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Experimental Letterpress

By Tamye Riggs

In the mid-1980s, at the dawn of the desktop publishing revolution, there were few fonts available for personal computers. Helvetica, Times Roman, and Courier were dull, and digitizations of other standards were often of poor quality.

Adobe’s first director of typography, Sumner Stone, upped the ante in the font game by hiring Robert Slimbach and Carol Twombly and founding the Adobe Originals program. Conceived as a library of high-quality digital typeface revivals and contemporary designs, the Originals launched in 1989 with instant hits like Adobe Garamond, Trajan, Utopia, and the Adobe Wood Types.

Over the years, extensive additions like Minion, Myriad, and Poetica fed designers’ hunger for more and better typefaces. Now at 25 years old, the Adobe Originals library includes more than 100 families.

To mark the anniversary of this milestone, the type team decided to produce a poster—a unique piece that would celebrate both the classic and the innovative sides of the program. Caleb Belohlavek, principal product manager for Adobe Type, asked John Caponi, a creative director in the Adobe Studio, to tackle the project.

Caponi’s design style is not traditional, and he was eager to do something classic yet experimental. He hit on the idea of making the poster look like the pages of a book, with 25 years appearing as folios at the bottom edge.

He presented the concept to Belohlavek, Slimbach, type product marketing manager Nicole Miñoza, and senior manager of type development David Lemon. Everyone was interested in a tactile approach and in working with letterpress.

“We thought about what we could do with paper: photograph layers of paper, then deboss that, and the variations in depth would indicate individual pages,” Caponi said.

Lemon suggested they actually use layered paper rather than merely mimicking the effect. “We didn’t know if it was possible for us to layer paper and print on top of it,” Miñoza said. But they were willing to try.

“That took the piece to another level,” Caponi said. “It was going to be a very tactile experience: 25 layers of paper making up a stair-step look.”

They debated type selection, eventually settling on a combination of old and new: Adobe’s corporate sans, Adobe Clean, and the quirkily charming serif Kepler.

The team approached Norman Clayton, the proprietor of and creative force behind Classic Letterpress, with the idea of creating a dimensional piece. Would it work?

“I like projects that are technically challenging.” Clayton said. “It was crazy to try to construct a poster out of layers of narrow paper strips and print letterpress on top of that. I didn’t know how I was going to pull it off, but I was eager to experiment and confident I could make something amazing.”

Clayton suggested that they cut deckle-edged paper strips, all 20 inches long each but each a unique width in keeping with John's design. "I'll adhere them to a backing board so there will be two layers of the deckled paper consistent across the entire poster,” he explained.

When the team saw the test versions, they realized their crazy concept could become reality.

Clayton and a slew of interns and family members pitched in during production, aided by Caponi and Miñoza, who traveled to Classic Letterpress’s Ojai, California, location for a press check and work session. They cut 27 thin strips of paper for each poster, affixing them by hand in stages to a backing sheet using a transparent, acid-free adhesive. Each sheet had to go through the press at specific intervals to create layered effects with the type. Each poster was printed in three colors—black, gray, and silver—and went through Clayton's Heidelberg cylinder press four times.

Clayton held his breath every time a poster went on the press. “I had to get this paper through the press four times in perfect registration without the press devouring the paper,” he said. 

Due to the enormous time and effort needed to craft each piece, the poster was produced in a signed and numbered limited edition of 100.

“I didn’t know for sure how great it was going to look until the very last press run,” Clayton said, “but a huge factor in the success of this poster was the trust and goodwill between the people involved. From the beginning, I felt a great sense of anticipation that together we were going to make something stunning and completely unique.”

To learn more about the history of the Adobe Originals, check out the anniversary blog series.