If print is dead then this is a very long goodbye

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Ever since the nineties and the advent of cyberspace, futuregazers 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? Er, 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 poor Observer’s demise is predicted on a weekly basis. The Guardian’s midweek sales are by all accounts terrible. Blogs can showcase, discuss and dissect new ideas weeks, even months before journals. In the next few years we’ll see if the Kindle will put a torch to those paperbacks that gather dust on our shelves.

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And the pace of change will only get greater: the most heard client request last year? ‘Can you show me what it will look like on an iPhone?’ Not many of them say ‘I know, let’s do this as a limited edition foil blocked book’.
 
There’s probably now a clear age-divide over print versus digital. Designers over 35 were drawn into the profession by traditional means – album covers, posters and club flyers, messing about in the screenprinting department at school. Generation Y (or whatever letter we’re up to now) has been using and abusing Powerpoint for a decade at school or dabbled with their MySpace backgrounds. ‘Album covers’ are now 50 pixel-wide pictures on their iPods, not gatefold cardboard experiences. Digital ‘stuff’ is home, not away and it’s unlikely that they’re drawn to design via traditional means. ‘Doing a nice bit of print’ is more a creative curiosity rather than a craving.

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At the turn of the last decade, many of London’s design companies still treated ‘print’ as the bedrock of their business. Designing annual reports was both creatively excellent and profitable, now they are on-line pdfs. A statement such as ‘let’s do a series of posters for this project’ would be met with enthusiasm and interest – now clients will just grin politely and change the subject. Or just ask ‘why?’

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Entire corporate identities can be designed, detailed 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 re-interpreted (ok, destroyed) by the blunt instrument that is Microsoft Won’t (sorry, Word).
 
For some, adjusting to the change has taken time. In the nineties, johnson banks would produce dozens, sometimes hundreds, of posters a year. Sixty by forty inches remains a favourite size, and the receiving of the proofs, the smelling of the ink? Fantastic. We all learned from the masters and virtually every one of them (Hoffman, Brockmann, Fletcher, Glaser) built careers around getting ink onto paper via the poster.

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But if printed stuff really is dead, either someone hasn’t told us or the message is taking a heck of 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 even opened their third shop, specialising in graphic ephemera and general printed curiosities, and it’s survived the recession.
 
Some sectors still need printed things – in education the students check out prospective Universities online, but their parents still like a glossy prospectus for the coffee table, and if tens of thousands of pounds are being committed to an education, you can’t blame them. In other cases, ‘print’ seems to be becoming much more DIY. When producing ‘things’ for V&A fetes and xmas 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’s 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 book that they love and 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% of net’ royalty that induces depression in most budding design authors.

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This move to self-publishing and production 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?

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American designers last year found a way to support Obama by uploading their poster designs digitally for people to print out at whatever size they wished and now the designs have been collected in a book from Taschen. A neat way to preserve an art form on-line, and move it into the 21st century.
 
We’re going to see more of this. Print may have been toppled from the top of the design tree, but it isn’t going to go quietly.

 
This is an adaptation of a recent article by Michael Johnson for Design Week. Illustrations by Miho Aishima