Jessica Helfand | Essays

Reflections on The Ephemeral World, Part One: Ink

Half-size manila blank paper notebooks with "makeready" covers by Trip Print Press, Toronto

I was on a press check recently, deliriously inhaling the pervasive aroma of ink (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it) whereupon, feeling very virtuous and non-digital, I asked my pressman if there were any makeready sheets lying around for me to bring back to the studio? (Makereadies, for the uninitiated, are sheets of paper, re-fed into a press to get the ink balances up to speed, leaving a series of often random, palimpsest-like, multiple impressions on a single surface.)

He glanced over at me with a combination of bewilderment and pity, like I was some Rip Van Winkle holdout from, say, the days when you could fill your tank and still afford to buy a sandwich. Makereadies, he explained, were essentially unnecessary given the accuracy of digital presses. Plus, they messed up the plates and beds and rollers on the machines with, well, ink.

While I remain deeply appreciative that the modern age has virtually eliminated the immediate need for wax and glue, I confess to a certain amount of personal mourning for the death of the makeready, and what it stood for.

Several years ago, an exhibit of the work of Ladislav Sutnar featured an assortment of his mechanicals — layer upon layer of word and image, tissue and overlay, amberlith, rubylith, handwritten instructions to the printer, and more. Each layer, viewed separately, served to illuminate one aspect of the work; read collectively, these elements assumed a more cohesive identity, yet more than anything there was an uncanny sense of time and space reflected in the physicality, the depth of the machette.

Like the mechanical, the makeready represents a certain time-based activity (getting up to speed on press) and a dimensionality (layers of ink, superimposed images, double and triple impressions, surprinted letterforms) that bespeak a kind of whimsical, unexpected beauty. Its loss is the printer’s gain — time being money, after all — but it also represents efficiency at the expense of artistry.

You can simulate a makeready on a computer in a fraction of the time, and print it with astonishing accuracy in an instant — but will such digital re-enactments ever quite capture the magical moment when the press spits out that giant, unpredictable, ink-covered sheet? I suspect not.


Chart-Pak Graphic Chart Kit, Model K-20, 1956

True, while nostalgia is unlikely to slow anything's inevitable demise, it bears saying that where design is concerned, the past is past, and references to history tend to be perceived as tired and stale and decidedly un-hip. The word “vintage,” for example, no longer describes an ancient era as much as it qualifies a recent decade (vintage '60s!), or even more bizarrely, a year (vintage 1985!). From Letraset display press type to information design rendered in Chart Pak tape, the tools of previous eras read as clunky and primitive; but they were also, in no small way, borne of the genuine physical contact between the maker and the thing, a tricky proposition rich in complexity, negotiation and page-thickness. There was more room for error — indeed, there was more error, period. (My graduate thesis, produced as a mechanical from type I output on a Mac SE — you can stop laughing now — resulted in a book that was the casualty of precisely this process: I hung the quotes by hand, and many of them fell off enroute to the copier. Some of my best writing may well have ended up, I fear, on the cutting room floor.)

As a teenager, I once took a summer job in the art department of a small advertising agency, the kind with a bull pen, drafting tables and yes, glue pots. My job (for which I was paid well below minimum wage) was to take a single-edged razor blade and scrape all the gummy rubber cement off the pots. (No, I am not making this up.) By early August, I had amassed a rather impressive ball from the gluey detritus of my labors — a result I recall as rather sad, so naturally it impressed my ten-year old daughter, who thought this enviable. (“You got paid to make a glue ball? Cool!”) Sadder still, it did little to contribute to my then-meager portfolio. Still, that big rubber ball was, at the very least, something you could hold in your hand — it had density and weight and mass — and I suppose that’s saying something.

But it does beg the question: no one doubts the veracity of the physical evidence of the designed thing, but what of the process that preceded it? The makeready symbolized all that was time-based in the making of printed matter. With its function effectively rendered obsolete, so, too, goes the form — at least where commercial printing is concerned. (Thank goodness for silkscreen and letterpress printing, within which the makeready may well continue to thrive.) Ephemerality is so often the casualty of any kind of progress, as production of any kind is invariably supplanted by quicker, cheaper, more efficient means. In this case, the more the physical object is compromised by speedy transmittal, the more our definitions of design, and of the methods that produce it, must adapt to new conceptions of both method and manufacture. To jettison the makeready, however efficient, is like throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. I, for one, will miss it terribly.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History, Obituaries, Technology

Comments [14]

It's probably not valid to compare offset printing with silkscreen printing, but Aesthetic Apparatus make and later sell their test prints, which are a kind of makeready.
Ricardo Cordoba

I've always see plenty of makereadies, both at 4-color and letterpress printers that I've gone to. Maybe we're still old-fashioned here in Chicago... I wouldn't be surprised.

The Work of Design in the Age of Mechanical/Digital Reproduction

A few months ago, I went to an actual printing press to oversee a job. This was the first time that I understood that designers made prototypes. There is this entire heavy manufacturing process (with large German machines) that takes place for a Adobe InDesign file to become a physical brochure. That was a magical moment for me (as a quasi-non-designer) in terms of understanding design's role in an "industrial" process.

