Two weeks ago Etsy UK announced that they were launching a competition, in partnership with the British Library. The name of the competition is Redesigning Alice, and it’s to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland. The British Library hold the original manuscript, Alice’s Adventures Under-Ground, which can be viewed here. The competition brief is as follows:
The strapline for the British Library Shop is “Quirky books and gifts for the curious and literary-minded, inspired by the British Library’s treasures and exhibitions.”
We’re looking for designer-makers to look at the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland manuscript with fresh eyes and create new products in response.
A contract with the British Library Shop, the selected designer-makers will receive hands-on professional development support from the award-winning Business & IP Centre (including business workshops and access to the Library’s business and intellectual property collections).
Too tempting to resist! It’s actually been a very interesting design process, and I’ve had some serious technical problems along the way. so I thought others might be interested in seeing how I went from the original brief to the finished product…
My first thought when I read about the competition was to do something themed on the Mad Hatter… but upon reading the manuscript I was surprised to find that he didn’t feature in the original story – I guess he and his tea party were late additions before it was finally print-ready. So I read the manuscript again, and the bit that was most evocative to me was this:
Images from the original manuscript
If you’ve been following my blog you’ll know that over the past few months I’ve been particularly interested in typography, so it probably won’t be a huge surprise to hear that I went down that route with my design (although you’ll note that I gave up on preserving the original spelling of ‘toffy’ because it was causing my inner pedant some serious grief).
At this stage of the design I scanned it in and then used Fireworks to invert the colours so that it was white text on a black background, and then I showed both the original and the edited version to some friends. The general consensus was that the white on black was more striking, but that the smaller text at the top was easier to read when it was black on white. Then someone mentioned a gradual fade. Which is when inspiration struck and I knew exactly how I wanted it to look. I could see it in my head, the finished design gocco printed onto notebooks.
I didn’t think fading from black/white to white/black would work, but I did think that having a divide in the colour scheme would work perfectly to convey the sense of there being liquid in the bottle. It would also solve the issue of the smaller writing being easier to read in black on white. Bingo!
The next stage was to prepare the image for burning onto a gocco screen. Now, to get your image onto a gocco screen, the image needs to contain carbon. There are two ways of doing this: either you ink the design using a carbon-ink pen, or you photocopy your design using a toner copier. I’ve used both methods in the past and up to this point the hand drawn method worked perfectly, whereas I’ve had some issues with photocopied images containing too much carbon (which can then fuse the paper to your gocco screen). With this in mind I decided to trace a copy of my final design and then go over it by hand with carbon-ink. It didn’t go quite as smoothly as I wanted, and I made a small error.
I decided to try and fix this by putting a white sticker over the mistake and then inking over that.
Which looked as though it came out fine. Certainly looked fine to me, and I was careful to ink in very thoroughly around the edge of the sticker. Off to the studio I went, to get my gocco on.
The wretched thing had burned perfectly… except for the bit around the sticker. I wanted to cry. Ok, fine, back to the drawing board, we’ll go with a photocopied version instead.
Despite using the appropriate filter to prevent this, there was too much carbon in the photocopy and it fused the paper to the screen in places (and some of the photosensitive emulsion on the screen was torn off when I removed the paper). Ok, I was very close to tears at this stage, but I went back and inked another one by hand.
Another wasted screen. I have absolutely no idea why this one didn’t burn properly (if you’re reading this and you have an explanation then please let me know!). I went from being close to tears to wanting to throw my gocco machine through the window. Gocco supplies are very expensive: it takes two (single use) bulbs to expose a screen (which are also single exposure). I’d gone through six bulbs and three screens at this point, costing me close to £40 in supplies. My stress levels were through the roof at this point, which is extremely unusual as I’m normally so laid back I’m almost horizontal.
I couldn’t believe this last screen was no good, I mean perhaps it just looked dodgy. So I inked it and tried some test prints.
Yeah, definitely dodgy.
I then spent some time wracking my brains, sulking, swearing quite a lot, and having a cup of tea. Then I decided to try scraping some of the emulsion off the back of the first screen, where it had left a gap around that sticker. For those who aren’t sure how this would help, the emulsion is burned through when you expose the screen to the special bulbs, and only the bits in contact with carbon are burned away – these burned through sections are where the ink comes through to create your image.
It was ever so nerve-wracking, scratching away lightly at the back of the screen. I was wary of puncturing the screen (which is an incredibly fine mesh) because I knew that would allow the ink to flood through, creating a messy print. When I thought I’d done as much as I could I inked up the screen and nervously tried a test print.
YESSSSSS! At last! I ran twenty or so prints on scrap paper to get the ink flowing nicely, and to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, and then got stuck in with the beautiful pastel Moleskine cahiers I’d bought especially for this design.
I also did some hardcover notebooks and some notecards too, just because I had them handy and it seemed a shame to waste the ink.
It’s been an arduous journey, and this is definitely the most expensive design I’ve done to date in terms of the materials used and time spent creating the master screen. Obviously it’s been stressful, and of course I wish it had gone more smoothly…but I’m in love with the finished product. One of the things I like about gocco printing is that each print is subject to little variations, and with this design in particular it works very well. I think I’d describe the finish as charmingly weathered!
I have no idea how the judges will feel about my work, but the books and notecards are in my Etsy shop now so if you like it then please feel free to come and buy some.
tl;dr – I made a new design. It took more time and money than one might expect. It looks amazing. Please buy my stuff.
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