ARC Cohort 2023

Thin Ice Press: the York Centre for Print

26th May 2023

We chat with Professor Helen Smith from the University of York about her venture the Thin Ice Press: the York Centre for Print, a working makerspace in the centre of York that offers a print studio, museum, gallery and shop. This project is part of the ARC 2023 Cohort.

Q: What is your academic background and what are you currently working on?
My academic background is in Renaissance literature, but I’ve always been interested in print, and questions of how books are made, how people use them and what difference it makes to us when we think about them as physical objects.

So that’s my background, thinking about print, thinking about the form of the book and what it does, and also thinking about women’s work and how women have been involved in ways that we haven’t expected in the histories of print, in printing and book production. My big book project at the moment is about ideas of matter. The idea is that people in this period were fascinated by the stuff of the world and interested in thinking about what it means to imagine thought and writing as also being forms of matter.

Q: How did you come up with your venture idea? Why did you decide to focus on this specific idea? 
The idea of a centre for print has grown very naturally out of the work that we’ve done over the past several years. In 2017, we founded a letterpress printing studio on campus as part of the Department of English and Related Literature as we wanted students to have the opportunity to really feel what it means when we talk about some of those techniques of book production and to think differently about the books they’re studying. The press has done really well as a teaching and research resource and it has also attracted lots of interest from people who would like to be involved and know more about it. 

The next step was an experiment. In 2021, we managed to get funding for a brilliant project, StreetLife, in collaboration with other academics at the University of York, and took over an empty shop in the centre of York. We installed a historic printing press and worked to gauge public interest for workshops and events associated with histories of printing, and especially with the heritage of York and its printing history. This pop-up project was fantastic and the level of interest we got was brilliant: we recruited our first paying members, and delivered workshops and away days. There is a lovely sense of community around printing and an appetite for seeing more of this in the city centre.

Q: What is the nature of your venture and what does it aim to achieve? How does it tackle the issue?
Our venture is a working makerspace: a print studio, museum, gallery and shop launching permanently in the centre of York from spring 2024. It responds to three challenges: that traditional printing requires bulky, expensive equipment that’s difficult to maintain, so it’s often hard for people to access support and facilities; that York lacks affordable cultural opportunities; and, crucially, that heritage printing is on the red list of endangered crafts so needs support to ensure it survives to the next generation. 

The idea is that the Centre is going to bring together a community of members who will get hands on, receive expert support from our experienced team, and use this impressively well-equipped space as part of their own creative and practical work. It will have a museum that thinks about the history of printing, why it’s so important and what it might look like for the future, with an emphasis on York, which has a really distinctive printing history that we want to celebrate and bring to the fore. It will also have a selling gallery to display the best of contemporary printing, and a shop where people can get the things they need to have a go at printing, bookbinding, and related crafts from home.  

Q: How is the ARC Accelerator supporting you in bringing your venture to life?
I think it’s fair to say that we’re finding the ARC Accelerator invaluable. The focus on what we need to do and when, the clarity around the kinds of questions we need to be asking, who we need to be reaching out to and the push to do it are all fantastic. We love having a very clear methodology and sense of what we need to do, how we need to get out and talk to people, as well as somebody to check in with and somebody who will check up on us. 

We’ve also found the team tremendously supportive. They are very flexible, giving us a bit of help when we’ve raced ahead with something and being able to have an extra meeting to talk something through. And of course the fact that we hosted an away day for the 2023 ARC cohort at the Centre. It just feels like a really supportive space, where we can test out these ideas, but we’re also getting practical help that is really pushing us forward with what we want to do.

Q: What has been the most useful part of the ARC programme so far? 
I think the combination of market validation and cashflow modelling has been the most useful for us. The cold, hard, how is this going to work? What do we need to do? And how do we communicate that to other people? We had a fairly good idea of what our venture was going to look like as we came in, and then the conversations have been really helpful in shaping that, tweaking it and thinking about how we should sell it.

The very clear guidance on how to do the cashflow model and how to think about the business has been extremely helpful. The mentorship is great as well, that sense of having someone to check in with, to keep us focused and to run ideas past is really useful. And working towards the pitch was fantastic – thanks Roger!

Q: What have you learned through the programme that you will bring back to your work or research?
I have recently completed my term as Head of Department, will start an AHRC Research, Development and Engagement Fellowship in spring, and I’m on our University’s Business Innovation and Engagement team. I think in the Arts and Humanities we do struggle to think about what commercialisation and enterprise can look like and how we can take our ideas out in this way. I feel we’ve got a really concrete contribution to make in saying, we’re doing it, we’re out here.

Now we are able to share what we’ve gained from the accelerator, share a sense of confidence about what this can look like and point people in this direction. I think we can bring a lot back from that to the University in an area where people feel quite tentative and quite nervous. I think we can bring a real sense of yes, it’s been fast-paced, but it’s been fun.

Q: Where can we go to learn more?
You can find out more on the Thin Ice Press: the York Centre for Print website, follow us on Instagram @thinicepress and also get in touch with me via LinkedIn.


Photo credit: Joe Burn/UoY