Week 9 – Message delivered

Lecture with Susannah Edwards and Sam Winston

I really enjoyed Sam Winston’s remarks this week. The focus on letting go and doing, prioritising the process and having fun were all lessons I needed to hear. So much of my working life is completely digital, and while there is always room for experimentation, it is not as tactile and immediate as traditional craft based media. I’m currently working from home completely and one of the things I am missing is being able to print proofs and work with full scale mockups of projects. It has been very difficult when designing paper engineering projects or jobs where the finish is very important. Last week I wrote about the concept of flow, and I find that very easy to access when I’m cutting small bits of paper with a scalpel or assembling the same box 15 times in a row to get the flaps arranged just so. Taking the time to step back from the computer, changing your environment or getting your hands dirty makes you think about a project from a different perspective and allows new ideas to germinate.
These points stood out the most to me from the lecture:

Finding a physical approach to problem solving – learning through touch
Not knowing, listening — the ideas will come to you
Fear is excitement about doing something
The difference between data and knowledge is storytelling
Process, material, language and design
Build a personal toolkit, and most importantly go and do, just play and let yourself experience

Message and medium are intrinsically linked. Context and a shared cultural lexicon is very important though – I’ll never forget the culture clash I experienced at my brother’s funeral. Someone had been asked to bring flowers for the cemetery, intended for throwing onto the coffin, which is a common American burial custom. The arranger was not aware of this, so showed up with numerous single roses in individual vases. They did not understand why they had been asked to bring so many flowers, as their custom was to leave a small vase at the gravesite. We were baffled by the vases, but removed the flowers and used them. At the end of the service someone began gathering the vases up to salvage them, which set off a huge reaction. Apparently it is grossly inappropriate and bad luck to remove something from a cemetery. Much bustling and fuss ensued until the vases had been gathered and a large enough trash can had been found on the cemetery grounds to dispose of all of them. No one had intended to cause offence, but miscommunication and cultural differences ended up making an already horrible situation even worse. Understanding the semiotics of your message, and how it will be understood by receivers is vitally important.

Where do ideas come from – Smile in the Mind – paragraph about ideas – some come as a bolt from the blue, some are worked at and ground away -cogs

Ideas come in many ways, sometimes you have to just jump in and trust in the process.

Workshop Challenge

Communicate an emotion you perceive your city or location is about.

Take the word and use an appropriate material, form or medium – 2D, digital, 3D or immersive.

This week I had a few ideas. Most of them centred on where I live. I had a very unsettled childhood, moving often and not staying in one place for very long. This made me distrustful of putting down roots or even making friends when I was a child. I’ve now lived in Cornwall for nearly two decades, and I’ve been in my house the longest I’ve lived anywhere. To me, the overriding word that comes to mind when I think about my town is simply, home. My home, my family, my house, and the dunes and sea behind me. My town is not large anyway, but lockdown has made my daily territory even smaller. My entire life has contracted, so we have had to focus on making what is available as comfortable and inspiring as possible. Baking has been an important part of this, my husband took up bread making and it has become a key part of our weeks. Baking becomes an expression of love and affection, nourishing the soul as well as the body.

I also knew I wanted to experiment with my 3D printer. My parents sent a 3D printer to my son for his birthday, and it has mostly been a novelty so far. I don’t like that it is taking up so much space and hasn’t really been used for very much, but I also did not really have any ideas of what to do with it. In order to use a 3D printer you need a 3D file which has been processed into slices to direct the printer how and where to print. I had mostly let my children design things using Tinkercad, a free online 3D design software aimed at schoolchildren, or projects that other people had uploaded to free design libraries such as Thingiverse. I had set up and prepared files for printing, but stayed away from designing anything myself. This week I decided to attempt designing a 3D object from the ground up.

I love printmaking, but don’t have access to a lot of tools and materials. I have a modified craft cutter that can be used as a very basic (very small) printing press, and ideally I’d love to be able to print letterpress plates that could be used with it. With this in mind I designed a small experimental plate.