I am in Santa Fe for the summer, and now I realize what it means to be in a place of "Art." And by art, I mean you can see the human imprint on the works. One can see the brush strokes of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting and know that a human hand made it. You know that it is human because it is imperfect in is regularity.

What you are expressing so elegantly, Jessica, is what happens to design and designing as we move further away from the visibility of human (and mechanical, thus human) imperfection in the work. Philip Burton once told me that it took him 3 years to design his "book" at Basel. The nearly insurmountable potential for human imperfection in hand typesetting is what probably makes that book a work of design superior to art. What makes Saul Bass's work so compelling to me is that you know he had to cut forms out by hand with that level of imperfect precision.

So in addition to your questions of methodological emphemerality and manufacturing efficiency what happens to design when the possibilities of human imperfection are so minimized that there is no sense of awe in design? Is this not what digitalization has done for design? Yes, people still to bad design with digital tools, but the results are probably "better" designs than if they had to use Exacto knives and T-squares.

Is this part of the further democratization of design for "the people" (i.e. Walter Benjamin's argument in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction)? Is it part of the de-skilling of design for designers and printers? I think I could live with those outcomes in some ways.

Or does it speak to a deeper loss of the imperfections and "happy accidents" that make possible the delight, surprise, discovery, and humanity in a work of design? This to me would be the more tragic loss.

Yet, I do wonder, Jessica, who actually ever sees the makereadies? Is that moment of delight just for the designer or is a broader audience exposed to them? If it is the former, than perhaps the loss is double. That people do not see them and now they have become obsolete.

Why I think this matters? I once read an entire book of Shakespeare's sonnets. And you know, he wrote some really bad poetry. But, reading them made me appreciate the good poetry all the better because I understood all the possibilities of imperfection that made the good ones perfect.


Ahh, the makeready. To be perfectly honest, I had no idea what a makeready was until I moved to Knoxville, TN for my first year of grad school at the University of Tennessee. There I was exposed to the wonderful world of hand printing thanks to the great printmaking program at the UT and of course, Yee-Haw Industries.

I worked in an ad agency as a production artist during most of my undergrad in West Texas. I had always heard about "test prints" and "makereadys", but I never understood why the hell they were more expensive than the actual editioned prints. Then I got my hands on a challenge proofing press, a good screen printing press and all the Ink I wanted – I quickly found out why the makeready is such a coveted prize in the world of printing...and in my opinion Graphic Design.

I found out that you can do some really amazing things with screen printing and letterpress, but If you want to make it just the way you want it there is a crucial extra step added to the design process – preparation. How will I mix these colors to get the right hue of blue? How much transparent base should I add? How will these colors overlay? What kind of tooth will I need on the paper? The list goes on, but there is only one way to figure it out...and that is through actual get your hands dirty physical experimentation. Don't get me wrong, I work digitally a lot of the time, and I'm not afraid to admit that a lot of my digital work gets translated into separations and woodblocks for hand printing, but those crucial preparatory steps still exist. That is why the makeready is such a wonderful thing — it is a shining example of how wonderful and enriching the element of surprise can be to the design process. I learned that every makeready is one of a kind. A personal record of an individual's work. A record that you can physically feel with your fingertips. I learned a lot about my design process looking back at my collection of makereadys – I can see the ebb and flow of my work and pick up on undertones that I would not have recognized otherwise. I look at most of my hand printed work as a sort of polished sketchbook, in the sense that if I have a thought I need to get off my chest I can express it though silkscreen or letterpress. The best thing for me about working this way is I can refer to this visual record of play and learn more about further developing my voice as a confident Graphic Designer and teaching assistant. I can then take that information and throw it into larger scale projects.

Here is a link to my flickr account, you can see the correlation between the makereadys and our spring 2008 design seminar show I did with two other graduate students — a Sculpture major and an English major. It was a semester long project, and I can confidently say that my experimentation on the printing press played a huge role in my thought process in relation to our show.


@ childHeeple

You make a good point, well said. The power of nostalgia might be
underestimated here. Yes, we live in a digital age—one that has
nixed many wonders of printing—but we also live in a capitalist age
where if there is a market for it, someone will market it.

It's improbable but give it some time and I'm sure there will be a
printer who's willing to ruin his printers for an extra buck.

While the skills old to change them are certainly arousing, it is the unrevealed organize lower down that transforms the bracelets from bare jewelry into stories.
In this anyhow, the copper old for the bracelets was in reality the outer jacket of a 155mm artillery upon — the remnants of war, unfortunately, that are as much a by of Cambodia's recital as Angkor Wat.
What has happened here has a approachable of gift to its witless beauty. Etching the patterns of the primeval last alters the figurative patterns of Cambodia's more current and unlucky prior into something unmitigated: skills and incomes for victims of genocidal conflict.

