A Close Look at Apple's Letterpress Cards

apple_letterpress_macro.jpg Apple embraced its inner Martha Stewart by adding a letterpress option for ordering photo cards from its iPhoto '11 software. The cards are printed in bulk by letterpress with one of a handful of standard designs, and then surprinted on a high-end electrographic system (cough, fancy laser printing) with text and photos. I took photos of a set of samples that Apple sent me of the cards, and some close-ups of the one I liked best to show the debossing (printing pushed into the thick paper). The letterpress work is first rate, but the textured paper doesn't hold laser printing well. The type is spaced oddly between characters--in the parlance, poorly kerned--and looks rather blocky. The cards also have rather trite designs, necessary for mass sales, I suppose. The best is a non-denominational tree (one could argue it's pagan, even) in three colors. It's an odd notion that to get the feeling of authenticity, you're purchasing a mass-produced artisanal item. I'm still trying to wrap my head around that. Letterpress was a commercial art in the past, and now is rather twee and nostalgic, while also requiring the use of metal, oil, ink, and power.


  1. I know it’s the fad these days but I don’t think the idea of letterpress is to emboss the living crap out of the paper.

    1. If you’re not going to enjoy the aspects that make it unique then you might as well just use a printing technology that wasn’t rendered obsolete a century ago.

      1. Letterpress wasn’t designed to bash the hell out of paper. You always could, but it was meant to kiss the paper lightly. Modern debossing is a huge fad because it reveals the mechanical source. Laser printing fuses toner on top; letterpress has to SMASH PAPER HULK ANGRY.

        1. I realize that, in fact printmaking is a hobby of mine. All I’m saying is that the debossing effect is one of the few ways that a layperson can tell something was printed on a letterpress, so if you don’t care for it you might as well have your stuff printed using another printing technology whether it be laserjet, screen print, lithograph, offset, etc.

  2. Paper that is suitable for letterpress printing (assuming there’s some ink, not just smashing paper into shapes) has a tooth that is unsuitable for laser or inkjet use, and vice-versa. That’s why in the early days of laserjets, quality was so inconsistent and terrible.

    For the same reason, my fountain pen won’t even write on this damned “multi-purpose” paper I use in my printers.

    1. Yes, I think a lot of people request extra soft paper now.

      Plus it’s lit from a grazing angle to accentuate the texture.

      1. Yeah, but nobody said this was inexpensive.

        However, looking at it closer the ink seems to be in the wrong places for intaglio printing (at least, the stuff I’m acquainted with.) Curious.

    1. It’s not intaglio, everyone. Letterpress involves putting ink on raised portions kissed or pressed against a medium, typically paper.

      Intaglio involves recesses into which ink is forced with oliophobic raised area. The plate is contacted against paper and the ink transferred to the medium.

  3. I for one LOVE it. I got some basic experience while printing thank yous, save the dates, and invitations for my wedding at the absolutely wonderful AS220 Printshop in Providence, RI.

    The entire situation above is awesome. Its an industrial process, that reverted into a hobbyist art form after nearly disappearing, that has been re-adopted by “artistic” industrial types with all of the weird baggage that comes with that kind of change.

    The embossing is just a great example. It was a highly negative byproduct of doing letterpress wrong. Then it became a distinctive feature that could not be achieved well by new methods. Now it is a desirable trait that indicates a quaint process.

    I also like the crazy melange of old and new technology. We designed everything on the computer (and had to learn about the differences between editing raster and vector graphics to boot). We then transferred our images to polymer plates using a light table and printed transparencies (my wife, a hobby photographer, loved this part). Finally, we printed everything on a letterpress that used to be owned by a department at Yale University in order to print flyers and whatnot for dissemination.

    What’s even better is watching someone print a page that is half computer designed polymer plate and half actual lead block moveable type.

    FWIW, my wife and I actually ordered blocks of “type height” wood topped with magnesium to print our (three color) invitations (that process is even cooler than the polymer plates!) and embossed the hell out of Crane’s (very thick) “Lettra” cotton paper. The result was awesome even though I am sure that purists would look straight down their long haughty noses at our indelicate mashing of paper.

    So the long and short is that we got AWESOME invitations for 1/4 the price of even the cheap options and 20 times the work (well worth it).

  4. Traditionally, debossing generally meant You Were Doing It Wrong — you had too much bedding under the paper. In ideal letterpress technique, the type just barely touched the paper — enough to transfer the ink and no more.

    Slightly odd to see folks now taking debossing as evidence that letterpress (or something like it) was used.

  5. As someone who makes their living running a design and letterpress print shop, angelbomb.com, I’m torn by this product Apple is offering. Much like anyone who creates something artisanal such as loafs of hand-kneaded bread, seeing their style of work co-opted by large corporations is a little saddening. Already you can see ‘letterpress’ cards in gift shops that have been printed digitally or offset and hit with a debossing die that doesn’t even register so it’s quite obvious. All this just to give the impression (no pun intended) that the card was somehow treated with love by a craftsperson, rather than spat out by the millions in a factory. In all honesty, part of me would have loved to land that account so I could run my presses day in and day out and hire more people and rake in the dough but it’s not really being true to the medium. I do what I do because it is a craft and not a commodity.

    All the comments about the debossing have been interesting to read. It’s true, in the day an impression would’ve gotten you cuffed in the back of the head, but now, it’s what sets this style of printing apart.

    I would just hope that people have enough sense to go to an real letterpress printer when they want something authentic, rather than to a mega-corp that’s jumped on the bandwagon and co-opted a current trend. All my designs are custom to specific clients, so they are involved in the process of creating rather than choosing from a limited menu and having their name added to appear custom. But I suppose, different strokes for different folks…

    1. @Anon: That’s certainly a valid way of looking at the situation, but the more optimistic view is “wow, Apple is employing letterpress operators!”

      @Church #11: This is definitely letterpress unless Apple doctored up a whole video of a fake press room, including the photogravure plates used to create this design. And really- why on earth would they lie about that? Intaglio is much more labor intensive! If anything I’d be more likely to believe that Apple was trying to pass off letterpress as intaglio than the other way around.

  6. Yup I run a printshop too. We do letterpress offset & digital and I must say – lately the retro look is in.. someone wanted fancy stationery letterpress printed in several colours and the pressman (with nearly 50 years in the trade) lamented that they wanted bad letterpress ie. lots of pressure so you can see the impression – which would have earned him a rebuke from his supervisor back in the old days. (as Anon said as well)

    I wouldn’t say it was rendered obsolete a hundred years ago, either. Offset printing didn’t really take off seriously until the 1960’s and letterpress is still around in specialty trade shops as you can do debossing, embossing, foilstamping or both, as well as diecutting and creasing and numbering.
    on it. In fact most shops probably have a heidelberg windmill around for just that. (I will tell you another thing – those presses will run forever, solidly built, no electronics to break down – we have a couple that are over 50years old.- whereas digital copiers are obsolete in 5 years.

    in answer to a comment above – embossing or debossing is not strictly intaglio – that would be inkless intaglio (otherwise called blind embossing or debossing)

    Although the card looks like it is actually offset printed as well.


  7. I understand purists not liking this, but if an embossed design on paper is what you want, how else would you accomplish it if not with letterpress or something like it? I suppose one could mold the paper.

    Just because you were taught that such-and-such is undesirable while you’re learning your craft, doesn’t mean that it can never be a desirable outcome.

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