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Morning Person: Sara McNally

Sara McNally uses ink and paper to connect people. She is the Co-founder of Constellation & Co., a letterpress print studio based in downtown Seattle, Washington, and made quite an impression when she spoke at their local CreativeMornings chapter. Speaking on her journey from student to jobless to owning her own company, Sara’s story resonated with many who attended and even more online.

I spoke with the enthusiastic Seattlite about her experience speaking at CreativeMornings, vintage cocktails, and the power of communication.


First off, your CreativeMornings talk got a tremendous response from the audience and from folks who watched it online. I think that part of that was timing with the recession, many people were being laid off from their jobs and were debating making the jump to working for themselves and figuring out how to make that work. Your story really resonated with these people. What are your thoughts on that?

I was blown away with how people responded. I really just wanted to engage the community and talk about things honestly. I know all my classmates, and I’m sure a lot of people, have dealt with the issue of getting out of school, trying to figure out what’s next, and not having a plan in place for getting a job. There hasn’t been a lot of honest talk about that out there and it was something I was passionate about. I wanted to talk about that and CreativeMornings has really opened a lot of doors to start that conversation.

How did you get your start? For those who didn’t watch your talk, what were some of those initial steps after graduating college that helped you find your footing?

My husband and I went to college in Florida, and there wasn’t a major city nearby that was particularly appealing to us to start our lives together. We had both lived in Florida our whole lives, but we came to Seattle and just fell in love with the culture and the attitude. People don’t wear heels, they wear jeans to work. That was attractive to us.

After graduating with honors, we popped in the car and drove to Seattle, which was an adventure. We had interviewed with several big branding firms before moving out here and had great responses. Unanimously, though, we heard that half of their design teams were being laid off, and internship programs were being closed indefinitely.

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It was very apparent that there weren’t jobs. We were unemployed for six months after graduation trying to live and pay student loans in a relatively expensive city.

I worked for a few months at an ad agency, which will go unnamed, but it was a really bad experience. I was really naive when I took the job and agreed to a crazy low salary, desperate to get a job. They basically hired me as a production monkey, working 60+ hours a week with no lunch breaks. I really just hated every minute. I knew that this was not why I went to school, not what I wanted out of life.

Finally, I quit in the worst way possible and sat at home eating ice cream for a couple weeks trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life.

Wow. How did you get into letterpress?

I’ve always had a love for letterpress. I bought my first table-top press while I was still in college. I didn’t move many things to Seattle—I didn’t have many things to move—but that little table-top press was one of them. I loved the rich history of the printed word. Always a literature nerd, I loved typography and the “dream of the 1890’s.” At that point, I started to weigh my education and my desires and my proclivities in design to figure out what I was going to do.

Brad, my husband, had been interning at this great little web firm in Seattle right above a school that taught letterpress classes. He did this labor of love for me, TA-ing for an AfterEffects class and got my first letterpress class for free, which, after being unemployed for six months, living on credit cards, meant the world to me. I took a great letterpress class that solidified for me that this was something I wanted to pursue.

I also sent out massive amounts of email. I have probably emailed everyone in the city of Seattle about something at some point. That’s my thing. “Hello, I’m Sara. This is what I want to go and this is what I’m willing to do for it. ”

At that point, my plea was: “Hey, I am a graphic designer, out of school, new to Seattle, looking to work for free as a letterpress apprentice. I realize that I don’t have any experience, I don’t have much to offer, but I have graphic design skills, I can sweep, I can clean, I can run errands, I will basically do anything to get time working with a letterpress business.”

Thankfully, I found someone who was willing to take me under their wing and I threw my heart and soul into it. I’ve always been a bit of an over-achiever-type. When Brad and I went back to our alma mater a few months ago, one of my professors brought up a time when I was assigned a 15 page book and turned in 75 pages. That’s how I went through school and that’s what I did in my apprenticeship. I wanted to do everything and experience everything because I was so excited to learn.

How did you know that it was time to go off on your own?

I did a full year apprenticeship. I hung out in their garage for a year, experiencing the heat of summer and freezing cold of winter with fingerless gloves and pocket warmers. At the end of that, I really felt like it was time. Time to part ways, time to move forward on our own.

We didn’t have a space or equipment, but had been working with a lot of clients doing wedding invitations and just getting my feet wet, getting out there and working for cheap—really cheap at first—but just trying to get experience working with clients. And it paid off.

I think Christmas Day was when Brad and I decided to do this full-time. This has been my full-time job since school, but Brad’s always worked elsewhere, providing for us to make sure we can live in Seattle while I followed this dream and built the business. I’m very thankful for him.

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We sat down and said, “This needs to happen, we need to take the next step.” We started looking for studio spaces, which I realize was completely crazy the week after Christmas, but that’s what we did and we found one and moved into it by the second of January.

