True grit

Rapidly advancing digital technology was supposed to kill off print, but it hasn’t happened, says Jim Davies, as print has already adapted to ecological demands and rediscovered its heritage, capitalising on its tactile characteristics


Outmoded, unwanted, environmentally questionable… the future doesn’t look too rosy for poor old print. These days, there’s a vibrant digital alternative in virtually every area – news and literature, magazines and instruction manuals, direct mail and advertising. But the game isn’t quite over for the stubborn, 600-year-old medium, it just needs to find its place in the new pecking order and know how to play to its strengths.

My gleaming crystal ball reveals that over the next 12 months, print will continue to be buffeted by the inexorable digital tide, but it will gradually start to realign and perhaps even reassert itself.

First, let’s get the gnarly ecology question out of the way. Paper is not totally evil. For starters, it’s recyclable and fully biodegradable. And because the rape of the forests was fingered so early on in the Green debate, paper manufacturers put their houses in order way before everyone else jumped on the bandwagon. In 2008, expect designers who aren’t already specifying elemental, chlorine-free paper from sustainable sources, or employing printers who don’t have an on-site wormery, to make the switch.

Green pressure, however, means that packaging is ripe for a radical reassessment. Apart from the super-luxury sector, where all the trimmings are still expected, it is destined to become more streamlined and Minimalist as designers find ingenious ways to create desirable, stripped-down looks. My favourite example from last year was a bunch of supermarket asparagus tied together with some twine (how very rustic).

Environmental concern hasn’t contributed much to the plight of the printed newspaper. On-line news services dish up the latest breaking stories virtually as they happen, and the quality of journalism on offer is improving by the week. Media brands like The Guardian no longer see themselves as a newspaper with a website, but an on-line news service with a daily paper attached.

Consequently, the days when a new section was introduced every fortnight are behind us – so abused letterboxes up and down the country can breathe a sigh of relief. Instead, there will be more ‘specials’ in print/ in-depth reports on everything from hospitals to the monarchy. There will also be an upsurge in circulation-boosters like collectable posters and themed, cover-mounted CDs spun off from the features inside.

The newspaper is one of the few areas where photography will thrive over the next year, with more space devoted to dramatic, large-scale photographic news stories, showing off vastly improved colour and print quality. Elsewhere, photography is in the doldrums. Digital cameras have levelled the playing field – for everyday projects many designers simply slip outside with the studio camera to take acceptably accomplished shots themselves. It’s only when a photographer of David Bailey or Mario Testino’s calibre is brought in to add the weight of their names to a glamour campaign that clients are prepared to stump up for glossy images.

Besides, slick, professional and expensive is so out. Hand-made and slightly wobbly is in. Just look at those cute bunnies in the Sony Bravia commercial. Despite the eye-watering budget, you can virtually see the fingerprints. This rough-around-the-edges aesthetic will gather pace, and will be taken up by print in a big way. As a reaction to shiny, digital perfection, expect a resurgence in hands-on, craft-based techniques like letterpress and screen printing. It’s the difference that makes the difference – the imperfections that suggest personality, honesty and even humility.

In typography, you can expect this trend to manifest itself in a predilection for sign-writing and faux-naif bespoke fonts. In illustration, following the lead of Banksy and Space Invader, there will an explosion of gritty graffiti and stencil work, while the population of deliberately badly drawn stick people in the style of Paul Davis, David Shrigley and others will continue to grow. On the other hand, print will come to be chosen over digital for small-run, high-quality, bespoke communication. Here is an opportunity for print design to really strut its stuff and revel in its 3D tactility, with blind embossing, spot varnishes and ingenious paper engineering making a real comeback.

Elsewhere, the impact of the digital revolution will filter down to print in unexpected ways. Good old-fashioned paper books will be rediscovered when the inherent limitations of e-books become apparent – though not before a brief fling with the new format has been kindled. And thanks to the new spirit of sharing on blogs and social networking sites, all sorts of once-obscure influences will start feeding into print design – from Polish matchbook collections to 1960s Citroën catalogues. With access to so many different cultural reference points, print in 2008 is set to become more varied, vibrant and unexpected.

Hold the presses… maybe the future’s inky after all.

With thanks to: Alan Aboud (Aboud Sodano), Rob Ball (The Partners), Roger Browning (The Guardian), Alan Dye (NB Studio) and Simon Esterson (Esterson Associates)

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