Before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450, books were painstakingly copied out by pen. Illiteracy was common amongst the poor and even middle class citizens due to the scarcity of books available. Only the most wealthy and highly educated people had access to the rarity of text. When Gutenberg’s printing press came to fruition, however, all of this changed. People were able to learn things through text. “How-to” books and pamphlets became a very popular option for those wanting to learn new trades. Instead of learning a parent’s trade or becoming an apprentice under a tradesman, young people were able to learn about trades and become more knowledgeable about how to do certain things through literature on the subject. The printing press opened up a whole new world of education for the middle and poor classes and gave them a better chance to make something of themselves.

Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment of the printing press was its key role in the Protestant Reformation beginning in 1517. Some forty years after Gutenberg’s death in 1468, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church in Germany, which sparked a major revolution between Catholics and Protestants.

Luther's ninety-five theses that were nailed to the door of Wittenberg castle church in 1517.
Luther’s ninety-five theses that were nailed to the door of Wittenberg castle church in 1517.

So what does this have to do with print design and text, right? Well, without the printing press, and without the massive introduction of new ideas through pamphlets put out by Protestants, the Reformation wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as it really was. If Luther had posted his Theses a mere sixty years earlier, in a Germany inhabited largely by those who were illiterate and had never read a Bible, his Theses would have had no real meaning. Instead, he was able to post information that was applicable to everyone who had ever read a Bible (which, by that time, was most people). Not only was Luther able to reach people through his Ninety-Five Theses in Wittenberg, but he was also able to spread the news far and wide throughout Western Europe through pamphlets.

Pamphleteering was first used by leaders of the Protestant Reformation to distribute important information to followers. Without the invention of the printing press, not only would this pamphleteering have been impossible, people wouldn’t have been able to read the pamphlets either. The printing press was responsible for a major change in education and accessibility of information throughout Europe in the late 15th century. This major technological development in printing created a major change in accessibility for all types of lifestyles. Pamphleteering was a key component in the French Revolution, Revolutionary War, and many other major social revolutions.

An early illustration of printers creating pamphlets from a press.
An early illustration of printers creating pamphlets from a press.

The printing press created a new way for people to push their ideas out towards others and get information to the public at large. A person could reach hundreds of others in a matter of weeks through distribution of pamphlets. This can be compared to a more current form of information exchange: blogs. Much like printing-press-created pamphlets, blogs are a way to push information and opinions to the general public. Unlike pamphlets, however, a blog’s author can reach literally thousands (even millions) of people in mere hours. The ease with which an author can access the minds of others is astounding, as literally anyone with a WiFi connection and laptop can start a blog and push their ideas towards others. Blogs create an accessibility never seen before, much like the printing press did some five hundred years ago.

Print design is highly utilized today to get information out to the public. Online advertisements can be seen as a modern form of pamphleteering, and though online ads aren’t created with a printing press, they employ similar techniques to reach their audience. Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” was one of the first pamphlets in circulation in America, and played a key role in inspiring other colonists to joint the cause and fight for America’s independence. Printed on a press, this pamphlet is surprisingly eye catching with its large title and obvious audience (Inhabitants of America). Much like an advertisement or pamphlet distributed today, the printers of this pamphlet had a keen eye for what would draw attention to the pamphlet. Even “wanted” posters printed in the late 1800’s were created with design in mind. Large letters and pictures were used to draw attention to the importance of the posters. The “wanted” poster of Percy Lefroy Mapleton is the first of its kind to include a composite drawing of the accused. The new inclusion of images as well as text created a new way to advertise or to get information to the public.


Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" was designed to capture a distinctly American audience.
Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” was designed to capture a distinctly American audience.
1881, the first "wanted" poster to include an image of the accused.
1881, the first “wanted” poster to include an image of the accused.


Much like blogs and modern advertisements, literature put out to the public in the past was designed with a purpose. Past printers created with a specific audience in mind, and through the utilization of images, large font and interesting headlines or titles, printers were able to better reach their audience. This is no different from how advertisers and writers work today, but in the modern world we have the ability to access thousands of people at once with our designs. Therefore, this ease of accessibility must be taken with caution. It works both ways. Both good and bad design (and good and bad images or information) can be circulated in seconds to the world. Awkward typos or inappropriate photos can’t be destroyed once they’re out on the Internet, and all the people who can access them can be both a blessing and a curse. The Internet has given us the ability to access so much with so little effort, but it has also given us the ability to destroy reputations and easily misinform within seconds. Therefore, good design and decision making when it comes to what you put on the Internet is key to utilizing print’s amazing new technological advances.

This printing press is stored in the lower level of UNM's own Tamarind Institute. No longer in use, this press is simply for show.
This printing press is stored in the lower level of UNM’s own Tamarind Institute. No longer in use, this press is simply for show and tell. It’s clear how huge these machines really are.