Decorative Capitals

Freshman year

Kathleen Meaney

This assignment requires the student to act as punchcutter and printer—a process through which the history and present-day practices of graphic design unfold. It lays down a foundation for digital typography and color theory, and serves as a primer for letterpress printing.

For the first-year design student, an introduction to letterpress printing is essential. It helps them understand the evolution of fonts, from metal to digital. It gives them insight into the history of design, revealing the technology behind compositions. And it offers hands-on experience with color mixing and printing. Decorative Capitals is letterpress printing off the press. It is a 5-period assignment.

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Decorative Capitals was part of the freshman Fundamentals course in the spring of 2007 at the NCSU College of Design. The class is 6 credits and meets Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for 3 hours. Students at the College of Design have dedicated desks with 24-hour access.

Task Brief

On a sheet of linoleum (i.e. two plates), the students carve out two copies of a reversed letterform. The first plate remains a pure letter. The second plate becomes a decorated letter. (Each student chooses a different letter from the alphabet.)


Day 1: Demo and letter selection. Day 2: Using plate #1, the students print from their cut linoleum onto oversized graph paper. (Graph paper allows for easy alignment.) The baseline and sidebearings are set. The color, orange, is a given as a swatch   (they must mix ink to match that color). The task is to produce 10 consistent prints of the one letter.

Indeed, typefaces are experiences. (Note baseline shifts and color variation.)

Day 3: The following day in class, the students take their letter posters and build phrases on the board. This is a collaborative activity. When sentences are constructed, it is easy to recognize the aberrations, such as letters that “migrate” off the baseline, or those where the color is off. At this point in time, we start using new terms like baseline, monospace, sidebearings, cap-height, x-height, unicase, decorative type, text type, letter spacing, word spacing, offset, knockout, one-up, bleed, drop shadow, flat color, optical mixing, and split fountain.

The students are to explore and understand optical mixing. This T (left) says it all. The bottom plate is orange and the top white, but the visual impression is pink.

Day 4: For Plate #2, the decorated letterform is designed. The design is based on a historical figure (a typographer) of their choice. (We focused on the work of William Morris and Pierre Simon Fournier.) The class researches at the library. This is an opportunity to address the notion of a good design process (where research comes first). The students design their pattern and transfer it to the plate. Plate #2 is cut. The students ink and print. The assignment is to make one-, two- and three-color prints, mixing and matching plates. They also have to print in pairs to make two letter posters (note the AL in “A Lot” below). Ink experimentation is encouraged. At least 10 posters are made.

Day 5: Collaboratively, again, the students take their letterforms and build phrases on the board.


Unlike an upper-level assignment, the design constraints were tight. The allowance for self-expression and creativity existed, but in limitation. If the student kept on track (as this was a fast-paced exercise), success was a given. Some learned more than others, but all attained basic technique and terminology and were ready for the next step: the letterpress.

Project designed and implemented
by instructor Kathleen Meaney
at NC State University
in 4 sections of Design Fundamentals
Spring 2007