I too have been on the receiving end of the quizzical look from the pressman when I've
asked if I could abscond with a selection of
makereadys. They are wonderfully serendipitous.

However, I doubt I could reproduce the same
on my computer. I think I would be prone to
want to move things around or "compose" the spontaneity. It is doubtful that the result
would be as successful as the pressman's unconscious product. But, I will no less try
later tonight. The temptation is just too great.
michael Swaine

Ah, the smell of ink, varnish & press wash. Proust can keep his
madeleines. I cut my teeth in a printshop before becoming a

I spent many years in the bullpen as a freelancer and we used the
dried one-coat (two-coat was for wooses) for two things: to make
rubber cement pickups and to gross out each other by attaching them
to our noses and pretending that we didn't notice it was there.
(OK, three things, we also threw it up to the acoustic foam ceilings
among with the pencils).

One thing I don't miss is having to create a scotch-ruled box with a
ruling pen (or rapidographs, for that matter).

What sold me on the Mac (hey, the whole DTP industry started there)
was the first time I saw someone creating a box in QuarkXPress and
applying scotch-rule frame in a wink.


Several letterpress printers have noted that their makeready
sheets sell better and at much higher prices than their posters.
My friend/colleague Craig Malmrose I have been printing recently
and we have a problem: I'm pretty good at getting things set up
quickly and Craig is really good at it. Instead of producing
valuable makeready, we keep printing the damned posters as I
designed them. What's up with that?

By the way, it doesn't seem so bizarre that "vintage" has come to
mean a year. That's what it originally meant. Of course people
only bothered talking about the vintages that produced
particularly good wine and particularly good wines stood up to
and were improved by age, thus the association with old stuff.

Grapes grown in 1985 produced wine that is now fairly old. If you
have a bottle, drink it. What are you waiting for? It is as old as,
say, some of my students' parents' high school yearbooks. And
the '60s is only a recent decade to those of us who are old
enough that we've forgotten how long the '70s, '80s, and '90s
took. [insert drug-induced amnesia or desire to forget the
'80s joke here.]

Gunnar Swanson


Craig and I were printing again today and after completing the warm
red run on the posters I put the few (unnecessary) makeready
sheets we had through the press so they'd be more complex and I
turned a couple of them around head-to-tail so we'd have more
variety. Is makeready actually makeready if it's after the fact?

Gunnar Swanson

It's clear that the term "makeready" can be understood from at least two standpoints: First, is the labor-intensive process that a press operator must undergo to prepare a job for the final production. Registration, fluid capacities, etc are primary. Second, is the physical object itself - a sheet of paper having gone through a work-and-turn sequence and exhibiting an approximate symmetry of type and image from side to side and end to end. Surprinted colors and visual textures can provide a work of serendipitous beauty. But, this beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
A press operator, skilled in several generations of autoplate technology will be concerned with efficiency and economy. The absence of any makeready will be to his/her credit. This technology has been around long enough that younger operators might see the term as foreign, or something as common and desireable as polio.
In the offset printing industry, it becomes more and more of a challenge to select a pressman with the capacity or interest in pulling off such a feat. Most would view it with the same value a chef would have for the colorful detritis left on a cutting board after a wonderful salad has been prepared.
But offset ain't the only game in town. As was mentioned earlier, serigraphy and letterpress have enjoyed a great ressurection in recent years. Many of these operators will share in the beauty of a multiple impression on paper. And most are aware of the intrinsic value held by this kind of impression.
But beyond the aesthetic which comes from the visual experience, is the activation of nearly all of one's senses. Perhaps most imporatant is the haptic consideration. Some type, designed in the 15 century (Bembo, for instance) was meant to read in three dimensions. Offset printing won't accomplish this, but letterpress will. Metal type, biting into paper, will offer a tactile impression that is sharp, clean and precise.
Align yourself with a good letterpress printer. Enjoy the visual. Inhale the aromas of ink and grease. And then lay your hands on the tactile, three-dimensional surface generated by an antique press. Having done this, it will difficult to return to the visual blight of offset perfection.
craig malmrose

You can have the smell of ink and varnish and cleanser as far as I'm concerned -- I won't miss that.

Every press check I've been on still has seen plenty of makereadies. Digital is great but the pressman still has to make the image pop.

having done my fair share of screen printing, i always feel like
the screwed up posters are more interesting. mainly because
lately i haven't been the one designing the posters, and screwing
them up is really the only input i have in the process. i like to feel
like i am contributing to the makeready population of the
portfolio. tyler will thank me later.

also since most of the work i do screws up in one sense or the
other, does that make most of it makeready, therefore more

i'm hoping so.

hey craig, are you looking for any extra hands in the shop any
weekends coming up?
ed McKim

I loved makereadies back when most presses in Denver were analog; there were always some beautiful "mistakes" that you'd see in the recycling bin. I still get some from the occasional pressman who, despite the digital prepress, the filmless platemaking, and the computerized ink calibration, still insists on running some junk sheets from a previous job through to "warm up the press".
Alan Bucknam

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