It was on the sixth floor of this rickety artists' building, 1910 wooden architecture, crazy cracks in the walls. It was a pretty terrible building, but our space was $325 a month and around 100 square feet. We basically found a corner to hole up in, but I loved that space so much. I painted every square inch of it. Some of that due to the fact that the tenants before us made adult films. I just felt like a good coat of paint would be a good idea for everyone.

That was our first space and pretty much as soon as I finished moving in and painting we heard about a Platen Press that was available. I have a really good friend, Carl Montford, who worked for Boeing for 20 years before retiring and becoming a letterpress printer, which he’s been doing for even longer. He’s the “match-maker” in Seattle for printing presses, so if you’ve got a press to sell you tell Carl and he finds the right person.

He had been helping someone sell this press. It was in terrible shape, which is why they’d been struggling to sell it. I was just at the right place in my career and life to take on a printing press project. We spent $500 and moved it right away, which was a crazy experience—six floors on a freight elevator, and the floors were crazy slanted.

I spent a solid week and a half of working hours, 9 to 5, just scrubbing and de-rusting and oiling the press. It was a hugely important project for me. I had been working on a very similar printing press for the past year, but until you’ve had to take the thing apart and clean it and figure out what all the nooks and crannies are and why it’s not working and get it working again… I don’t feel like I would know my press and know my craft nearly as well without having done that.

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At that point, I had client work waiting to be printed, so it was sort of do or die as far as getting the press up and running. Once it was running, we built the business on its back. It was a small investment for being our only production press for our first three years.

Those early years also really solidified my appreciation for being as low-tech as letterpress gets. There is really a range in letterpress. Our products are hand-set, wood and lead type with wood engravings and hand-carved linoleum cuts. The press itself is hand-fed, and treadle-operated. There’s no electricity. My hands touch everything that comes out of our studio—multiple times. That’s the low-tech end. High-tech studios have Heidelberg Platens or ‘Windmills'—bigger presses that feed themselves and are electrified—also great presses, just a different kind of process. I have a love for the “zen” of low tech printing. It’s me and my thoughts or my audiobook or my podcast, and I’m cranking through. It’s rhythmic and it’s exercise, which I love. I don’t work out, I just print all the time.

How do you approach working with clients?

From the beginning, I knew I wanted to work one-on-one with non-designer clients. I can’t tell you exactly why at the time I thought that was what I wanted to do, but as I’ve moved forward I’ve seen that those are the clients I really love.

I love partnering with people who are excited and passionate about what they’re doing, helping them create the look and feel for their business or for their wedding and working directly with them to make it happen. I love the chase of trying to figure out what they’re talking about, figure out what they’re looking for and then when I can actually do for them. It’s so satisfying to see it come together. Not just the idea, but all the way through to handing off a physical printed object.

robynalex Near of Far, You’re Always in my Heart card, available on Etsy.

You spoke a bit about the community when you first moved to Seattle. How do you feel living in Seattle has impacted your work?

Seattle has this reputation, 'the Seattle freeze,’ and it can be difficult to get to know people when you first move to the city. Your neighbor will not come by with a bag of cookies to welcome you. That’s just not Seattle. We are all very independent and want to be left alone. But I have found that if you reach out, people are excited to help.

I found a lot of sweet people like Carl—who not only helped us find our first press, but he helped us move it. The man has been retired for over twenty years and is still willing to get out there at 9 p.m. with a dolly and five other guys to move this 1,000 pound press.

People have really gone above and beyond to help and we feel very loved. We have a great community of artists in our studio building. (It’s a different building than our first, which was slated for evacuation due to some unknown earthquake damage. Long story.)

Our studio collective has been a really cool community to collaborate and do events with. We print for people in the building and, in return, they’ve done different things for us, like finding wood type and taking our tintype portraits.

Seattle has this extraordinary love for locally-made, hand-made, and craft goods, which has made it a great place to start a letterpress business. We have a lot of great boutiques that carry our cards in stores that we just love. We love to shop at these stores, and to hang out with the people who run them! My favorite right now, is East Smith Mercantile, just three or four blocks from us. A mom and two daughters opened the store based on the stories that their grandparents told them about the Gold Rush era. Just a really cool idea, really cool family, and they just opened a Back Bar, which features prohibition-era craft cocktails.

That’s the perfect example for me of why I love working and living in Seattle. We heard E. Smith was opening in the neighborhood, so we emailed them and said we wanted to work together. They’ve become our friends - we go in there all the time to drop off products, buy gifts, and drink at the back bar. It’s a place where the community comes together and life happens.

What do you mean by “life happens there”?

That’s where we see our company. It’s just about life. Stationery is a relationship industry.

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We also do a lot of wedding invitations. There are a lot of ugly, horrible things sold in the wedding industry. We wanted to step away from what the industry used to be, or what it’s supposed to be, and make something that’s completely custom, beautiful, and well-designed with great typography. Something that is an heirloom. We also love working with small businesses and start-ups in the area. We’ve worked with so many great people and so many great businesses, and we’re excited to see the market growing in Seattle. Seattle has a lot of big business—Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, and all of that jazz—which has really allowed for a lot of small businesses to spring up.

