How to Transform the Written Word!

This post was written by Leigh Fisher, the winner of the October MakerSpace Mini Grant.

Design Process

I’ve been grappling with the intersection of art and poetry for as long as I’ve been a writer. Even now, as a student studying Integrated Digital Media at the Tandon School of Engineering, I’m fascinated by how stories can be brought to life when combined with digital art. I’m still a writer at heart and a devout book lover, but I love exploring how the written word can be transformed with the help of visual media. That was what led me to want to do more than just write words on a simple notebook page or in a word processor.

I’ve been toying with fusing simple graphic design and my poetry on Instagram for quite a few years now, but I wanted to try and create something more physical and tangible. When I learned about NYU’s MakerSpace and the various opportunities for things like the MakerSpace Mini Grant, I was struck with an idea; what if I combined my writing and graphic design skills to create wood engravings? That was what led me to take inspirational poetry I’ve written, visualizing it in a new way, and carving it into a media I’ve never worked with before.

Every project is a learning experience

Though I’ve dabbled in graphic design for a good many years, Illustrator used to be a weak spot in my software repertoire. I’ve spent most of my time in PhotoShop and InDesign since I’ve done a lot of print projects for jobs I’ve held in the past. Though I can manage to get by in Illustrator to make simple graphics or to manipulate existing vectors, this was my first time using Illustrator with an external piece of hardware like a laser cutter. 

The initial laser cutter training had me on my way with starting to laser cut my designs, but there were a lot of design flares and tricks that I wanted to play with that required more advanced settings. Beyond that, I’m a huge nerd about typefaces—so of course, I had to use all the prettiest serif fonts and figure out how to size them appropriately to cut into small pieces of wood.

Ever since I started at NYU this past fall, I’ve been trying to drop in for MakerSpace Design Lab Events and Workshops every chance I get to squeeze them into my schedule. I took the Intro to Illustrator course and it was tremendously helpful. There are so many little tips and tricks to Illustrator that can make laser engraving much easier and much more precise.

Working with natural materials poses its challenges

I love the look of natural wood—it’s classy and elegant without doing a thing to it. However, I realized pretty quickly that since these were very natural materials, the sizes varied wildly. I would try and measure things carefully, tinker with settings in Illustrator and on the Epilog Mini, but I still had some engravings so slightly awry when I didn’t account for how much these wooden plaques varied in size. Though they were all meant to be approximately the same size, real trees aren’t going to be perfectly uniform every time.

Regardless, perseverance makes anything possible

As Octavia E. Butler championed the idea of the importance of perseverance in her book Parable of the Sowers, I firmly believe that with some persistence, we can accomplish any goal we have. That could be a very big goal that will make a huge change in your life or a smaller one, like successfully learning how to use a laser engraving machine with oddly shaped pieces of wood and figuring out which typefaces engrave well.

I experimented with a lot of different vector graphics, typefaces, and formatting options to figure out what worked. I wanted to give each unique poem a visual identity that went with its core message. Working on the larger plaques was a lot easier since while the edges had curves, it was easier to calculate the measurements since the shape was more fixed.

First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.

Octavia E. Butler

Though it took some trial and error, I ended up with a good number of successfully engraved poems. I gave a number of these away to friends and family over the holiday season. While they may not have been expensive to make, it’s amazing to see how much someone’s face lights up when you explain how you made something by hand and powered through all the experimentation it takes to make something special. 

Learn more about the MakerSpace Mini Grant on our Funding page. To begin designing and prototyping your own project, please visit the MakerSpace Training and Reservations page to learn more about how you can utilize the MakerSpace. If you need advice or guidance for your project, visit the Mentoring page to reserve time with an expert!