Bespoke brigade

As the quality of digital print continues to improve and selfpublishing is becoming an ever more viable and popular option, Clare Dowdy looks at how the once poor relation in the print stable is snapping at the heels of lithographic techniques

When digital cameras came along they were snapped up – so to speak – by amateur photographers. But the professionals hung back, waiting for the cameras to improve, and only then deigning to acquire top-of-the-range lenses.

The same reticence and resistance can be witnessed with digital print. As a poor relation to lovely litho, it has been knocking about for a while now. But as the technology continues to improve, more designers are at least considering it for more jobs.

So if printers continue to invest in the latest presses, if designers get to grips with what digital is increasingly capable of, and if the economy and fashion force more stuff online, the scales might start to tip in favour of digital print at last.

Digital print has been growing rapidly. Not only have the Kall Kwiks of this world rolled out services, but traditional printers have also committed to it by buying the kit.

And as more people offer more digital, everyone from designers to print brokers and print buyers is having to swot up on who’s got what.

In the coming year, as clients’ needs change, so will the methods by which designers fulfil those needs. The publisher of an online magazine may want a few hundred physical copies to post out (how old-fashioned) to advertisers and journalists, and that would be a digital print job. And while a continued downturn would mean fewer big-ticket illustrated books being published, there will be more self-publishing than ever before.

A photographer can come back from shooting a personal project – let’s say of the Ndebele tribespeople – and courtesy of digital, can whizz up his or her arty images into a book with which to wow picture editors and ad agencies. Suddenly, selfpublishing is less about vanity and more about savvy cost-effectiveness.

The digital print companies will increasingly cash in on this market by offering bespoke services. Moore Print is one of the first of these particular blocks, setting up Ubyubooks, which allows individuals to create a high-quality hardback book of their own photography.

Likewise, as brands continue their quest to create an intimate relationship with each individual consumer, digital print’s ability to customise or personalise marketing material and direct mail will come into its own.

Having said that, brands must also beware that such personalisation can backfire. Few things will turn someone off more than receiving an unsolicited mail order catalogue with ‘We’ll get you this time, Clare’ emblazoned across the cover. That’s just junk mail gone mad.

On a consumer level, there will surely be more digital activity as other businesses try to mimic the runaway success of personalised greeting cards company Moonpig and its imitators. If the dreaded double-dip recession materialises in 2011, everyone will be looking at cheaper ways of doing things. But rather than seeing clients’ budgets cut and their precious project axed completely, designers should get to grips with all the advances the top-end digital print companies are making. And any print company that has poured money into new equipment will surely bend over backwards to make something cost-effective.

If, on the other hand, we are double-dip free in 2011, clients may feel they have the luxury to put their Green concerns back on the agenda. In which case, digital ticks the right boxes, being low on energy consumption and minimal in its wastage.

For digital print, the Holy Grail will continue to be for those in the know not to be able to tell – which means litholoyalists being unable to guess the press.

The fine-art fraternity admit to a nostalgia for litho, and an innate love of its depth, detail and quality. They also love it for its range of paper stocks – you can forget about metallics or fluorescents with digital – and the size it allows you to print at.

However, digital quality is improving all the time, almost to the extent that it can fool the cognoscenti. So it’s not unusual these days for even the most savvy print buff to have to lift a book’s spine to eye level and check its binding: thread-sewn in 16-page sections if it’s litho, and perfect bound if it’s digital.

But even that test will be less and less effective in the future. Westerham Press’ book for the National Portrait Gallery on artist Bridget Riley was sewn and yet digital. The printers cleverly combined the smaller sheet sizes in a way to make sections that could be sewn, avoiding the need for perfect binding.

Moore Print is another big and respected player in this field, and its latest brochure about digital printing, called A Natural Selection and designed by Ico Design, is forcing designers to scratch their heads. It’s a bit like that 1970s Harmony Hairspray ad, where various people try to decide whether a woman’s bouncing locks are lacquered or not. ‘You’re the only one that knows for sure,’ the voice-over tells us, and that just might be where the best of digital is heading.

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