October 6, 2016

The Unifying Craft & Effect of Letterpress: Sara McNally, Founder of Constellation & Co.

Sara McNally is the founder and owner of letterpress studio Constellation & Co. in Seattle, Washington. It was her business’ mission that got my attention: “Using the historic craft of letterpress to bring people together.” Here, she shares her story on becoming a letterpress craftsperson and opinions on work she loves.

When did you notice that you liked to make things?
I’ve always been creative and I’ve always been antsy. I can’t sit still and I can’t live with all these words and ideas in my head. I’ve been trying to get them out on paper since I can remember. I was a ballet dancer as a young person and traded the performing arts for the visual arts in late high school. For college, I went to the Ringling College of Art and Design and majored in Graphic and Interactive Communication.

How did you arrive at the idea of becoming a practicing 
full-time letterpress designer and craftsperson? How did you 
go about learning how to do letterpress printing?
I graduated college at the peak of the recession and struggled to find a job. Instead of going back to school, I apprenticed for a year with a local letterpress printer and learned the nitty-gritty of printing on antique presses. I grew up in a family that owned a small business, so going that route felt like the right choice for me. It happened pretty organically. It wasn’t necessarily the plan from the start to pursue my own work full-time, but I’m grateful that my circumstances pushed me in that direction. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to pursue it so early in life otherwise.

How did you make yourself committed to start becoming 
a practicing full-time letterpress designer and craftsperson?
Like I said, I really couldn’t get a job out of college. It’s amazing how motivated you can get when you’ve got nothing but time and no money. My family leant me some money to buy my first press, and I went from there.

What keeps the letterpress medium alive?
People are fascinated by the history, the beautiful machines, and the practicality of being able to manufacture things yourself. It’s a magical combination.

There is a visible renaissance of print, particularly letterpress, 
and particularly seized by women. Why?
Women weren’t allowed to be printers throughout most of history. Typically, a woman could only be a printer if her husband happened to be a printer and happened to die. It’s not that men aren’t currently printing or favoring letterpress. But somehow a woman owning a business and operating a large piece of machinery is still newsworthy. It turns out that us inky, greasy, letterpress ladies are pretty badass.

What are your your printing presses? 
How did you find them? And do they have nicknames?
I have three presses:
  1. A Reliance 20th Century iron handpress made by Paul Shneidewend & Company in Chicago between 1895 and 1911. We call her Wendy. 
  2. A new style 8x12 platen press made by Chandler & Price in Cleveland in 1921. We call her Josephine. 
  3. A 10x15 Original Heidelberg windmill platen press made in Germany in 1970. We call her Heidi.
What tools do you use and recommend to work on ideas 
and make them grow, to collaborate and get things done?
I can’t operate without a notebook and a pen. I’m not too specific with those—but I always buy too many. Things I also use daily: my MacBook Air, Adobe Creative Suite (primarily Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign and Lightroom) and the Google Apps (primarily Gmail, Calendar and Sheets).

Who and what are your influences 
related to creativity and making?
I tend to be most inspired by people outside of my field. Here are a few: I love the illustration and design work of Invisible Creature, the words of Brené Brown, the music of Drew Holcomb, the community building of Tradeshow Bootcamp, the tattoo work of Lisa Orth and Kyler Martz, the fine whiskeys of Westland Distillery, the musical Newsies, and the joy my son has for life.

What were essential activities/steps you took to start and 
establish your business? And why were they important?
I have not always done the right things in the right order. But here are a few of the good decisions I’ve made, and things I strive to do:
  • Make what you love and make it personal.
  • Keep working to make the quality of your product better.
  • Find people to work with that are a great fit
    for you and your business.
  • Be honest, try your hardest and say you’re sorry
    when you mess up.
  • Let someone else do the stuff you’re bad at.
  • Take risks and be willing to fail sometimes. 
  • Be consistent, be polite, be willing to say, “No.”
How do you get the word out about what you do? 
How do you attract work, customers and clients?
We do trade shows, e-mail marketing, send snail mail, work with sales reps, social media, sponsor podcasts, reach out to local media, host events and offer the best customer service we can so that our customers will tell their friends. Word-of-mouth will always be the best advertising.

How do you define growth, as it relates to business?
There’s a lot of markers. I look at financial growth, quantity of new wholesale stockists and reorders, exposure and brand recognition, social media engagement, new fans and advocates, new products launched, staff added, etc.

But I also look strongly at the personal growth of myself and my team:
  • Are we learning new things? 
  • Feeling fulfilled? 
  • Pushing our comfort zones? 
  • Getting more efficient and more compassionate? 
  • Are we enjoying what we do?
How many show/venues do you go to in order to promote 
and sell your handmade products? How would you 
characterize the experience of working the craft-show circuit?
I definitely wouldn’t say we’re on the craft show circuit. We’ve done 1–2 shows per year since we started out. They’re a great place to test products and hear feedback, but doing every show isn’t a sustainable business model for a greeting card company—In my opinion. We have to sell a LOT of cards to make the shows financially lucrative, and the time and energy spent packing everything up, setting up/breaking down and traveling is exhausting. We’ve built a business based on wholesale and brick-and-mortar retail. The shows are a bonus for us, but they’re not a building block.

How would you describe your work lifestyle?
And how do keep it sane and satisfying?
Not sane, that’s for sure—Ha! My work lifestyle before becoming a parent was very different than how it works now. These are a few things that I’ve found are helpful to recognize:
  • I’m more focused and efficient at the studio than I am at home.
  • I thrive on variety and love hands-on tasks.
  • Printing is peaceful for me.
  • I can do a lot on the go: social media, email, brainstorming, etc. 
  • I can’t do everything and have to build boundaries for myself ahead of time. 
  • Building the parts of my business that can grow without my direct time and attention is wise. 
  • Hiring smart, kind, efficient people is a good idea.
How does Seattle contribute to your work? And what makes 
it special for startups/business/creativity-at-large?
Seattle is my home and the place I feel most at peace. We chose Seattle for its beautiful nature, creative energy and acceptance of the value of small business, artists, startups, etc. It’s changed a lot since we moved here 7 years ago, but so have we. It’s not a perfect city, but we’re anchored here. I’m proud to have carved out a space in the city I love for my very own business.

If you were posed, “I want to do what you do”, 
what’s your response?
Do it. Don’t wait for someone else to validate your dreams. Don’t expect overnight success—it takes a long time. Get good education on printing presses before you buy one. Be you, be unique—don’t emulate another artist or business too closely. Get started, keep going and don’t look back.

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All images courtesy of Sara McNally.

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