Designers and Print: Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing

By Gordon Kaye, editor and publisher, Graphic Design USA magazine
In a world enamored with online media, it may surprise you to know that more than 90 percent of professional graphic designers still work on print as part of their mix and that nearly 75 percent of their projects involve a print component.  With apologies to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, their 1968 classic hit – “Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing” – captures the spirit of how graphic designers feel about print and why it remains relevant. For most designers, print promises an authentic human connection that they fear is being lost in our increasingly digitized daily lives. The real, tangible, sensual attributes of print, they argue, enable it to touch people emotionally and convey trust, a rare and effective result at a time when the dominant media are cool, ephemeral and distant, and our institutions feel likewise.
From our magazine’s research, conversations and experience with the graphic design community, we can identify at least four basic reasons for why graphic designers and other creative professionals continue to view print as central to their personal and professional lives.
First and foremost, designers are drawn to the real world physicality of print; its ability to be held and touched. Over and over again, the same words are used to capture print’s classic strengths:  tangibility, permanence, texture, dimension, weight, the feel of a surface, the smell of ink or toner. No one is fool enough to deny the staggering reach of electronic media, or to advocate a retreat from the wonders of email, social media, mobile devices and interactive documents. There is, however, no escaping that print design radiates an emotional hold that is singular and striking, intense and heartfelt.
This appeal to the senses provides print with a key advantage in a cluttered and fragmented, facile and diffuse communications marketplace. A well-designed and well-executed printed piece can be a special experience, one that has resonance and impact, that has staying power, that cuts through the clutter and moves beyond the digital cacophony. Pushing the argument further, many designers assert that a quality printed piece provides credibility to the message and builds trust with the messenger. Here, designers are adamant that the tangibility of a print piece suffuses the content with a sense of authenticity. The message looks and feels real, it is an act of craftsmanship and manufacture, it springs from a real person and location, it invites a relationship. This gives printed communication a simple – but ultimately profound – weight that an online communication simply cannot. Does this hold up to logic? Not in the strictest sense. But it holds up to the designers’ real life experiences.
A second main reason why print media remains relevant to designers is that it is practical and user friendly. Easy, effective, convenient, portable, accessible, understandable, readable. You can take it wherever you want to go, without the need for hardware or software, and use it whenever and wherever the need or the mood strikes. Some of the competitive advantages of portability are being eroded by mobile devices, e-book readers, wireless hotspots and the like. Still, many designers ascribe to the wisdom that “if paper had been invented after the personal computer, it would be hailed as an historical breakthrough.”
Third, the creative community has learned in a few short years to establish a peaceful and productive coexistence between print and new media. The best designers have now mastered how and when to bring the right medium to bear on the right solution, using print when called for, digital media where appropriate, and integrated programs that may run the media gamut. Indeed, the internet’s presence is breathing new life into the age-old practice of integrated communications. Some content thrives in the immediacy and interactivity of electronic media; other messages are diluted or lost in its speed and fragility. Print may no longer be the spearhead of all campaigns but it has established itself as a valuable piece of the puzzle.
Finally, designers are taking advantage of print’s evolution into a smarter, faster, cleaner, more efficient, more convenient medium. Designers are adapting technologies that allow them to better customize, personalize, target and control. And to acquaint themselves to workflows that are less cumbersome and more productive. Think expanding press capabilities. Think QR Codes, PURLs, and one-to-one marketing. Think design-to-prepress-to-delivery management tracking. Think desktop printers that can produce customer-ready materials. Think an ever-increasing range of papers, substrates, surfaces and weights. Think energy-efficient equipment and less chemistry. All of these factors are combining to give print a makeover that some have dubbed “Print 2.0.”
For the American graphic design community, the value of print is not an abstract concept but a fundamental mainstay of their lives and livelihood. For them, there are reasons to feel optimistic going forward. Many are highly cerebral: research shows that print provides a high ROI, drives online traffic, keeps readers engaged with ads and direct mail, and works best for certain kinds of messages and clients. All well and good. More fundamentally, however, print endures because its nature touches something human in all of us and, executed properly, forges emotional connections between and among people. Who would knowingly abandon the real thing?
Thanks, Marvin and Tammi, wherever you are, for telling it like it is.
Gordon Kaye filed this content as a paid contributor to Xerox. The Focus: Real Business, Real Opinion content is the author’s opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of Xerox.
Gordon Kaye is editor and publisher of Graphic Design USA magazine. He joined GDUSA in 1990 after a first career as communications lawyer for a private law firm and then for the NBC Television Network where assignments included NBC News and Saturday Night Live. He received a BA from Hamilton College, and a joint degree in law and public policy from Princeton University and Columbia Law School. Gordon lives in New York City with his wife Susan and has two daughters, Charlotte and Sasha.

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