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Print-on-demand is a synthesis of old and new media, offering brands the last word in individualisation and start-ups the ultimate in low-cost opportunities. Anna Richardson talks to designers working in the vanguard of this bespoke publishing revolution

Printing one issue or book, as and when you need it – doesn’t that make perfect sense? No more pulped books or boxes of brochures gathering dust in warehouses, fewer costs and less impact on the environment – all good reasons why what is known as print-on-demand is on the rise.

But as with any technological innovation, sceptics abound. Quality was one of the initial concerns – no one wants a publication that looks like a desktop printing job. As digital printing develops, however, such concerns wane, and exploration of what POD can offer is rife.

Book publisher Faber and Faber started the ball rolling when it launched Faber Finds, an imprint that makes out-of-print titles available via POD, now also being rolled out in the US.

Printing on demand has been harnessed by authors and artists to self-publish their wares through websites such as Lulu.com and Blurb.com. Magcloud, meanwhile, allows users to create personal magazines – an opportunity many designers are taking advantage of.

Michael Bojkowski, creative principal of OK Interrupt, uses Magcloud for a number of projects, including publishing content from his blog, Line Feed. ’Many designers are looking for viable alternatives to traditional print models and trying to do things in a bit more lo-fi and cheaper way,’ says Bojkowski.

Designer Ben Terrett and blogger Russell Davies also realised the potential of POD when they decided to produce Things Our Friends Have Written On The Internet in 2008. Harnessing the downtime at large commercial printing presses in the UK, they printed a limited-edition newspaper. It was so successful that they decided to expand. With funding from Channel 4’s venture capital fund 4ip, they launched The Newspaper Club this year. Visitors can create as few as five copies of their personal newspaper, either through uploading PDFs or using the proprietorial Arthr software.

The design template is very basic, says Terrett, which ’guarantees that even with no design experience, you get a decent newspaper’. Among the club’s first clients were the BBC and Wired UK, while book publisher Penguin used it to preview the fifth chapter of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Eoin Colfer.

Its founders are hoping to introduce different options, to build products that allow users to auto-generate newspapers (from Flickr accounts or blogs, for example), and even get well-known design names to design templates.

Self-publishing has certainly moved beyond vanity authors on the one hand or the one-off artist’s book on the other. Lecturer in photography and curator Bruno Ceschel recently founded Self Publish, Be Happy, which promotes self-published photography books through conferences, fairs, exhibitions and workshops. He believes certain photographic projects – those that have a direct element to them within the tradition of people such as Nan Goldin – are especially suitable for self-publishing and POD, because ’aesthetically they go nicely together’.

The catalogue for Self Publish, Be Happy’s recent exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery was printed by Ubyu, a new high-end POD service, which is soft launching this autumn. With backgrounds in traditional printing, design and photography, its founders are aiming for a wider arts market, targeting creative individuals. The quality of print engines has improved dramatically, says Keith Arnold, co-founder of Ubyu, which uses the HP Indigo press. ’Although there is a slight difference in quality between traditional offset printing and digital, it’s very difficult to spot, and on some substrates – such as certain uncoated stocks – you could argue that the quality is better [through digital].’

POD also allows a design to evolve from one copy to the next – you can produce 20 books with slightly different content. Such flexibility can offer advantages to organisations, and Sarah Boris, design manager at the ICA, welcomes the possibilities. If cultural institutions see that a certain piece of print isn’t working well, for example, POD allows it to tailor and change content and tone of voice nimbly. ’There is potentially a bigger level of engagement and you can be more experimental with the design,’ says Boris. ’There are lots of ways that you can communicate more dynamically. The design process is more flexible, reactive and modular.’

POD’s potential for individualisation is also being explored. Consultancy Hudson Fuggle designed a POD prospectus for the University for the Creative Arts that allowed the school to tailor it to prospective postgraduate students. ’Customisation is tricky and still in its infancy,’ says Ian Fuggle, director of Hudson Fuggle. ’It becomes patronising if it’s done badly. To do it well, it needs to be treated carefully and be subtle.’

Wallpaper magazine recently took the idea of customisation to another level. The magazine is currently shipping its August ’handmade’ issue, which invited subscribers to customise their cover through an interactive online tool. Even readers who didn’t take part receive a computer-generated, individual design – around 20 000 such covers were created. Working with Kin Design and printer FE Burman, Wallpaper art director Meirion Pritchard engineered the project for more than six months, tackling the process, and jumping through various hoops to co-ordinate with the different departments involved, such as subscriptions, mailing, data protection and security.

’Everyone is trying to understand how to integrate Web and print, and this summed up that relationship,’ says Pritchard. ’You get interaction on the website but also receive a lovely, finished piece of print.’

For Kin Design, designing an appropriate process was the biggest challenge, but another was to make the interface and interaction interesting for designers as well as readers who weren’t from the creative industries. It was also important to create an idea of difference – that everyone can be individual, adds consultancy founder Matt Wade. ’It was interesting as a mass participation. People were really creative and proud of what they had designed,’ he says.

With such democratisation, the creative possibilities are endless, but it takes people who are willing to tackle the processes involved to make sense of POD.

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