So, What’s New in Print?
In the mid 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg invented what would become the engine that powered the Age of Reason, bringing reformation, science and critical thinking to the masses. Movable type was no new idea, but it was a first for a perfectly ripe Europe. No professional discipline, or any aspect of society for that matter, were left untouched.
With knowledge and education democratised, ideas and collaboration spread and within two hundred years we were in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Without the mass production and distribution of information by means of print, our modern reality could simply not have come to be.
By the 18th century, publications started to self- and co-promote and soon the art of persuasion through copy and imagery emerged. Revenues from advertising created a revolution within a revolution and with the coinciding new and novel products and services on offer, modern consumerism was born.
So, what is new in print?
On the face of it, not much. We are still mechanically applying dyes to substrates and haven’t seen any notable advancements since CTP killed repro and the digital press came into play. Quality and resolution are at an all time high, but it had better be lest we avert our eyes from our tablet screens and so much as resolve a dot on your brochure.
Periodicals may find themselves under pressure, but print in marketing and corporate communications is alive and well. The idea of an annual report as a digital flipbook would be a crime against all that is good. There have been some great strides and exceptions, but nothing beats the tactile sensory experience of a well executed paper document.
While it might seem like business as usual, right under the surface, world events and technology profoundly reshaped the industry in recent years.
The new and how it came to be
The days of box seat tickets and free lunches for production managers are long gone. Agencies would manage high volume runs for their clients and printing houses were clamouring for this business. Then, from around 2008, everything changed. Marketing budgets were cut in panic and clients moved media and procurement from agency to in-house. You never hear anyone mention it, but that’s when the golden age of advertising and its colourful excesses were laid to rest.
Print factories started to close down or amalgamated. In the flood of retrenchments that followed, many in the industry were suddenly left with no future prospects. Severance packages were sunk into acquiring affordable digital offset machines and around the time that the corner pharmacy started to disappear, the corner print shop moved in.
The rise of the digital press
The strongest survived and evolved, invested in the latest technology and the current landscape is one of several smaller concerns, some franchises and a handful of divisions of large conglomerates. Hewlett-Packard’s Indigo had such an impact on the industry that indigo has now, like aspirin and sellotape, become a genericised term for digital press.
Even an experienced designer would have to do a double take to try and spot the difference between litho printing and the output from the latest digital machines. The quality is outstanding and at a speed and cost never before possible.
For years, a big drawback of digital was the limitation of this toner based system’s dye to only take to a plain white coated matt or gloss. Today we have a large selection of digital specific stocks, including cotton wove, synthetic, luxury cartridge and even magnetic paper.
It is now a mature market and has brought affordable high quality printing to the walk-in consumer and rapid turnaround times for marketers.
Traditional offset and its own digital revolution
The most apparent benefit of lithographic offset printing is the economies of scale it affords on large runs. The more you order, the lower your unit cost. The standing handicap of digital is its restrictive cost curve. Any more than a few thousand copies and it loses out to litho on price. Nominal setup costs aside, the producer’s input cost per page is the same for one or for 10 000 units when you’re operating what amounts to a high tech photocopier.
The cost advantage may be a principal factor, but there are some benefits to litho printing that make it the still undisputed king of the craft. Spot colours, an endless selection of the best papers, fine-tunability and just the almost intangible betterness of it. Open a digitally printed brochure and it smells like a stationery shop. Litho smells like a book should.
While we were glued to our ever increasingly powerful digital consumer products, the same technological progress has dramatically changed how we print with ink and paper. Where it used to take days or weeks to get to passing colour on the press, computer to plate technology, cross-platform standardised digital colour profiles and powerful software have made repro a one day affair in many cases. Current in-line and hybrid systems are true marvels of engineering and technology, having moved with the times and in pace.
How do we make the best of the current state of print?
This article hasn’t touched on large format, outdoor or silk screen printing – all of which have gone through their own evolutions. Taking the whole of the printing industry into account, we find ourselves in a time where printing can be turned around in a day and with beautiful results.
Yet, without rock solid design and content, these advancements become pointless. We should not be lulled into a culture of fast and cheap when engaging with clients or consumers. Designers now have the freedom to create amazing work on short runs and special finishes become a matter of a few rands or cents on larger litho runs.
To conclude, we are in a position for creative and print to once again exist in a powerful symbiosis. Let’s try and move away from the generic Gloss or Matt Art and play with papers and finishes more. An army of Pantone spot colours are ready to be deployed to bring punch and uniformity to your corporate identity. Try where you can to bind with a spine as opposed to staples. It makes a big difference and your target market will take notice.
By Johan le Grange