Designers love to experiment with unusual print techniques, but are often held back by cost restraints. Unimaginative printers don’t help, but finding the right one can bring even the most demanding project to fruition, says Yolanda Zappaterra
What drives experimentation in printed design projects? Looking around, it seems that the question isn’t so much ‘What drives?’ as ‘What holds them back?’. The most obvious answer is cost. Yorgo Tloupas, creative director and publisher of Intersection magazine, says, ‘I guess it’s every designer’s instinct to aim for unusual print techniques, as it usually satisfies everyone, from the client that feels more value is added to their product, to the reader/consumer who feels treated with more exclusivity, to the designer who gets to showcase work with an original twist. Unfortunately, cost is always the issue, and more often than not you have to stick to basic 2D printing.’
Tloupas is in the enviable position of working with clients for which cost is less of an issue; over the years he has worked with a wide variety of substrates and printing techniques, among them wool, wood, raw-edged rough cotton and multicoloured die-cut Alcantara cloth.
For much of the research and development of unusual print projects, Tloupas draws on the experience and knowledge of Daniel Mason, previously with specialist printer Artomatic. ‘He helps me find affordable ways to create what I want. He liaises with printers directly, and has a wide range of suppliers to answer every demand, however extravagant it may be,’ enthuses Tloupas.
But if you don’t have access to such expertise, can printers help by passing on knowledge of new developments and emerging technologies that may expand the print options? Tloupas is sceptical. ‘I haven’t found printers to be proactive,’ he says. Magnus Helgesen of Norwegian design consultancy Grandpeople agrees. ‘Our experience is that printers are not particularly fond of exploring uncharted territories. We basically have to find out by ourselves,’ he says.
Helgesen has worked on a number of demanding print projects – including one which involves laser-cutting into super-dense laminated bamboo, combined with screen-printing and gold embossing. He adds, ‘Mostly, we tell the printer what we need and then they tell us the easiest way to do it.’ •
If it’s down to designers to figure out what they want and then work with printers to realise it, where should they be looking for ideas? ‘I get inspired by engineering and technology. I’m constantly looking around for new materials, or clever use of classic ones,’ says Tloupas. ‘Recycling formats that are part of the common consciousness is always a good solution, too. When we launched Intersection, we contacted the printing company that produces parking tickets for Islington Council in London, and printed a mock version of the tickets, complete with plastic pouch and folded notice inside. The result was spot on.’
Other creative disciplines can offer ideas and direction, too. A recent exhibition by Loop – a fluid group of artists whose connection is a training in print – focused on experimentation and showed a wide range of experimental printing. The work of Julie Hoyle, Catherine Reford and Helen Bridges illustrated just how versatile and innovative printing can be.
Hoyle thinks designers could learn much from similar experimentation. ‘A lot of people don’t realise what goes into making a fine art print, and get it confused with the idea of reproductive prints because of the multiples that can be involved. There is nothing like doing it yourself to realise the possibilities,’ she says.
Bridges believes that designers should never get too bogged down with the process. ‘Experimentation works well when you’re realising a larger number of ideas quickly rather than perfecting an individual idea,’ she says.
Reford, meanwhile, thinks designers could benefit from taking a small-scale approach to print runs. She asks, ‘Why does commercial art have to mean very large editions? Economy is always the first consideration, but what’s wrong with a small run?’
Delisia Howard and Chris Price, of independent publisher Hazard, faced this question when they set about creating books that majored in innovation and originality. Their first book, about the 1960s fashion retailer Biba, began life as a limited edition featuring stunning illustrations and fairytale-inspired writing, with heavy artpapers, acetates, tracing and tissue papers bound in individually handmade covers. With original illustrations by Biba founder Barbara Hulanicki, the book was a thing of beauty, and soon became too popular for Hazard’s cottage industry set-up.
‘A printer had to be found,’ recalls Howard. ‘To find someone to produce the book in bulk for a reasonable price was difficult. We finally found a printer in India which could do everything we did, and also do gold edges. They became soulmates in a process that was only possible in collaboration,’ enthuses Howard. He has a compelling piece of advice for all designers – make the printer’s devil an angel.