Planning is Almost More Fun Than Printing

Q&A with Joel Benson, Founder, Dependable Letterpress

Joel discovered the satisfaction of putting ink to paper in 1987 at a book arts class at UC Santa Cruz, and felt he’d finally found his calling. An apprenticeship with the Yolla Bolly Press followed, and later a job with Julie Holcomb Printers in San Francisco, introduced him to Heidelberg presses and the practice of production printing. Joel Benson started Dependable Letterpress in 2002 in his basement in San Francisco’s Mission District. In 2004, the shop graduated to a workspace in the Dogpatch on the Bay side of Potrero Hill. These days, we are still happy at home in the Dogpatch filling a much larger space.

He will be speaking at Uncharted Minds: Ode to Analog on June 15th. Click here to get tickets to the event.

Q. When you were growing up, were you always interested in design and printing?

A. My parents are craftspeople. My father is a woodworker and my mother a textile artist. So, I grew up making stuff.

Q. What were some early influences on your career choice?

A. The class at UCSC that is mentioned in my bio. I also had an apprenticeship at the Yolla Bolly Press in 1987 that really opened my eyes to the tradition of fine printing.

Q. What did your parents do?

A. They were artists who taught for a living.

Q. What did you study in college?

A. I started out studying classics and philosophy. I switched to art when I discovered my love of printing.

Q. How did you get started in letterpress?

A. I took a class as an elective in college that was taught by a rare book dealer, George Kane. He taught us the basics of setting type and printing. He also brought in examples to every class of beautiful book design and printing, that I found very inspiring. In his class we would talk about the history of the small press, and special edition book printing. I then apprenticed for Yolla Bolly, where I experienced doing print work at a high level. After that, I worked for Julie Holcomb Printers when she was here in San Francisco. That’s where I learned the discipline of commercial printing. It was those three experiences that set me on this path.

Q. What were some early lessons that shaped your approach to creativity and design?

A. I don’t know if I could articulate my approach to creativity and design, let alone what shaped it. I guess I don’t have a conscious “approach”, I just do it. But, I would say that working on books at Yolla Bolly Press impressed upon me the importance of proofing printing. You need to test and model things, with the final materials. Because, in printing, you can never be certain how the materials will react.

Q. What do you do for inspiration? How do you generate ideas and stay inspired?

A. My ideas don’t happen in a vacuum. For me, they arise from working, experimenting and collaborating. I also get a lot of inspiration from seeing the work other local letterpress people are doing. We’re a collegial lot, and we like to admire each other’s work. Hanging out and talking shop is a regular source of inspiration for me. I also like to look at other types of art and understand their processes. Painting, photography, illustration are areas that I am interested in. My ideas can come from surprising places.

Q. What career advice would you give to young people today?

A. I don’t know that I’m qualified to give anyone advice, especially in a world that is changing in ways I don’t fully understand. What use is career advice, if robots are going to do all the work, and we’re going to become animals of leisure?

That said, my core career beliefs are:

  1. Make Do With What You Have (or Do What You Are Good At)
  2. Find People You Admire And Be Like Them
  3. And lastly, Be Yourself

After that, if you can find work that you believe is important, you’re in luck.

Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of running a letterpress print shop?

A. Making it pay. It’s an inherently expensive process because the machines are much slower than a contemporary printing processes. And time is money.

Q. What’s your favorite aspect of running a letterpress print shop?

A. The collaborative relationships I have with designers and other creative folks. It’s very satisfying to start with a design created on a computer. First we talk about what they need this piece to do. Then, pull out samples and swatchbooks, and talk about how to make that design a real object that you hold in your hand. Planning the jobs is almost more fun than actually printing them.