Two years ago, a little project showed up on Kickstarter that’d excite anyone who loves old typography and traditional printing presses: LetterMpress. It was a rather ambitious project to recreate the traditional craft of letterpress printing on the then-new iPad. The project was successful, and they acquired authentic wood type collections, digitalized them, and put them inside a virtual printing press. You could drag wood type and art around on your screen, mix colors, and “print” letterpress art to your heart’s content. It was the next-best-thing to buying and restoring an antique letterpress printer.
Later that year, the Mpressinteractive team brought the original LetterMpress to the Mac, then set to work on their next app: SimplyMpress. Released just a few months ago, SimplyMpress made it much simpler to make letterpress art on your Mac, albeit without the photo-realstic printing press and traditional tools you’d find in their original app. Together, they’re the best apps for making letterpress-style art, but which one should you get?
Let’s take a look at SimplyMpress, along with the app that started it all, LetterMpress, and see which one you should add to your Launchpad before taking on your next poster design project.
SimplyMpress: Letterpress, Simplified
At $6.99 and a mere (by comparison) 165Mb download, SimplyMpress is the entry-level letterpress app that’s far simpler to use for beginners than its older sibling. But just browse through the sample designs on its site, and, if you love old-fashioned letterpress posters and art, you’ll be dying to try it out. The good thing is, it’s easy to use. Even if you’ve never handled real wood type before, or couldn’t care less how a printing press works, you’ll be able to make beautiful designs in SimplyMpress in minutes. It lets you turn any font on your computer — or the 25 included MPI fonts that are designed from LetterMPress’ wooden type — into designs that look like they’ve been pressed into your paper with actual wood type in the color and darkness you want. You can even include images from your computer or the included art library and icon fonts to go beyond basic type in your designs.
It’s not perfect, though. SimplyMpress is actually designed with Flash Builder, and it’s rather painfully apparent throughout the app that it’s not truly a Mac native app. You’ll pick your paper style, add type, change the font and type settings, insert images, change colors and more from the bottom menus, all of which defy keyboard control and gestures. You’ll actually have to type in your words in a text box in a generic font, then add it to the document and tweak the font, color and size from there, much like you would when adding Word Art to Microsoft Word documents in older versions of Office a decade ago. Want to add more text? You’ll need to add another text box, rinse, repeat.
If you can get past that, though, it’s a fairly fun app to play around with. You’ll find alignment options to get your type straight, resize and rotate tools, and plenty of traditional graphics and wood grain styles to add to your type that you’ll be able to create classic-style posters that you’ll love. It’d be perfect if it wasn’t for the UI frustrations.
Then, though, there’s another rather frustrating part: the way SimplyMPress has you save your designs. You can always export your art as a .png file with the resolution you want, but if you want to save the design to edit directly later, you’ll have to save it in the app’s own file library. It’s a rather clunky way to save files that somehow reminded me of saving SimCity maps in ancient versions of Windows — not exactly the experience Mac users would expect. But then, at least you can save your designs in an editable way.
The good part is, though, that it does work good if you can get around the interface oddities. The included paper textures and wood typography, along with an extensive PDF manual, make it a nice enough way to make letterpressed art on your Mac. We just wish it was a tad bit more Mac native.
LetterMpress: The Real Deal
That brings us to LetterMpress, the older sibling that started it all. At $9.99 and a hefty 801Mb download, this is the app for anyone who wants to experience honest-to-goodness wooden type letterpress printing from the comforts of a MacBook. It’s as skeuomorphic of an interface as you could imagine, with a photorealistic 1964 Vandercook model SP-15 cylinder proofing press and dozens of authentic wooden font sets and art pieces. You’ll drag out each character you want, upside-down, into the words you want. Each piece can be dragged to the spot you want, and can push around other pieces you’ve already got on the press. You can use metal lockup tools and magnets to keep your pieces in place, or turn on free movement and place the pieces however you want.
Everything’s manual: there’s no typing, only dragging-and-dropping precise wooden type and art onto your press. It gets tedious quickly with a mouse, but then, that’s how dragging and dropping goes.
When everything’s all set, you can switch from the Compose view to the Print view, where you can pick your paper, ink color, and ink coverage. When everything’s set, you drag the carriage handle across your type to make a “paper” print. You’ll then be shown a full-screen view of your page, and you can either keep it if you like the results, or reject it and try again. If you keep it, it’ll be saved to your “paper rack”, where you can then print on the page again to add additional artwork, or export it as an image to your computer. The paper rack for saving here makes more sense than the specialized save menu in SimplyMpress, but perhaps that’s because everything in this app is custom designed, and it doesn’t feel as much like a traditional app.
At any rate, you can turn out some rather impressive graphics with LetterMpress, especially by saving prints then printing in another color on top of it. You could do something similar with just filters and graphics in most photo editing apps, but LetterMpress lets you make art and feel like you’re taking a tour of the history of printing at the same time. There’s definitely some creative fun here — despite it being slightly odd to use with a mouse (or trackpad, in my case — perhaps it’d be easier to use with a traditional mouse, actually).
Which One Should You Get?
It’s tough to have apps that you want to love so much, and yet find that they come up short. Both LetterMpress and SimplyMpress are impressive apps that are fun to use, and I’d easily recommend the former if you want to get the real printing press experience on your Mac, even if just for fun, and the latter for making quick classic-style graphics. You could do the same in Photoshop, but SimplyMpress does make it easy and cheap, despite its flaws. And there’s really no other way to experience a real printing press experience on your Mac without LetterMpress.
But, if you have an iPad, there is one other way: get LetterMpress on your iPad. There, the UI doesn’t feel so out of place, and moving type blocks around with multitouch is far more natural than it is on the Mac. So much so, you’ll likely won’t find anything to complain about if you’re using it there. LetterMpress has similar limitations on iOS as its Mac version, but then, those limitations again don’t feel so odd in an iOS app.
Perhaps this shows that we’ve basically got different expectations for Mac and iOS apps. It’s nice to see so many iPad apps making their way to the Mac, but it can be really tough to translate a great touch interface to an environment where we expect multitasking, keyboard shortcuts, and an array of pro-user features. Perhaps some stuff really is best meant for touch screens.
I’ll be keeping SimplyMpress around on my Mac, and expect I’ll continue to find plenty of little, fun projects to use it for. But, I’ll be keeping the iOS version of LetterMpress on my iPad, and will play with it there — but likely won’t use it more on the Mac. I happen to suspect you’d want to do the same.