Many of the designers my team visit get frighteningly turned on by paper,” says Robert Horne’s Natasha Hornsey, offering insight into the eccentric world of the design community. It’s little surprise, though, when you consider the role paper plays in the industry and, in turn, the role it plays in everyday life.
Despite the enthusiasm, times have been rather tough for the paper industry. As is common knowledge, the state of the economy had seen marketing budgets slashed and agencies forced to change tactics in order to survive. Unfortunately, one knock-on effect of this was the impact it had on the money that was being spent on paper.
Malcolm Sinclair of Tullis Russell explains: “It’s definitely been through a rough period. Unfortunately, the industry tends to follow the economy and when advertising budgets were slashed agencies were forced to minimise costs and this hurt the paper industry.”
Jane Hunter of Curtis Fine Papers adds: “The paper industry has had a very difficult time recently.
“The industry has been characterised by consolidation and rationalisation over the past few years, as manufacturers and distributors address over-capacity in the market.”
Hornsey concurs with Hunter’s viewpoint. “There has been significant consolidation of the paper manufacturing and merchanting industries in the UK over the past few years,” she says. “Fewer big players have emerged, and are now dominant. As far as merchants are concerned, Robert Horne, along with sister organisation Howard Smith Papers, lines up against James McNaughton Papers and Premier Paper Group as the front-runners in the sector.”
So, while the industry has been busy fighting its way to safety, what technological and creative changes have taken place? Sinclair believes the changes are part of “a continual process of development”. He states: “There haven’t been any major technological advances. However, attempts are always being made to ensure the industry is working efficiently. If there have been any advances, it would probably be in the way paper is being distributed.”
Hornsey believes the advances have come in the way of new products being developed. She says: “Triggers for these advances have come recently from three main sources. First, technological advances in printing technology – specifically digital printing – have demanded new sorts of printing substrates. Secondly, the increasing necessity for companies to prove their marketing communications activity is not impacting on the environment is stimulating a demand for better, cheaper and a wider choice of environmentally sound papers. Lastly, the desire of paper companies to constantly surprise and delight designers – and the wider creative industries – has led to some amazing product developments.”
The environmental issue is a permanent resident of the paper industry. Sam Findley of Howard Smith Paper comments: “We have been seeing for some time now a marked increase in the demand for products with added environmental features. These features include recycled, forestry certification, water treatment and energy consumption, and demonstrate a much greater emphasis on environmental responsibility.”
Sinclair adds: “There’s been a resurgence of concern and increased interest in the types of accreditation a manufacturer of paper should have. There has been a plethora of different types and manufacturers face a difficult task knowing which ones to get. There needs to be only two or three types of accreditation, which would then make it easier for everyone in the industry to know exactly what is required.”
The consolidation of the industry, along with extra service and product-related issues like being environmentally friendly, makes for a highly competitive marketplace. Hunter says: “Competition in the paper industry is thriving, especially in the middle area of the market. At Curtis Fine Papers we believe that to remain competitive, relatively small businesses need to specialise in niche markets.”
On the back of the consolidation within the industry, Hornsey argues: “Competition is as tough as ever, with several paper merchants often targeting the same piece of business. In addition to competing on price and service, merchants now have to go the extra mile more than ever before in terms of sharing know-how on technical and environmental matters, their sample service and a whole raft of additional ‘add-ons’.
“The paper industry has also had to take a harder look at controlling costs over the past few years and – in many instances – the back-selling team has been a casualty.”
Sinclair adds: “There’s intense competition throughout the industry and each company is offering higher and higher levels of service. Unfortunately, companies are not always able to cover the cost of the service they’re offering.”
Relationships within the industry are often the most fruitful exercise in developing new business and maintaining the standards. However, Hornsey is upbeat about the role relationships can play. “We believe that stronger relationships between the manufacturer, merchant, designer – and of course the printer – lead to better understanding at all levels and a better final outcome for the end client. We work very closely with a number of our suppliers who manufacture products aimed at the design market, and organise educational mill visits, events and other activities aimed specifically at tightening links at all levels.”
So just how important is paper to the design industry? Hornsey has already relayed her discovery that paper can be an aphrodisiac for designers and is fully supportive of any such paper turn-ons designers may have. However, she does concede that there are still some that aren’t quite as enthusiastic. “As people respond to printed material unconsciously as well as consciously, the choice of paper has the power to reflect many of the client’s or brand’s values. Sadly, as well as the ones who get turned on by paper, we also speak to a number of designers who have thought about the paper/envelope right at the end of the design process, almost as an afterthought.”
Sinclair believes that paper is criminally undervalued and believes he has good evidence of how powerful an impact paper can have. He says: “We recently sponsored an exhibition at the Design Museum, where a photographer’s work was displayed on our paper and the reaction of the people towards the quality of the paper was overwhelming. It really does make a difference.”
Whether paper turns you on, or not as the case may be, the effect it can have on the end user can be both powerful and the key when it comes to reflecting the standards of the brand you’re communicating. While some clients may be reluctant for a large chunk of their budget to be spent on a particular paper type, it’s up to designers to communicate its worth, which, at the same time, ensures the future of the paper industry as a whole.