Another Look at Seeing
There might not be anything to add to the decades’ old discussion of print versus digital design, but on the off chance that there is something new to say, I’ll throw in my two cents. Working in a print shop for a few weeks has made me reconsider how we see design and interact with it. It has shed light (no pun intended) on the ways in which we even think of the written language and the drawn image. I have come to the understanding that to fully understand graphic design and all its implications and impacts on the world, we have to think more clearly about the design itself and the designed object itself and how those two things differ from each other.
When initially parsing out how printed design exists, I thought that maybe the distinction between print and digital as it exists now might just be the difference between light and ink, clearly and succinctly. Digital design – typography, images modified in Photoshop or created altogether in Illustrator, websites and phone apps and ads – all exist in the space of light. This essay you’re reading now, assuming I haven’t printed you a copy, is composed of red, green, and blue sparkles, photons emitted in a certain combination by your computer screen to give the illusion of all the colors of the rainbow, and then some.
But printed matter can be made (and now usually is made) in a computer digitally before it’s printed out. Most commercial printed material goes through some digital processes at some point. Obviously some work like screen printed designs or wood type letterpress is created without a computer at all, but the line between print and digital is no longer as cut and dry as people used to argue. Some of the letterpress printed material we make in our print shop is created by designing something digitally in the computer, printing it onto a black and clear negative, and then using that negative to create a three-dimensional raised photopolymer plate which is then used to print posters or cards or anything else on the letterpress printers, which of course were originally created to just use moveable metal and wood type.
And then we get into the really muddy waters of thinking about printed fabrics, printed rugs, printed clothing and mugs. All these physical objects designed on a computer and then transferred into the physical world can lend themselves more to industrial design conversations than graphic design conversations, but they’re still worth pondering. What about a neon sign? It displays its message with light, yet it’s clearly analog and not digital. A light bulb is not digital design even if it’s an LED bulb, but what about a lite brite displaying a colored image? That’s not any different from your computer screen. Print doesn’t just mean physical, it means something more specific than that, but what the limitations are for what “print” is can vary.
So the boundary between print and digital in terms of form is muddy at best, as we’ve known for awhile. That’s nothing new. But thinking about this is new for me. As someone who lives in the most digital age that has yet existed, print is lauded as a more fine art, less necessary medium. The debate is old. Books haven’t been totally eclipsed by Kindles and other tablets. While newspapers are being eaten by the web and now social media, magazines still have their place on newsstands worldwide. The relevance of print isn’t the hill I want to die on. What is something I am curious about is the ways in which the print and digital divide has created a new philosophical understanding of what graphic design is.
I think there is a certain understanding among anyone designing using digital programs like the Adobe suite that the designed “image” itself exists in some ideal platonic state in the mind of the artist, designer, or photographer. When you’re designing, you’re trying to get that ideal image onto the computer (or the drawing pad, or the painting canvas, etc.) now, because we are all too comfortable designing within a computer, printing has become the sort of thing that is an afterthought to some and a necessity (and occasional burden) to others. If you set out to design a book or any sort of printed object, be it a label or a billboard or a business card or a sticker, the concern is always how to get the printed object to look like the digital object. The hassle of getting the right ink colors, the right resolution, and “good” paper are inhibitors to some designers, to the point that some designers don’t create physical objects at all. Misaligned pages or ink smudges are seen as blemishes that detract from the digital image, which is already in some ways an unideal replication of the perfect mental design.
Or so the thinking goes. I think a lot of people now think this way about design, especially with the prevalence of web design and the fact that most of the advertising we interact with on a daily basis is through Instagram or other social media platforms.
I, on the other hand, don’t agree with this (specifically contrived by me for this essay) way of thinking, despite how much I resented having to print out my homework last year in school due to the constant need to troubleshoot our printers. My thought here isn’t to argue for a reconceptualization of print. My thought is that after spending some time looking at what each form of printing – screen printing, lithography, risography, letterpress, digital inkjet and laser printing, and others – I’ve come to see that it’s more useful to think about the initial project idea in terms of form than it is to think of printing as just the last step in a project or the afterthought altogether. In the same way that you think about the semiotics and mood of the design project to begin with, thinking about the designed “object” at the outset completely changes the work and opens up so many avenues for exploration within the confines of the project.
As an example, designing a menu for a cocktail party opens up a variety of exciting and creative design opportunities. If the menu is just purely digital, you can think of the benefits of making the menu interactive on a website, or including animation. You can make the menu exist within a world that you cannot replicate in the physical world, and that’s the sort of inherent joy of digital design – the malleability and creativity inherent to world building and making things vanish and reappear.
Physically, if I were to design a menu, I could think about design in the same way I think about any other project. I can illustrate a cocktail and make stickers of it, or turn it into a repeating pattern to use on the front of a notebook, or wallpaper, or giftwrap, or a scarf, or socks, or any number of physical things. But taking that a step further, designing a physical menu makes me think of the size of the object, how our hands interact with paper, how we read physical work when we cannot make the font bigger with the stroke of a finger.
If I design from the outset knowing I’m going to print the menu with a risograph printer I might design it to utilize two or three colors and make the overlap of the colors interesting where I know I’ll have sloppy registration. If I use letterpress, I can think about elements that would be cool to have raised, or the benefits of using metallic ink or foil stamping. Knowing how an object will be created at the end helps me backtrack my steps to the beginning. This back and forth and mixing of physical and digital thought processes creates new avenues of exploration for how we create objects and how we interact with graphic design. The most interesting contemporary designed objects aren’t reinventing the wheel, they’re just using existing technologies in new and exciting ways that take the best parts of different processes and understand how they work together best.
I think the way forward for graphic design is, in part, to look back at what we’ve been doing for the past hundred, four hundred, thousand years, and to see that the newest technologies and trends don’t mean that we have to abandon old ways of doing things. This isn’t a luddite position, but merely a positing that getting caught up in the tide of newness is not incompatible with looking at the ways in which other ways of thinking and doing can create stunning works of art when ingenuity and experimentation is allowed. Breaking rules and mixing methods leaves a lot to be uncovered, and that’s where the interesting work lies in the valley between the old and the new.