Print design has been a critical part of human development for well over a thousand years. The first printed publication was produced in China around 868 AD, with mass production of printed communication beginning in Europe during the mid-15th century. These innovations fundamentally changed how ideas were circulated among communities and helped to initiate various enlightenments around the world. Over time, the significance of these interactions has become intrinsically linked with the various traditional printed formats themselves regardless of their content. Due to an accumulation of these cultural exchanges, print design now comes loaded with a range of meanings and expectations that can be used by a designer. It is largely because of these expectations that print design still plays an important role when communicating information with an audience. For example, someone glancing at a billboard will expect to have a very fast transfer of information — usually within the first few seconds of viewing. Conversely, someone picking up an annual report will have a very different set of expectations.
As with any branch of graphic design, print is fundamentally about communication. Aside from specific cases (for example an ‘Instagram only’ brand), it is generally accepted that a strong communication strategy will at least consider a balance of print, digital and experiential executions to communicate a message. One of the most obvious differences between print and digital design is how a user interacts with the content. The simple ability to hold a printed object in your hand and feel the quality of the paper and print is often overlooked.
Print design brings a uniquely tactile experience that might include texture, shape, tone, colour or weight — all things that a screen cannot replicate. In addition to this, specialist printing techniques like letterpress, die-cutting, or foil blocking can bring an entirely new perspective. This is a much more immersive experience when compared to viewing the same content on a screen. We know from various research studies that immersive experiences stay in the minds of an audience longer and ultimately help convert and drive sales. When deciding what effects are important to a message, it should also be remembered that print cannot compensate for some of the benefits that digital design can bring to the table. These include the use of audio and video elements alongside other interactive options.
A focus on quality
As with digital design, the world of print is continually evolving. New processes and applications are continually being created which push the boundaries of what is possible. Possibly the largest change that we have witnessed within the design industry has been the move to high-quality executions, to which print lends itself wonderfully. When building their communication strategies, we advise our clients to focus their print budget towards the most important moments. We then create ‘high-touch applications such as product packaging and specialist publications or direct mail. This ensures that every piece of print feels special and properly considered. There is still a place for ‘mass market’ print, however, there is often a balance to be struck between this and digital advertising. When a high-quality material is required, there is no substitute for print.
The print processes
There are a huge array of print processes available to use, however, the main three that we tend to use at LBD Studio are offset lithography, modern letterpress and digital printing. Other processes that are commonly used are flexography, screenprinting, large format and 3d printing. Offset lithography (often just called ‘offset printing’ or just ‘litho’) is the standard print process. It traditionally uses four colours; cyan, magenta, yellow and black (referred to as ‘key’). This process lends itself well to mass production as the aluminium plates hold an image accurately over a huge number of repetitions. Once the plates have been set up they are then moved onto rollers before being used in conjunction with the print material. In addition to (or instead of) the four plates, special colours can be picked from a Pantone book. These colours are matched to the book so you always get the same colour — a great solution for brands that have specified colours they need to adhere to. Letterpress printing is (to our knowledge) the oldest surviving print process used in the commercial industry today. It similarly uses blocks or plates for foil-blocking, debossing or embossing. The paper comes into direct contact with the plate, meaning an impression is left on the surface of the page. The printed content, having been physically pressed into the material, therefore leaves a beautifully tactile impression which casts a slight shadow when handled. Digital printing is a process we regularly use for short runs. The process is similar to lithography in that key colours are specified, however, plates are not used, bringing the cost down and making it perfect for projects that require a low amount of copies. The process here can involve a range of techniques, however, the most common are inkjet or laser printing, similar to an office printer. Another advantage of digital printing is the turnaround time, allowing clients to print on demand when needed.
There are a large number of specialist finishes that can be used during the printing process. Most of these finishes are applied directly to the surface of the paper after the printing process has taken place but before the paper has been trimmed. Specialist print finishes include processes like foil-blocking, die-cutting, varnishing, spot UV, lamination, edge-printing, holographic foils, debossing, embossing, and laser-cutting. Each of these finishes gives its unique effects that can contribute hugely to a design.
Choosing a supplier
We work with many specialist printers and have formed strong relationships with them over the years. We trust their expertise and regularly ask their opinions on the best way to achieve a certain finish or outcome. It is this same spirit of collaboration that we aim to instil in our client relationships. When choosing a print supplier, we recommend asking for recommendations from someone that regularly commissions print. We are always happy to point interested parties or potential clients in the right direction, feel free to get in touch if you are looking for a recommendation.
Choosing a paper stock
Appropriate paper choice is as important to a design as the type or quality of print. As with our print suppliers, we work closely with a range of specialist paper merchants to offer our clients our recommendations. For example, when designing the EverWax Olive for Halley Stevensons, we specified a unique set of Favini Crush papers that featured 30% post-consumer waste from the olive oil industry. This became an important storytelling mechanic as this particular product also utilised waste from the olive oil industry. Subsequent papers were also chosen from GF Smith where approx 20% of the paper pulp was made using waste from the cotton industry. Again, this tied in neatly with the brand message defined at earlier stages of the design process. When choosing a paper supplier or a particular stock, we always recommend asking about sustainability credentials. This often takes the form of an FSC mark which will explain the level of responsible forestry management. We recommend avoiding paper suppliers that cannot give detailed information on this. For more information on our approach to sustainability and how we can help you reduce the carbon footprint of your print and packaging materials, please visit our sustainability consultancy page.
If your business would benefit from a fresh approach to print design and production, please get in touch and we will be happy to advise on the best route forward. We recommend that a strong brand identity is defined to ensure all printed materials are unique, consistent and effective.