typography cut out of wooden stencil then spray painted

Reconnecting with Tangible Typography

A look back at projects centered around the physicality of type

Julio Martínez
8 min readAug 18, 2020


Among the many micro aesthetic duties that come with implementing design projects, one of my favorites has always been typesetting, particularly in print. When all top-level design decisions have been made, and all big picture design approvals are in tow, shaping the columns of text and focusing on granular typographic minutiae is a gratifying task, one that brings a robust and satisfying sense of completion. It’s the stuff no one notices outside of fellow practitioners, but it makes all the difference. I like to think about this obsession as akin to how I imagine writers deliberating on word choices, or painters mixing shades of black in a night sky, or directors worrying about the light in a closing scene.

Several years ago, I saw a screening of Typeface, a documentary by Justine Nagan, at the Yerba Buena Arts Center in San Francisco. The film focused on the history and tools of printing, and provided a rich primer in the topic, showing the faces and ink smears of people devoted to this craft, the exacting craftspeople that aim to give words a “durable visual form,” as Robert Bringhurst so aptly put it.

Emboldened, shortly afterward I signed up for letterpress classes at the San Francisco Center for the Book. After a few courses of exercises and nuts & bolts, I started seeking a different project, so I decided to design our studio’s end-of-year promos using typography and analog techniques. I wanted to create hand-crafted pieces that could be sent to our peers & clients, to create objects that could provide a contrast to the day-to-day digital deliverables we usually generate.

2011: studies and the press at the San Francisco Center for the Book.

For our first promo, “Happy 2011,” I returned to SFCB, using the metal and wood type found in their cases, and letterpressed a simple design on a Crane’s Lettra stock, which had a lovely, thickly-toothed feel. There was no design beforehand, so I spent a lot of time rummaging through the wood type drawers, trying to find the perfect wear and tear in these blocks. This scavenger hunt was one of the most exciting parts, as type became a physical object again—it regained its depth and height, it reminded you that it exists in space. The options on those drawers were limited, yet the possibilities felt endless, all at the same time.

2012: the press at SFCB and the final blind-emboss on chipboard

The following year, I went back to SFCB, but this time with a printing plate output at LogosGraphics, with custom letterforms designed in Adobe Illustrator and intended to print on coarse chipboard. An appealing combination arose with these elements, enabling an intriguing intersection between ink, substrate, and bespoke letters.

In both these two first projects, a great deal of satisfaction came from just being there, from grabbing the pile of prints at the end and running my fingertips across the embossed letters, the orange pigment seeping slowly into the coarse stock.

I wanted to keep printing these promos myself and avoid repeating any specific process. With that in mind, in 2013, I took the production process home, and used a laser-etched printing block from EtchPop, printing with Speedball inks and rubber rollers. I used a metallic stock from Curious Paper, semi-opaque white ink, and, to finish the card’s typographic idea, some black Sharpies.

2013: the plywood plate and the process using ink rollers at home

Not surprisingly, working at home led to a process that became much more improvised, much looser. The original layout had to be scrapped because I accidentally damaged the block during one of the test inkings. There was no time to order another block, so I revisited an earlier idea and used part of the block that was still good to execute the idea.

The looser approach continued as I wandered off around the house during coats, which allowed more room for imperfections and side explorations. In one such digression, I started applying ink directly from the rollers on to the paper after printing the type, pushing the painterly, hand-made look. This type of choreographed chaos is hard to achieve, but it is a joy to let it flow all over the frame when you stumble onto it. The final card had a nice mix of polished, metallic sheen and ad-hoc, free-form mess.

2014: the laser cutter at Tech Shop and the final plywood cards

I continued a similar process for 2014 but wanted a more evident change in materials. I made trips to (the now-closed) Tech Shop in San Francisco to laser cut plywood sheets. I designed custom letterforms with the explicit intent of cutting them with the thin laser lines and cut one of the corners to integrate the design of the letters with the substrate. The blocks were mailed as they came out of the laser cutter, undoubtedly still carrying a slight trace of burnt wood smell along the way.

