Through an analysis of existing practices, and evaluation of print experiments with their application, this study has investigated the place of experimental printing solutions in contributing to the field of communication design. I have stated that the use of printing systems as methods to achieve effective communication design is pivotal to cultivating innovation in the field of print design.
This claim is demonstrated through the implementation of these experimental methods to projects and tangible products. These applications present the technical, production and communicative advantages of the experimental methods. Through the practice based research conducted, I answered the research questions.
For the first question—Can mechanical limitations of current commercial printing methods be surpassed—I explored the concept of using common digital printing systems beyond their intended functions. In the next research question—Can experimental printing methods be reproduced accurately to communicate effectively—I inquired the use of experimental methods in commercial applications. For the third research question—How can designers and printers innovate in the usage of printing systems—I discuss the notion of using printers as tools for designing, not just means for producing an already completed design.
Printers as Design Tools
This study was conducted as an effort to challenge and rethink the way we approach common digital printing systems, also in my own practice as a designer.
The desktop inkjet printer, for instance, is usually seen as a basic system for printing home and office documents, rarely as the go-to solution for designers wishing to produce finished prints due to its lower quality, resolution, and susceptibility to artefacts. Even though this may be the case, in an era endlessly pursuing sharper and higher resolution, the low-resolution printing by the inkjet might just be a part of the appeal. Also due to its simple construction and mechanics, through the experiments the inkjet printer has proven to be a system that can easily accept modified substrates.
Laser printers have the ability to print on various materials due to its heat fusing capabilities, allowing the use of unconventional substrates to communicate. Risograph inks achieve a vivid finish when combined with various coloured substrates.
Regardless of the choice of printing systems, we should consider the unknown possibilities and ways of using these tools. As John Warwicker (2016) puts it when he referred to computers during a recent lecture—we should never limit our mindset or product to the scope of mechanical limitations. As is the ethos of Maximage, any discovered method and new knowledge are tools to be used whenever there is an appropriate project in order to achieve a good result.
Putting Humanness Back in Print
The reliance on digital mediums and systems, while necessary in our time, has made printing less and less of a physical process—hence the risk of our mindsets and working habits being confined to the four corners of a computer screen.
Both practitioners and educational institutions have a role to play in encouraging designers and students to see the value in the visible process of composition and handling print as a physical process. When faced with challenges in a physical setting, we are forced to make active decisions by visually crafting spaces and forms, rather than achieving them through a single keystroke (Cooper, Gridneff & Haslam 2013). As Rigley (2012) notes, “whilst being an absolute necessity, rows of Macs can feel sterile in their uniformity. Studios and workshops may act as a counter to this impersonal environment providing a more concrete or located sense of identity.”
Upon enhancing our thinking, and operating outside the current conventions of printing, there is a freedom through experimentation that opposes our tendency to, like our printing machinery, operate like a configuration of parts (Cooper, Gridneff & Haslam 2013).
Reaching Out Through Print
Printing should also go beyond the act of putting substance to substrate as well—it is essentially about reaching out to people. Trapped in Suburbia’s ethos encapsulates this concept and intention perfectly, as stated on their website, “Our designs are at first an art of dealing with people; it focuses on human interaction and engaging the audience. We don’t expect them to sit back and relax, we want to take them on a graphic journey and surprise them.”
Combining a range of methods and mechanisms, the studio’s poster based experiments such as Shy Poster closes up like an introverted child when it senses that someone has approached; Heavy Petting Poster purrs like a cat when stroked; and their Can’t Touch This poster contains ink made from gunpowder, hence the aforementioned explosive results of pressing it (Morley 2016).
Citing a Confucius quote to explain their approach, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand,” Trapped in Suburbia believe in bringing experience design to 2D based print projects. While their posters are currently housed in galleries, one can imagine the potential and amazing results of these concepts being brought to public realms.
Directions for Future Research
Upon completing this study, I evaluated the various possibilities for future research with this study and body of work as its basis.
This entire study was carried out by one person with a reflective practice approach, through a methodology of first experimenting, followed by application. This prompted me to think about the possibility of repeating this study, but revising the methodology to include not just another person, but a group of designers to find and apply experimental printing methods through their own practice. Bringing together a designer think-tank or collective with a focus in exploring experimental printing methods could venture through a vast undiscovered territory in the realm of printed communication design.
My experiments and applications were based on three digital printing systems—my own desktop inkjet printer, plus two printers available in the RMIT Master of Communication Design studio—a Risograph and a laser printer. More insight could possibly be gained by focusing on a specific printer to find its fullest potential in being used beyond its conventional function.
Another opportunity would be to get ‘down and dirty’ with the printers, breaking them apart, modifying them beyond recognition, and making a mess with inks and materials. Unfortunately, this was not possible during the course of this study, given the environment I worked in and the printers used were university property. However, a ‘no holds barred’ approach could bring significantly more astonishing results.
The application stage of this study spanned a wide genre of print design, as such there is also the potential to uncover new knowledge by focusing on a specific field of communication design through print, for example, experimental printing for design activism. The printing industry and our work methods also cause high amounts of waste and byproducts, so there is the prospect of researching the role of experimental printing for environmental sustainability.
All these future directions may materialize throughout the course of my practice as a designer, but my hope is also that through this study, other designers may be inspired and encouraged to explore these areas in their own practice too, contributing to discourse and the advance of communication design.
Reflections on Practice
Upon studying the role of experimentation and using digital printing systems, I became more conscious of how my approach to printing affects the outcome of my own work. Despite attempting to constantly innovate in terms of concepts for projects, I was still working in a conventional way when it came to putting these concepts through a printer.
As a designer with interests in publication and branding, through this study I am now more critical of the way I communicate through printed matter; being aware of the form of a substrate, the relation of substance to substrate, the communicative aspects of substance and substrate individually or collectively, and how they all interact with an intended audience. This mindset and awareness can and should also be carried over to designing for other media.
All these present a continuous challenge for me not only in my own practice but also in contributing to communication design practice as a whole. As I conclude this Masters research project, I aim to continue evaluating, exploring, and innovating communication design methods and tools.