The Modern Hand: Thoughts on Shaping ‘Traditional’ Technologies

‘Tradition’ is a loaded and problematic term that can raise questions about our understanding of technology, craft, materiality, time, sentimentality and the design profession. All equally troublesome concepts that have indeed caused extensive debate amongst historians, contemporary commentators and design practitioners. Nevertheless, the idea of tradition remains a useful tool in exploring our unfolding existence we call modernity and is a term I intend to utilise here, in the spirit of curiosity, to contemplate our perception of technology within graphic design practice.

‘Traditional’ technologies are being celebrated. A growing number of graphic designers are using letterpress to construct their designs and design education establishments, along with students, are addressing their relationship with certain printmaking facilities. London College of Communication, for example, has recently revamped their so-called ‘traditional’ printmaking workshops to create a more collaborative working environment, while The Royal College of Art’s placement of the Printmaking facilities (Battersea) and the School of Communications (South Kensington) is currently being met by disgruntled students of Visual Communication. Designers and illustrators are also enjoying seeing their work on coffee cups and serviettes, which proudly wear the names of their distributors, who are, incidentally, pressing their identities haphazardly across their serving devices [1]. Furthermore, when commenting upon a current exhibition of contemporary sign painters- which, we are told, embraces the ‘higgledy piggledy’- The Guardian declared that the ‘hand-painted sign’ is ‘having a revival’, with designers ‘finding their way into the craft’.

Black Box Coffee, Hackney © Alex Heslop

Black Box Coffee, Hackney ©Alex Heslop

How, though, are we to comprehend relationships between graphic designers and ‘traditional’ technologies? Letterpress and sign painting are certainly ‘traditional’ in the sense that they are ‘long established customs’ (as per the Oxford English Dictionary definition). They have indisputable historical significance, but what else can we here attribute to the concept? Can recognitions of the term- seemingly inclusive of sentimentality and ‘the hand’- bare upon current technological choice?[2] Could problematising the idea teach us something about graphic design practice? Furthermore, could traditional constructs even be restraining us from modernity?

I have recently revisited Marshall Berman’s commentary on modernity in the introduction to his seminal title All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Despite being published in the 1980s, his ideas are present today. His championing of Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx and nineteenth century curiosity, along with his ability to challenge modernist ideas of historical rejection, assist in examining relationships between perceptions of convention and current technological decisions. Berman’s perspective suggests that the idea of ‘tradition’ as a closed concept, transported from ‘the past’, is irrelevant to how current technologies should be perceived and should not be considered as being prescriptive. He argues that we live in ‘perilous infinites’, where nothing is past and nothing is present.[3] Furthermore, Berman’s thinking proposes that the ideas writers associate with the notion of convention, such as ‘the handmade’, are in motion and, as such, current technological choices do not remain rooted in the past. Therefore, in acknowledging that we live in such complexity and contradiction, perhaps certain technologies should be considered as being amongst a wider technological landscape that is not devoid of the present. Indeed, a ‘revival’, as suggested by The Guardian, is indicative of ‘the past’ being ‘reborn’. This way of thinking could dictate a certain relational perspective of contemporary practice, which could become susceptible to sentimentality.

© Alex Heslop

Letterpress ©Alex Heslop

By selecting paintbrushes and metal type, designers are thinking differently about the construction of letterforms. Time is a popular reason for these choices. Time Out has recently praised the ‘love’ and care devoted to the creation of ‘the hand made sign’ and becoming acquainted with a composition stick does undoubtedly generate careful consideration of word architecture. It seems easy here, however, to fall into the trap of nostalgia, endowing very present tools with romantic ideologies. Indeed, being able to associate with a ‘simpler time’, ‘before there was pixels’ is an excuse amongst writers for designers to become acquainted with the popular composition stick. But did printers and sign-painters of the past devote the care we presently admire? And how are we to understand a current printmaker or sign painter who is devoted almost entirely to their practice? A nineteenth century ‘jobbing’ printing office- a term used to describe a print shop concerned with everyday independent ‘jobs’- often utilised 8-point type (around 3mm) and provided cramped working environments that print unions often described as being ‘rat houses’.[4] And a canal boat decorator operating at the same time could not always afford to assign an extensive amount of time to their work. I recently had a discussion with social historian and contemporary sign writer Will Phillips, who highlighted misconceptions about the speed at which hand painted signs were then generated. Maintaining business, he tells me, was a prime objective at a time when painted signs were a part of familiar visual display. This is not to suggest a lack of skill. On the contrary, the dexterity of a compositor and the pace at which a sign-painter can work always astounds me (it’s well worth a trip to Dadfords Wharf, Stourbridge, to observe Meg Gregory at work). I do intend, however, to raise the question of whether knowledgeable relationships are being formed between uses- both past and present- of certain technologies.



