It has been my extraordinary pleasure to work with educator Bill Van Loo at A2 STEAM. As inaugural teachers, we found opportunity to collaborate well before the ribbon cutting. When our school was still just a nebulous idea, we embarked upon the task of creating the school’s web presence and brand identity that expressed values yet to be articulated. Bill and I have both had careers as creative professionals prior to our work as educators as a web developer and graphic designer respectively. Both of us have an understanding and appreciation for each others’ skill set and outlook on design. When that happens, magic happens.

Design & Modeling & Typography just may be our masterstroke of collaboration. After leaving the classroom to become the project-based learning coordinator, more time was available to pursue big projects and tie up loose ends. One of those loose ends was the letterpress sitting in storage behind the maker space and adjacent to the labyrinthine catacombs dug into the foundations of the cold-war era municipal structure. The textured matte in neutral green of the Line-O-Scribe Sign Machine reminds one of a Stanley thermos or the steel casing of a military Teletype. Given our robust programming, how could we design curriculum that features a letterpress as a pivotal resource? After discussion, we decided that a unit in typography would fit well into the PLTW “Design and Modeling” course. Read the description below:

Have you ever wanted to create a toy or a device to help people?

Students use tools such as the design process, a dynamic mathematics software, a computer-aided design program, computer simulations, an engineering notebook, and possibly a 3D printer to design, model, and build objects.

Discover the design process and turn your ideas into realities!

If we were to structure a typography unit in the Design and Modeling course, we needed to think about how this work would fit into the sequence of instructional outcomes in PLTW. We also wanted to design it as a PBL unit to ensure opportunity for an authentic public product.

Within Design and Modeling, students learn to use an isometric grid to create illustrations of a 3-dimensional object composed of cubes from different angles. Students do this on paper, but also have opportunity to do this work with digital tools. Isometric grids are also used as a compositional structure for illustrators, as in City by Thomas Boswell. We used an isometric grid for this purpose in our largest art installation at A2 STEAM, the hallway mural. In the mural, there are letterforms that spell out the name of the school. These letterforms appear as 3-dimensional objects.

On a letterpress, the function of the shape is binary: print ink or don’t print ink. Because of this, we had to show students how an isometric grid could be used to define flat forms as well. We showed this using the letter “A” from the mural. Interestingly enough, most of the shapes from ubiquitous teacher resource pattern blocks fit inside the isometric grid. We also showed how one could use pattern blocks to define this shape. This allowed students to quickly ideate given the constraint that the letterform should fit inside an isometric grid.

Taking designs from Illustrator to Tinkercad. Next step, the X-Carve.

After some trial and error, we realized that the best way to prototype these letterforms would be by carving linoleum blocks of uniform size. The constraint of the grid also provides us with opportunity. If all letterforms are designed to fit a uniform block, the grid provides enough stylistic coherence that all student designs could conceivably contribute to the creation of a monospaced typeface. What can you do with a font? Ask Gutenberg

After much iteration and revision, students successfully created letterforms using a template we created in Adobe Illustrator. They exported the file to be read by Easel, and formatted their letters to be printed on the X-Carve.

We finish the unit in the Ann Arbor District Library’s Secret Lab with a case of type and a mission to make the most of our workshop time. Students take full advantage of the resources in the lab and learn to print on various presses in a professional (hobbyist at worst) capacity.

As we continue to add letterforms to the type case, we are excited to see what our font can do.

Learn more about this project in the book, Learning First, Technology Second in Practice, by Liz Kolb.