The long goodbye

With newspapers and album covers fast disappearing, and annual reports moving online, is print on its uppers? Not quite, says Michael Johnson. Self-publishing, specialist magazines and downloadable posters all suggest continuing demand

Ever since the 1990s and the advent of cyberspace, future-gazers have been quick to pronounce the death of ink on paper. After all, take a quick look around the design world and ask yourself which sectors have a secure future? Branding? Almost certainly. Digital? Yes. Animation? Of course. Product and 3D? Absolutely.

As a contrast, just a quick scan of the ink-based sectors reveals the slow death of traditional media – the demise of The Observer newspaper is predicted almost weekly. Blogs can showcase, discuss and dissect new ideas weeks before journals. In the next few years, we’ll see the Kindle putting a torch to all those paperbacks gathering dust on our shelves.

And the pace of change will only get greater. The most frequent client request to be heard this year? ‘Can you show me what it will look like on an iPhone?’ Not many say, ‘I know, let’s do this as a limited-edition foil-blocked book’.

There’s now a clear age-divide over print versus digital. Designers older than 35 were drawn into the profession by traditional means – album covers, posters and club flyers, and messing about in the screen-printing department at school. Generation Y (or whatever letter we’re up to now) has been using and abusing PowerPoint and dabbling with their MySpace page for at least a decade. Album covers are now 50 pixel-wide iPod images, not gatefold cardboard experiences. Digital ‘stuff’ is home, not away, and it’s unlikely this generation is drawn to design via traditional means. ‘Doing a nice bit of print’ is more creative curiosity than a craving.

At the turn of the century, many of London’s design consultancies still treated ‘print’ as the bedrock of their business. Designing annual reports was both creatively excellent and profitable, but now these are mostly available as downloadable pdfs. A statement such as ‘Let’s do a series of posters for this project’ used to be met with enthusiasm and interest – now, clients will just grin politely and change the subject. Or just ask, ‘Why?’

Entire corporate identities can be designed and virtually artworked before someone asks, ‘Hang on, what about the stationery?’ The dreaded phrase ‘electronic stationery’ has taken over, a process best summarised as one where your favourite layouts are radically reinterpreted (okay, destroyed) by the blunt instrument that is Microsoft Word.

For some, adjusting has taken time. In the 1990s, Johnson Banks would produce dozens, sometimes hundreds of posters a year. A favourite size remains 150cm by 100cm, and the receiving of the proofs, the smelling of the ink? Fantastic. We learned from the masters, and virtually every one of them (Josef Müller-Brockmann, Alan Fletcher, Milton Glaser) built careers around getting ink on to paper via the poster.

But if printed stuff really is dead, either someone hasn’t told the design industry or the message is taking a long time to get through. Bookshelves groan with new magazines, specialist shops like London’s Magma and Amsterdam’s Nijhof and Lee are stuffed to the gunnels with new design books, every month. Magma recently opened its third shop, specialising in graphic ephemera and general printed curiosities, and it has survived the recession.

Some sectors still need printed things. In education, students check out universities online, but their parents still like a glossy prospectus. In other cases, ‘print’ seems to be becoming much more DIY. When producing ‘things’ for Victoria & Albert Museum fêtes and Christmas cards, we’ve unearthed new and unexpected sources of income. An old and infamous poster on the ‘life of a graphic designer’ has been reprinted three times – sales of it must be up to three or four hundred, and counting.

It is no coincidence that Adrian Shaughnessy and Tony Brook have started their own publishing enterprise – they’ve judged that there’s still a market for the kind of books that they would want to buy themselves. They can print as few or many as needed, and if the books prove viable probably pocket more than the standard ‘5 per cent of net’ royalty that induces depression in most budding authors.

This move to self-publishing will probably continue. If posters just become big pieces of paper held up on design blogs for other designers to coo at, that’s not really viable. But if they buy them? Well, why not?

American designers last year found a way to support Barack Obama by uploading their poster designs digitally for people to print out at whatever size they wished (at and soon the designs will be collected in a book from Taschen. It’s a neat way to preserve an art form online, and take it into the 21st century.

We are going to see more of this. Print may have been toppled from the top of the design tree, but it is not going to go quietly.

Michael Johnson is design director of Johnson Banks and editor of the Thought for the Week design blog

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