Oh, no, you’ve got me talking about Seattle. I just love this city so much. We chose to live here and honestly I can’t picture us living anywhere else.

If you had to give advice to someone just starting out what advice would you give them?

My mindset getting out of school was that I knew that I wanted to own my own business and I wanted to do letterpress eventually, but I thought it had to be further down the line when I made a lot of money and had all my ducks in a row. Circumstances certainly did not allow that, but I think that that is good advice for everybody:

If there is something you really want to do that you are passionate about, pursue that. Do it. Just start doing it.

Work for someone else if that’s where you want to be, but also do your side projects and that thing you love. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing your work be your work. I feel honored to make a living doing what I absolutely love.

We have had several interns from local schools and have had great experiences, but the one thing I keep hearing is ‘I really wish I could be doing this..’ And the reality is, you can. Most small businesses don’t start with a hundred thousand dollars in the bank and a huge beautiful studio space. We started in a closet and that has allowed us to grow slowly. We didn’t take on any funding, so we been able to keep the lights on even when months are slow because there’s not a lot of debt.

I started the business at 23 and I’m still really young! We have a long way to go and a lot of room for growth, but I’m excited to be learning all the lessons now, so in ten years I’ll still be young and we can continue to grow. I’m thankful I didn’t get a job out of school, because if I had gotten one of those dream jobs I applied for, I wouldn’t be where I am at now. It would’ve been much harder to take that leap now. I had nothing to lose. There’s something to be said for that.

What are three things you believe in?

I believe in history and craft. At the E. Smith back bar, I was talking to this guest bartender and he was telling me about old recipe books he discovered full of 1916 cocktails and how he geeked out thinking about when people would have been making these and the ability to share them with folks today. It just hit me that everyone has a craft, and a place where it all started. An appreciation for that is important no matter what we all do. No one is the first person to do what they’re doing, even if it feels really unique and original.

bitter2 Letterpress printed with hand set lead type and vintage printer’s blocks, available on Etsy.

We are all growing on the backs of the people who have come before us and I get really excited when I find some random letterpress contraption hidden somewhere and unearth it at an estate sale.

Reading books about letterpress, you notice the complete lack of female pronouns, or neutral pronouns, because “printers” were all men. It was like being a plumber. It was just a job. It was just a thing that you did, but so many took that and made amazing craft out of it and took pride in their work. I love getting to be a part of that. In graphic design, I get to straddle those two worlds where we have this rich history and see where the history comes together in so many ways. The printed word has changed the world and letterpress is such a big part of that. I can really geeky out about that.

So I believe in that. Gosh, it’s going to take a while to get through three. I believe in a lot of things. The power of hard work and the fact that no one hands you anything.

People have been really sweet and supportive of our work, but that tends to be at the tail-end of a long season of hard work. Most of what we do is really just not noticed until it’s been out there in the world for awhile, but at that point I’m already onto the next thing that I’m working on. Hard work is really important.

I heard this great quote on Twitter about how entrepreneurs get to make their own schedule. They get to pick which 20 hours of the day they work. Starting your own business is not for everybody. I believe that hard work has to be self-motivated because if it’s motivated by people paying attention then it won’t continue to be motivated.

Absolutely. So, that was two.

Oh boy.

One more?

What’s a third thing? I believe in communication, I believe in correspondence.

I was super inspired by the CreativeMornings/Seattle with Charles Morrison about writing letters. That was amazing! I sent Charles a little package with some greeting cards that we make. He sent me back two letters. I grinned like a crazy person walking around downtown, walking around literally on the sidewalks reading my letters. I was so excited about that.

zombies3 Perfect for the brain-foodie in your life, available on Etsy.

That’s fantastic.

I really do believe in the connection between people and everything we do is inspired by that. Everything from handwritten letters to the internet.

I love technology, I love my iPhone, I love Twitter, but I also kind of hate those things a lot of the time because they take over the physical.

Realistically, I don’t write beautiful hand-written letters to clients. We email, we have phone calls, we Skype, and I send PDFs all the time. That’s most of my job. But really sitting down face to face with someone with a cup of coffee—I believe in that. I believe in writing someone a letter and solidifying personal connections.

That’s the theme of our new wholesale catalog. We did photo shoots all over the city at our friends' homes and had a really good time, enjoying people and the city. I’ve enjoyed telling our story in words and pictures, and sharing the lifestyle of writing and mailing hand-written notes. Being in touch in a tactile way. I wouldn’t be putting letterpress-printed greeting cards into the world if it wasn’t something I absolutely believe in.

What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Oh, good! I actually ate breakfast this morning. Usually it’s just coffee.

This morning, I decided to shake things up and I worked for a few hours at a local bakery called Macrina and had an amazing buttermilk biscuit with locally made jam. I was doing vector illustrations of tree houses, drinking coffee, eating a biscuit, and listening to a podcast. It was absolutely delightful.

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You can watch Sara’s talk here. →

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