructions on how to print. I just get out some ink and brayers and have them ink up some pieces of our large wooden type. The inked wooden letters can then be used as stamps to explore composition and shape relationships within the type.

As the students warm up to the experience of using their bodies and hands instead of their “mouse fingers” to create type designs, their processes become increasingly playful and even joyful. They almost never fail to express to me how satisfying they find it. Their resulting “sketches” are astoundingly sophisticated, which the students then exploit when returning to a digital environment to complete their design assignments. I have found that by releasing these digitally fluent students from the almost clinical restrictions of the computer lab into an environment that is somewhat foreign to them, the unfamiliarity of the process encourages their most experimental instincts to come forth.

Exterior of the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wisc.

Last July, I had the privilege of spending a week printing at the Hamilton Wood Type Museum. (Thank you, Director Jim Moran!) My goal was to set up a circumstance similar to my process of creating “casual” lettering and to get my students to “play” during Type I class.

“Hamilton #92,” print created by Joey Hannaford at the Hamilton Wood Type Museum, July 2010

I had 100 sheets of paper and five gloriously uninterrupted days to use the letterpress printing equipment housed there. I planned to print 25 sheets each day for four days and use the last day to ensure all prints were dry and ready to ship back to myself. I figured if I emerged from the week with 20–25 “keeper” prints, I would have been successful.

“Hamilton #87,” print created by Joey Hannaford at the Hamilton Wood Type Museum, July 2010

To my delight, I am very pleased with many more than 25 of them, and the Hamilton kept some prints for their archives. With my “normal” life of a hectic teaching schedule and client work, it was a precious gift to be able to concentrate on one thing for five whole days without interruption.

It occurs to me that there is something so primal, essentially noble and increasingly forgotten in the human experience: We all have an inherent need to use our hands and bodies to understand things. It is a very, very good thing to make time to get out and play!

“Hamilton #81,” print created by Joey Hannaford at the Hamilton Wood Type Museum, July 2010

Joey Hannaford is a designer, lettering artist, typographer, papermaker, printmaker, book artist and teacher. She currently teaches graphic design at the University of West Georgia while pursuing her letterpress printing work. While considering herself something of a computer geek, Hannaford’s teaching and design business has nevertheless developed a reputation for incorporating elements of the handmade. More examples of her recent work from the Hamilton Wood Type Museum are here. Visit her website to see her new work (coming soon) or to leave a comment — she’d love to hear from you.

Lead image: Sketches and final for the “Courage to Inspire” Award given to Mohammed and Lonni Ali by Emory University

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Comments (1)

  1. Posted by liza on 12.5.10 at 10:48 am

    This is gorgeous, and so true about playing as a learning experience. I’ve reblogged this at my tumblr site. Thanks so much. Very inspiring, as usual. Kudos to Felt & Wire. I always learn something here.

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