Yao Yu: For The Love of Letterpress

yao yu: For the love of letterpress
Typesetting in Singapore

9 April 2015

On any given morning, the light slips in by degrees into Yao Yu’s neat little room in Chinatown. Wood and paper dominate, but this is no typical design studio. Yao Yu operates a letterpress, yup, the Gutenberg 15th century method of printing.

This is relief printing, in which ink is transferred from raised surfaces to paper by pressure. Drawers filled with illimitable typefaces line one wall. It is inconceivable that these fonts that we select from drop-down menus on our word processors first exist as movable type; each letter, number and punctuation mark of a certain typeface represented as little blocks of lead, raised out of a block like a stamp.

Mackerel sits down with the man himself for more insight into this painstaking process.

Mackerel: What started your journey into Letterpress typesetting?

YY: I was doing a project on craftsmanship during my degree in Visual Communication studies in SIM-RMIT. I picked Letterpress as the craft. I started my research by visiting active Letterpress studios in Singapore and attended a Letterpress workshop at The Gentlemen’s Press. Eventually, I bought my first tabletop press half a year later and started printing with plates but as I went deeper into letterpress, I became very interested in the first form of letterpress; where letters are physical and there is an art to typesetting. That’s when I started my project, Typesettingsg, which is now in its second year. It’s a project that only uses physical metal types for all my printing and design.

Mackerel: Who or what have been your influences?

YY: I have always been interested in reading books and was very into types; also I was working in a design house that does mainly Signage/way finding system. So I was dealing with types as big as 5 meters and now, as small as 2mm.

Mackerel: What’s your favourite form of typesetting? Why?

YY: As of right now I only have a small collection of types, borders, ornaments. I am still in the process of exploring and learning. My favourite form I guess would be the style that my prints tend to be, employing minimalistic, plain text. I interpret only what needs to be expressed.

Mackerel: What has been your favourite project so far?

YY: My favourite project up to now is still my typesetting workshop, where I guide students to print their own piece of typeset card. Students without any background in design or in the creative industry are able to create an end product that is as good as any in the market.

Mackerel: Are you working on any personal typesetting project at the moment?

YY: There are actually quite a few personal project that I am planning to start off like a letterpress zine and collaborations with people that I have connected with but have yet to find a good concept.

Mackerel: If people come for a workshop, what can they expect to learn?

YY: Usually the workshop will start off with an introductory talk on the history of letterpress, follow by an explanation on the tools and equipment used and a demo on how to use the press. After this, students will think of a message or quote that they would want to print. I will guide the students in doing the layout, choosing the typeface, picking up the types and eventually aid them in printing. Student will get to understand basic typography and layout and at the end of the day they get to print a design of their own. They will understanding the process of how design was done by hand from start to end back in the old days, and how letterpress was once a thing of the past but has now been revived in another form.

Mackerel: It’s a rather lonely road you’ve chosen to travel being the only full-time typesetter in Singapore. Why do you do what you do?

YY: The start of this project is at a very personal level, pouring pure passion into what I find to be interesting and meaningful. The direction of Typesettingsg is more of an educational approach; we conduct workshops and give design talks to design schools and the public. I do this because I feel that during my graphic school years of learning design, I was not exposed to the fundamentals of graphic design and typography. Rather, the focus was more on art movements and projects to prepare the student to fit what the industry needs.

Mackerel: What, if any, are your hopes/aspirations for Singapore’s letterpress typesetting scene?

YY: I must say the idea of a typesetting workshop is something that would not have happened before, because it was very much a purely technical and industrial process. The products from the workshop are also something very different from the mainstream, it’s a combination of the modern way of playing with typography and using the 500 year history of this printing method, There really isn’t a real definition of what is letterpress, it evolved to fit what society needs, just like the modern contemporary letterpress which is opposite of traditional printing be seems to be the only way letterpress can survive commercially. Typography and designing type is still a very new concept in Singapore, and I would like to get as many people to come and explore and engage with the beauty of physical type.

If you would like to sign up for a workshop with Yao Yu, drop him a message here:

Text and Photos: Marc