This did not go well at first. The workflow has three steps, which should be relatively simple, but is complicated.
1. Design a vector shape in Illustrator. This must be a complete path and consist of two solid outlines, exported as an svg.
2. Import the svg into Tinkercad. Set the size and depth of your pieces. Export as an stl.
3. Import the stl into a slicing program. I use Cura, which is compatible with my 3D printer. The slicing program allows you to change the dimensions and printer settings and exports as a gcode file.

The first issue was with my svg. It looked perfect in Illustrator, no open paths, a thin double outlined shape as expected. When I imported into Tinkercad it devolved into a messy nightmare. I couldn’t figure out what was going wrong and went over my shapes again. Eventually I discovered that Tinkercad does not handle clipping paths. Illustrator hides those areas automatically, but Tinkercad registers even the hidden points and tries to connect them, resulting in this messy 3D shape.

After eventually getting the file to work, I was able to set it up to print. I don’t have a good handle on the depth I need to get a good impression on my little press. Proper letterpress has a standard type height of  0.918” or 23.32mm, but that doesn’t apply to cobbled together home setups with limitations. I have some plastic sample plates but am unable to measure them accurately as I don’t have access to callipers at home. I had to guess at depth measurement and underestimated by quite a bit. The result was a bad print that could barely be removed from the printer bed without breaking. The type is also not high enough from the plate base, and the top layer is very patchy.

It did not ink clearly and the finish was very rough on the top. I need to do a lot more experimenting to find an optimal thickness. Even packing the press multiple times did not help a great deal. It did make an impression eventually, so I am keen to keep experimenting and see if I can get a good result with it. Unfortunately 3D printing takes several hours and the design I had planned was not working well with the limitations I currently have. I would like to come back to this as I think it can work. My initial idea would work better as a linocut, interweaving text and either a watercolour background, or perhaps a layered mono print. I really want to experiment with mark making and the sense of discovery you get with printmaking. Every time you pull a print it is a surprise, and the whole process is engaging and exciting for me. I have ordered some lino blocks and will keep them in mind for future projects.

I focused on my second idea, designing custom cookie cutters in Illustrator. My first attempts were too small, and I had tried to save time by printing all four letters in one go. This was not successful, so I had to redesign the letters and take several attempts to print them.

3D printers work by heating and extruding a small layer of filament onto a heated bed. The nozzle moves around the space, building up a complex 3d shape, but the process is very temperamental. The slightest movement of the lower layers mean the model will develop ridges, or catch on the nozzle and shift, resulting in so-called “spaghetti” as in the photo below right. Temperature variations, breezes or incorrect heating settings can also cause issues with the print quality.

After many attempts, and several days, I had four cookie cutters. They needed sanding and washing, but worked very well. I was finally able to make my “Home” cookies and decorate them. I chose a beach design, so that the cookies both represent a homey warmth, and also a specific physical locality.

Summary of the week

Decorating cookies is not my strong point, but I’m not the worst at it. I had several adventures along the way, including discovering you can make icing sugar out of regular sugar as long as you have a powerful enough blender! I feel like my idea could have been a bit more clever, but I was feeling overwhelmed this week and needed something solid and warm. The process of making the cutters is also very time consuming, so I felt quite locked into the idea once I started. I can now make 100% custom cookie cutters, though I’m not entirely convinced they were necessary to my final outcome this week. Would it have been as successful if I had simply cut the letterforms out by hand? The process was important to me this week, and creating something every step of the way was part of that.

I wanted my message this week to be about how I feel about my home- conveying warmth and domesticity and happiness with where I live, anchored with a sense of place. I also wanted to experiment with a new technology, and make edible typography. I think my final outcome has been successful at all of these things, but I have also have realised that my photography skills are very poor. I have really struggled to take good photos, and as my outcome is temporary and ephemeral, it really needs to be documented in a better way. Every lesson from the last few weeks have built upon one another, idea generating, learning new skills, trusting the process and identifying skills gaps have all be necessary for my project this week.


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