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New life in an old medium: Why classic print design is back in vogue

Cameron Clarke takes a look at the resurgence of age-old print techniques as designers continue to demand more tangible results.

Hard at work at Glasgow Press

Deep in industrial Govan, a stone’s throw from where Glasgow’s famous shipyards once stood, men with ink beneath their fingernails are practising a trade that predates the steam engine and has outlived the city’s shipbuilding industry. At Glasgow Press, 15th century printing methods are being applied to 21st century designs. Here, a historic craft is finding a new lease of life. “It seems to us that there’s a general interest in reviving and preserving the craftsmanship of times past and letterpress printing is just such a craft,” Glasgow Press partner Dan Clark tells The Drum. “People are placing a lot of importance on traditional skills. Letterpress fell out of favour for decades and many printers got rid of the old presses and the skill sets needed to operate them, but thankfully we’ve held on to ours and here they are back in use again.” Fashions fade, but style is eternal. Perhaps that’s why in an age dominated by the screen, designers are often turning to more traditional print methods to make a deeper impression for their clients. “Over the last five years we have definitely seen an increase in popularity and demand for letterpress and a general wider awareness of letterpress printing mainly within the design community,” says Cecilia Knopp, who runs the letterpress studio Typoretum with her husband Justin in rural north Essex. “Letterpress can certainly enhance the aesthetics of good design. Although we acknowledge that this can also be achieved digitally, we know that there is a wider appreciation of hand crafted products. If something looks and feels beautiful then the receiver will think twice about placing in the recycling bin.” The print revival is not limited to letterpress. Screenprinting is another lost art enjoying a renaissance at venues like Print Club London, a printing studio and gallery in Dalston where director Kate Newbold-Higginson says demand has grown hugely over the last nine months. She puts that down to designers seeking something more tangible than what can be achieved by mass production. “Handpulling ink through a screen onto paper gives a totally different and more tactile finish to a digital print, you can almost see the movement of the squeegee in the ink. I bought an old print from the 50s at an auction and you can see the small marks where ink has bled in tiny corners. When I look at it I just think about that printer in his studios in the 50s making it. “It’s the link the buyer has with the artist that we feel is so important in screenprints. Of course you don’t want prints that look badly printed but the tiny evidence of a little mark or mistake is what I love about printing.” The methods might be old, but that doesn’t mean the results are old-fashioned. Anything but, judging by one project Print Club handled for an ad agency and a Japanese restaurant. “We printed QR codes onto nori sushi paper which were made into sushi and served in restaurants for customers to scan the code and be given information about FSC (certified) fish,” explains Newbold-Higginson. “We printed with squid ink which was incredibly smelly but worked!” Some designers posit that the re-emergence of supposedly outdated print techniques speaks to us about the world we live in today. “There has been a resurgence of artisan methods in a whole raft of creative industries, from fashion to cooking, print production to manufacturing,” says Blair Thomson, creative director at design studio Believe in. “The recession has placed greater emphasis on longevity, craft and doing more with less. Traditional techniques differentiate themselves from the mass market and as a result have successfully saved and repositioned some of those dying skills and trades. Long may it continue.” Is it a fad? “It may be a trend, but all design trends are usually symptomatic of something that is happening in the wider world and we can see similar trends emerging in music and photography,” says Music designer Orla McGrath. “It may be a reaction to, or a need to differentiate from, the deluge of cheap digital print that has emerged with 1000 flyers for a fiver. Or it may be the designer’s desire to reconnect with the craft of design in a hands-on way.” So what is it that age-old presses can achieve that all the power of our Apples cannot? “I think it’s no longer about one or the other,” insists Project creative partner Graham Sturzaker. “Beautifully crafted print can complement great digital… but without doubt a piece of well-considered print held in your hand provides a welcome break from gripping a hot shiny screen delivering a deluge of tweets, likes and emails. Print can break through that noise. It feels different in your hand. You can smell it, feel the materials, the textures, embosses, the light reflecting on foil. There’s a different emotional connection.” Lee Bradley, a partner at B&W Studio, knows well the emotional connection and the advantages print at its best can offer. He tells us: “Many decades ago I designed a St George’s Crypt annual report using a 70gsm redeem stock (Fenner Paper); it printed black only, with thought-provoking photos of homeless people by John Angerson. It blew me away to see how such a simply printed project could look unique and relevant – it was also cheap as chips. It came as flat sheets (to save costs) and it made me feel so proud when I put it together for the client. It was part of the experience for me.”Perhaps the reason designers eulogise about print is that it is now more of a luxury than the staple part of the marketing mix it once was. As Glad creative director David Burdon points out, some clients, notably those in the charity or public sectors, would baulk at the extravagant connotations given off by gold foil, French-folding and singer-sewn binding. “Print is now a choice, rather than a necessity, and designers and their clients are still making that choice, not because they are stuck in the past, but because it can offer experiences that digital cannot,” Burdon says. He adds that one of the things print offers over digital is a greater level of control over how the product is received: “With digital work, the user may decide to view our work on his old-school Nokia phone (or worse still, Internet Explorer 4) and his experience will be affected. With print, exhibition or other tangible forms of design, we specify the materials, the production and sometimes the environment in which the work is experienced. I think it’s also about a sense of having achieved work that looks great on screen, but then also successfully translates into something physical – that involves an additional set of skills and understanding.” There is no denying that we live in a digital world, and artisan printers represent a minority in an industry that understandably requires a level of mass production to be efficient. But through inventive use of antique – but not antiquated – machinery and techniques, designers are finding new ways to stand out from their contemporaries and, most crucially of all, connect with their desired audience. As Danny McNeil, associate director at SEA Design, imparts: “Print will always have a place in the digital world. An e-vite doesn’t have the same impact as a beautifully designed multicoloured, triplexed, foiled or embossed invite. It never will. Where impressions are important print always wins, hands down. The medium is the message.”This article is published as part of The Drum's Paper & Print supplement (2 August 2013).

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