The digital handmade

The worlds of ink, lead, 3D printing and plastic are colliding at Victoria’s unique letterpress printing facility Wai-te-ata Press / Te Whare Ta O Waiteata, where staff are using technology to create type characters for historic printing processes.

The creative minds behind the project are Reader in Book History and Director of Wai-te-ata Press Dr Sydney J. Shep and School of Chemical and Physical Sciences PhD candidate Leo Browning. The two met at the 2016 Victoria Research Bazaar (ResBaz), which is part of a festival held around the world that promotes digital literacy in contemporary research.

“You might not think Wai-te-ata Press is a place where digital things happen, but we lured ResBaz participants down for a tour,” Sydney says.

“I got hooked,” Leo says. “At that point, they had one or two 3D printed letters in their arsenal of type, and it really sparked an interest in me.”

Inspired by the unintended textures on Sydney’s original 3D printed types, and using his self-made 3D printer in the lounge of his flat, Leo started a project on printed type—the technical term for letters used in the printing process. He explored how type texture can affect text that is inked and printed by the letterpress machine.

“The expectation with 3D printing is that it’s an easy way to make a computer-perfect physical object. The reality is, you often see the way the plastic has been extruded from the machine. This mark of the machine, or its fingerprint, is apparent when the type is used on a letterpress. So I built something that gave the 3D printer instructions on the type texture I wanted. The result was a combination of intended pattern as well as the 3D printer’s own quirks and foibles,” Leo says.

Leo and Sydney are now looking at making type in different languages, including printing macronised type for te reo Māori and experimenting with individual Chinese characters.

“The joy of working at Wai-te-ata Press is living this world of the digital handmade,” Sydney says.

“Showing that technology isn’t actually a sequence of disruptions but a sequence of continuities—we can reverse engineer history by going from digital to analogue. We tend to think of the reverse, such as the value of digitising something analogue. What happens if you turn that thinking around completely?”

“I’ve come away with a commitment to celebrating the imperfections and character of what we produce,” Leo says. “Not only are we seeing an interplay with old and new but an interplay between tool and craftsperson, man and machine. The fact they’re not perfect but remain a human process is fascinating.”

Sydney and Leo also want to put the digital handmade into different spaces.

“We’re working with the School of Design and thinking about installations and interactive spaces, while also thinking—how small can we go?” Sydney says.

“You might ask, what are we creating in this world of hybridity? I don’t think it’s a Frankenmonster but I think it’s something rich and strange that is worth pursuing as we push the envelope even further.”