LetterMpress is a simulation of an old-fashioned, wood-type printing press, complete with multiple sets of moveable display type and assorted borders, ornaments, dingbats and other images.
In the Compose mode, you drag the type elements into the work area, which looks like a vintage hand-operated tin-tray press, using blocks and magnets to set the spacing. In the Print mode, you can pick ink colors and density, as well as paper color and texture. Then you drag the the inked roller across the paper. The result is a image of a sheet of paper that looks just like the product of an traditional letter press, although of course it doesn’t exist materially. There are even sound effects in Print mode to simulate the aural environment of a press room, humming, clicking and rolling.
This is what’s increasingly described as a skeuomorphic app, in that it simulates the look, functions and limitations of an earlier technology. (The Wikipedia entry on Skeuomorph makes for diverting reading.) I’m not sure that label fits perfectly, since a skeuomorph is usually an extraneous, ornamental design element on a modern object that’s retained purely to trigger a nostalgic or reassuringly familiar feeling. A perfect example of this is the little, round, non-functional handles near the necks of some glass jars of maple syrup, mimicking the shape of the handles on jugs. These subliminally signal that here you have authentic syrup, just like Pa Ingalls used to make in the Little House in the Big Woods.
With LetterMPress, on the other hand, the nostalgia is not only overt, it’s the entire purpose of the app (which you can also buy to run on your Mac). If all you really wanted was the image, I’m sure there are easier ways to make it. With this app, the process, complete with the maddening way the type blocks jostle out of alignment or end up printing backwards when you’re still figuring out how to use it, is as important as the results, if not more so. It’s toy as much as tool. Kids love it.
I’m not much for games, so when I want to play around on my tablet, this is the kind of app I prefer. It’s a craft project that requires no materials and makes no mess, one that can be tinkered with even when you’re stuck at the airport. The likelihood that I’ll ever get my hands on a real-world letter press are pretty slim, and even if I did, I’d probably fret about wasting paper with my amateur noodlings. Someone I described this app to seemed bewildered by the fact that you don’t actually end up with a physical piece of paper (although the creators of LetterMPress are supposedly working out a service that will produce one for a fee). I’m not sure that’s such a big problem. What would I do with these but file them away somewhere until I was finally forced to toss them out? Who would ever see them?
Nevertheless, I have used LetterMPress to make title cards for photo albums uploaded to Facebook, and I’m sure there countless other uses to which the images could be put. They could be mailed to friend using one of the many photo-to-postcard services out there. You could design a CD cover for a band or perhaps labels for homemade gifts. I haven’t tried any of that, so I can’t tell you how well it works.
For me, the immaterial nature of LetterMPress — or rather its strange immaterial evocation of an all-too-material tool — is the essence of its appeal, and one of things that makes it so chimerical. The fact that nothing gets used up except bits (the ultimate recycleables) is liberating.