Printing presses and paintbrushes may be ‘alluring’ to contemporary practitioners- a welcome change from Wacom tablets and Typekit– yet do the realities of their existence need to be better realised?[5] Nostalgia might be able to limit our understanding and remove practitioners from their current choices. Steering away from ideals could therefore not only make it less likely for current choices to remain static concepts and so-called ‘rebirths’ of the past, but also more likely for tools to become the ‘infinite’ existences Berman was calling for. Indeed, sentimentality could potentially endow technological choice with false superiority. Distinguishing sign painting and letterpress from other technological choices as being a ‘throwback to a simpler time’ could make it easier to construct false relationships between technologies (the idea of digital aversion, for instance) and could make it harder to position that being perceived to be ‘traditional’ amongst our technological choices. Therefore, rather than remaining in the footsteps of contemporary commentators, telling our technologies they are of a particular time, perhaps we should also enquire after current uses. Being well informed about the totality of the existence of printmaking and sign painting could allow them to become better tools with which we can explore graphic design practice.

Shop signage by Daisy Emerson, a ‘full time Illustrator, painter of walls, painter of windows, hand-letterer and all round doodler’, who studied Book Arts at London College of Communication ©Daisy Emerson

Shop signage by Daisy Emerson, a ‘full time Illustrator, painter of walls, painter of windows, hand-letterer and all round doodler’, who studied Book Arts at London College of Communication ©Daisy Emerson

Contemporary sign painting, letterpress and engraving highlights the ability of both a craftsmen and a graphic designer to eradicate perceived boundaries surrounding the profession. An uncertainty that has both historical presence (relationships between compositors, engravers, printers, typographers and the graphic design ‘profession’ often occupy my thoughts), and also comprises a concern of contemporary practitioners, who are attempting to comprehend the illusive ‘hand’ in an environment with digital materialities. Many web developers are choosing to call themselves ‘craftsmen’, with good reasoning (observing a web developer build upon fluid grids seems to create, incidentally, a similar sense of wonderment to that of a canal boat decorator). A sure strength: a curiosity, or ‘Great Discontent’– as materialised in a recent publication of the same name- that enables designers to walk within ‘perilous infinites’. Moreover, it appears the boundaries between graphic designers, printmakers, lettering artists, illustrators and web designers remain open and notions of craftsmen and graphic designers continue to be shaped. Perhaps letterpress and sign painting are not simply a look at the past, but a part of a search for materiality and a way of ensuring the existence of graphic design practice. 

Questioning tradition seems to have the ability to complicate our understanding of certain technologies and design practices. Complications worthy of better thought and implication, but this sadly lays beyond the existence of a brief article. Nevertheless, being concerned with the queries that have here been highlighted could not only formulate different thoughts about our technological relationships, but also challenge how graphic design practice is understood. Heidelbergs, Adanas and other presses are certainly receiving life, but it appears that perceptions of a ‘revival’ need to better acknowledge the present. In doing so, it seems necessary to remain open to the desire to navigate technological landscapes by constantly addressing perceived borders between ‘disciplines’, whilst also embracing past realities – realities that could, in turn, have wider implications. Could a mid-nineteenth century printing office, for example, where engravers and compositors often worked within close proximity to pressmen, assist in addressing current location issues within education establishments? Moreover, it appears that in forming knowledgeable relationships with and between our technologies and by questioning the mobility of ‘tradition’, we might be able to relevantly break down traditional constructs and surround ourselves with the uncertainty Berman was calling for. This might allow us to better locate ourselves in modernity with which we look to endless possibilities.

Alex Heslop


Alex graduated in 2008 with a BA in Fine Art with Art History from Aberystwyth University, where she specialised in printmaking and nineteenth and early-twentieth century print history. She has since worked as a freelance designer and illustrator, before embarking on her MA in the History of Design. Her research interests include printed ephemera, print technologies and graphic design practices. Her thesis topic is leading her to locate east London printers of the 1980s, with whom she aims to respond to recent calls for the discussion of graphic design history to be extended further into production processes.

[1] A common marketing tool

[2] According to writer and graphic designer David Jury, it is the ‘allure of the handmadethat is drawing a growing number of practitioners to the ‘tradition’ of letterpress. See David Jury, Letterpress: The Allure of the Handmade  (Hove: Rotovision, 2011), p.6

[3] Marshall Berman, ‘All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity’ (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), p.23

[4] Jobbing printing offices often included compositors, engravers and pressmen. See David Jury, Graphic Design Before Graphic Designers: The Printer as Designer and Craftsman 1700 – 1914 (London: Thames and Hudson, 2012), p.59. Also see Ellic Howe, The London Compositor: Documents Relating to Wages, Working Conditions and Customs of the London Printing Trade, 1785-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947)

[5] David Jury, Letterpress: The Allure of the Handmade  (Hove: Rotovision, 2011)

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