Choosing a paper stock is like choosing a typeface. Done with sufficient skill, it’s a powerful way to craft the character of a piece of print – but it can also undermine your design and dilute its impact if you make the wrong call.
“Every paper carries a certain amount of association,” says Paul Neale, principal and creative director at Graphic Thought Facility (GTF). “Paper contributes to the overall emotive message of the piece of print.”
“Often you can rely on the inherent qualities of the materials to carry the character, the warmth or whatever characteristics you want to imbue in a design,” he continues. “It’s about balance: we might make a book with a very strict formal grid, for instance, but use the materiality to humanise it.”
A recent GTF project for major European paper manufacturer Fedrigoni, Paper Box is intended to aid designers in that all-important craft of paper selection. The Italian brand has particular expertise in producing special papers, and its entire range of almost 900 papers is contained in a single black box – with three slide-out swatch books containing uncoated whites, uncoated colours, and coated stocks.
“If you know what you’re looking for, or even if you don’t, the sheer diversity of materials in those three volumes will help narrow your options,” Neale explains. “Swatch books are too often over-designed: these are nice and simple, designed with neutrality in mind.”
Understand how the paper behaves
Paper samples can steer your choice, but you can’t make the decision in isolation. You need to set its use in context and consider how the stock will behave for your intended use.
GTF has created many art books and monographs, projects where the printed characteristics of the stock – how it holds an image – is particularly critical. “You have to understand how the ink sits on the surface,” says Neale. “Does it shine when you print a dark colour on it? Can you see the structure of the paper? What happens when you add a matt coating to it?”
He cautions against choosing uncoated stock purely because it’s popular: it must always suit the purpose. “Uncoated feels better than coated; it’s less clammy in the hand,” he says. “But sometimes you can see it’s been specified because the client likes it, but there are compromises in the printed image.”
Physical dummies are important to demonstrate the tangible, sensory qualities of a printed object – such as weight, texture, smell – and the cutting mat in GTF’s studio is put to good use. When time and budget allow, Neale also advocates working with production partners to create printed mock-ups that replicate the conditions of the final job.
“Picturing something in your head is one thing. But once you try and model it for real, it will always change form,” he suggests. “Printed objects need to be made physically. It’s the only way to develop things.”
Neale adds that physical mock-ups also significantly reduce misunderstandings at every stage of the process. Once a client is convinced of the merits of spending extra time and money using a premium stock, rather than settling for one of the printer’s in-house papers, they can present the mock-up internally to get buy-in from peers.
Involve everyone in the conversation
Dummies can also be an invaluable tool to discuss the project with production partners and determine what’s feasible. According to Neale, those conversations should always take place as early as possible.
“This is particularly true if you’re trying to do something a little outside the norm,” he adds. “There are usually reasons why things are done the way they are. You do need to think about the bigger idea in broad brushstrokes but engaging in detail early on is also critical.”
In the case of Paper Box, the clean simplicity of the final product belies an incredibly complex process behind the scenes to get those fine details right. 90 per cent of the design development was spent either in Excel, or physically making dummies by hand in the studio, enabled by Fedrigoni’s full sample and dummy service.
The studio requested a one-sheet sample of every material, in every weight and colour. “Then it was a lot of maths,” recalls Neale. “We entered the bulk of all the materials into a spreadsheet and looked at different ways of organising it, to determine what the physical thickness of each book would be.”
Don’t assume heavier is always better
Since Paper Box includes all available weights of each stock, it took a lot of trial and error to get that balance right. The final result is precision engineered, the three identically sized books aligning to read ‘FED-RIG-ONI’ on the spine.
Undergoing such an exhaustive design process has given Neale an even deeper insight into the relative qualities of different stocks. “It’s too simplistic to say that a heavyweight stock automatically means ‘premium’,” he reflects.
“Sometimes that’s still the case – like receiving an exclusive invitation on Triplex museum board. But light doesn’t necessarily mean cheap,” continues Neale. “It can also mean sensual. Show-through doesn’t have to be negative, either: you can harness it, and accentuate it as a positive thing.”
“Cheap, expensive, thick or thin, it’s about making your choice make sense for that particular application,” he adds. “It’s a marriage of materiality and what you print on it.”
Use speciality papers wisely and sparingly
Alongside the full range of premium white and coloured papers, Paper Box also includes all of Fedrigoni’s speciality stocks – from glossy to stucco, mirrored to pearlescent.
“Some materials are so specialist that you think, ‘I’m never going to use this,'” says Neale. “But a few years later, a very particular opportunity might come up – like an artist’s catalogue, for which that paper somehow transposes a lot of the qualities of their work.”
When browsing the menu of speciality papers, Neale finds it particularly satisfying to find the perfect match for an unusual finish. “I love using a material that’s out of fashion, or of questionable taste, on a project where it unquestionably makes sense,” he says. “But for any project, you need to decide what’s going to lead. It might be the typography, or some astounding images. Not everything has to shout.”
This certainly holds true when selecting the right paper for a printed project. “Sometimes the paper is something you want people to experience. In others, paper choice is equally important – but you don’t want people to be aware of it at all,” Neale concludes.
“It might need to beautifully deliver some PMS special inks or carry photography with accuracy and vibrancy. In those cases, it may not be so much about drawing attention to the paper – but it must always be fit for purpose.”