The following year, I went back to the same process as a starting point but added another production layer. Instead of leaving the laser-cut plywood alone, I took those laser cut pieces back home again and used them as stencils, spray painting orange and black paint onto a black matte stock from Flax. I had no specific composition designed beforehand. I just brought a loose sense of which letters to feature and which colors to use — like shooting a scene in a movie with a story arc in mind but no script, just letting actors ad-lib and improvise on set.

Given our studio’s name, it felt like the 2015 card was a good one to end the series. As engaging as the run was, I wanted to avoid having this process become a “chore,” jeopardizing the original endeavor’s spontaneity. It felt good to stop, or at least pause, and appreciate these tactile experiences, the immediacy of altering work by touching it, of seeing an errant swipe of the wrist turn out better than what you had so carefully planned prior.

2015: the laser-cut stencils going through steps of spray-paint layers

Remembering this set, and the process that I sought to explore makes me think of how much we actually earn with our bodies. As infants, we mimic others’ actions to discover the world, to learn to walk, laugh, and draw. We think with our bodies as much as we think with our minds. Designers know this full well, as “thinking with our hands” is a staple concept in design teaching.

Cognitive scientists have been studying this mind/body relationship for decades, leading to frameworks such as embodied cognition, an area of discipline centered around the idea that basic physical processes influence our cognitive processes. Jeff Thompson, a Research Scientist at Columbia University Medical Center, explains that this notion “changes the job description for the brain; instead of having to represent knowledge about the world and using that knowledge to simply output commands, the brain is now a part of a broader system that critically involves perception and action…” In other words, our mental acuity is intertwined with our bodies, our physical actions, our place in any given room—all these tangible markers profoundly influence how we see the world, what we think about, and how we learn.

Elaborating on this idea of place and perception brings to mind a post from Dimitar D. Sasselov, a Professor of Astronomy at Harvard, that ruminates on frames of reference. He explains these frames by visualizing the flow of water in a winding river. In one way of seeing it, we are looking down at the stream of water atop a hill, disconnected, distanced. In the other, we are right there, in the water, soaked and swimming, rapt by the flow of nature, physically engulfed in the water around us. In the latter, “your frame of reference is no longer fixed; instead, you describe all motions as relative to you and to one another…” Different lessons are extracted depending on which frame of reference you have.

In understanding the relationship between our bodies and our ability to perceive and learn, it makes sense that learning about setting type directly with your hands would leave a different impression. Typesetting in InDesign often feels like looking at a river from atop a hill; setting type with wooden furniture and ink all over your forearms makes you feel like you are swimming amongst the letterforms, drifting along with the flow of the text.

Manually producing these type-driven promos wasn’t so much about reconnecting with a technology of years yore or hopping onto a design trend laden with romanticism but simply remembering how we learn and how we experience the world. It was about grasping the very nature of our corporeal selves.

2020: using a die-cutter at home with metallic paper

This past year, I returned to making these cards with my hands after a few years of doing other things for our promos. I felt an almost circadian itch to return to the process, so I dug out my little-used Cameo Die-cutter and started playing with trimmed-out letterforms. The process wasn’t nearly as messy as no ink was involved. Still, the small act of holding numbers in my hands — bending them to see their shadows, folding test prints to see them leap off the table, photographing the scraps to make impromptu abstract compositions — was quite joyful. It was intimate, too, as most of the work took place in my desk at home. Not sure what we might do for 2021, but some off-shoot of that experience will likely edge back onto the table.

Of course, I still love adjusting style sheets in InDesign; I love tweaking word spaces digitally, hunting down widows, attempting to make a paragraph perfectly “gray,” nudging vector points within a wordmark to reach an absolute precision. This detailed work is engrossing, and the clean desk afterward is lovely and a necessity in the day-to-day workflow. But, every now and then, I still miss the act of physically backing into happy accidents, of unequivocally improving a layout while smearing something else with ink, of letting my hands and some letterforms share a physical plane.



Julio Martínez

Creative Director, Educator, and Illustrator in San Francisco, California. Born in México City.