Vintage Letterpress: What’s Old Is New Again
In a world where marketing technology is advancing faster than humans can absorb, savvy marketers are discovering that what’s old is new again and that a return to vintage media can showcase a brand and have a powerful impact on how consumers engage with and remember it. They are also discovering that sensory experiences, especially those based on haptics—the science of touch—can shift the brain and create a deeper level of engagement.
Marketers looking to stand out and create a sensorial experience might consider letterpress printing. Hatch Show Print, one of America’s oldest letterpress print shops, established in 1879 in downtown Nashville, is a testament to the power of vintage techniques and the experiences they can create. The shop, which attracts 50,000 visitors annually, offers a fully immersive experience. The walls are lined with letterpress show posters spanning from 1928 to today, and the same presses that were used more than 125 years ago continue to delight a new customer base with both vintage re-strikes and newly designed posters. Visitors to the shop listen and watch as every print is hand set, hand inked, hand cranked, hand trimmed, and hand wrapped. The shop serves as a working museum and a tribute to the heritage and craft of design.
“Advertising without posters is like fishing without worms,” says Jim Sherraden, Master Printer and Curator at Hatch Show Print. Historically, letterpress posters were used for advertising special events, but they also came to be a treasured commemorative item—something you could take home as a piece of memorabilia. As Sherraden explains, “It’s an organic style of printing and design technology considered to be a touchstone to the way posters were made in the old days.” The tactile feel and unique look has been appreciated now for generations, and the glory days of letterpress are once again being realized by designers both young and old.
Celene Aubry, Print Shop Manager at Hatch, explains that their shop is seeing an increase in demand for letterpress posters. This is partly because Nashville has become a popular destination for meetings, conferences, trade shows, and events, and marketers want to commemorate their events with something special, something that has a tie to the city’s history and culture. Since Hatch Show Print’s history is closely intertwined with Nashville’s musical history, their posters have become a popular promotional item and giveaway.
While the ties to Nashville are important, Aubry says that they are contacted by marketers and designers from all over the world who are interested in letterpress, people who want to recreate a vintage feel for a new project. The letterpress poster, which was commonplace in its own era, now stands out as something different, something special and handcrafted that connects audiences with a larger experience. In a lot of ways, the posters and handbills of the past, which were once thought of as obsolete, have become modern again, and both the process and the end product make a strong physical impression. “When it comes to digital, our experiences are flat. There’s a screen or glass separating us from the image, and we can’t feel the paper or the impression or the ink. With letterpress, you can feel the print; there’s a texture and a relief of sorts that comes from the buildup of ink,” Aubry explains.
While the multisensory aspects of letterpress create the tactile feeling that has been proven to create a deeper connection, there’s also the depth, dimension, and vibrancy of color. The process of making a print is fully physical—every letter, image, and color is hand rendered, and every poster is created one at a time.
But Hatch Show Print has stumbled onto something more than just the physical benefits of letterpress. As part of their commitment to preserving the history of print, they offer a variety of tours and workshops. Anyone who goes on the tour not only is afforded the opportunity to learn about the process, but also is invited to apply it to their own print—a souvenir of their letterpress experience.
And while most participants love taking home something they made themselves, Aubry suggests that they are really taking home something much deeper. “We’re training people about design, and they’re learning about the fundamentals of communication,” Aubry explains. According to Aubry, designers and marketers are especially in awe of the process. It demonstrates how every decision and movement impacts the end-result, reminding them to consider things such as negative space and how it relates to the image and the message. Aubry believes that original tools such as letterpress can improve someone’s overall design abilities and sensibilities, while also creating a heightened experience for the recipient as he/she feels the tactile elements of the final printed piece and connects it to the moment and the message. Letterpress may be vintage, but when it comes to rich, fulfilling experiences, it still rules.