Through this study, I explore the possibilities and results of unconventional uses of printing systems, and the compatibility of a design to these experimental methods. This is a response to the influence of printing methods on design practice throughout communication design history, exploring how this is occurring in our current era, how designers are attempting to carry on this trend of innovation, and how this may lead us into the future of print in communication design.
To do so, this research takes on an action based and reflective practice approach. Through attempting various experimental and unconventional methods of using commonly available printing equipment, I document and reflect upon each result, finding relevant and effective commercial applications of these methods.
This area of research and topic was chosen as it is within my area of interest in future design practice. I believe that production choices for print design should not be entirely constrained by the current perceived limitations of printing technology and methods, but as designers, it is part of what we do to explore new methods, and innovate in how we communicate using print.
This research is an extension of a design documentary project during my undergraduate final year titled Long Live Print—through which I explored the history of printing, developments of print technology and how designers of respective eras took advantage of them, using them to their fullest potential in their own practice.
Printing is one of the most significant technological developments in human history; it created the capability to distribute ideas and ensure their survival over generations (Cooper, Gridneff & Haslam 2013). There are various types of printing methods and equipment that exist today, with the most commonly used systems being desktop inkjet and laser printers. Common printing systems are typically seen as processes for medium to small quantity or lower-quality printing jobs. These printing methods are usually automated and mechanical, as opposed to the hands-on approach of traditional, manual printing. As such, digital or mechanical printing may be generally seen as a stage that is external to the design process.
With the more traditional forms of printing which include movable type, letterpress, screenprinting, stamping, stenciling, and Print Gocco—jobs are typically carried out with physical labour. The ability to control these printing methods by hand presents more opportunities for customization and experimentation. Various traditional printing methods, objects or materials can be overlayed or integrated into a work to produce new effects and visual representations. Design studios such as Aekido in Scotland, and Physical Fiction in Oregon, have created letterpress prints using Lego blocks and Lego baseplates respectively, creating interesting bodies of work. Such methods are typically seen as more ‘creative’ compared to conventional printing methods.
Creative efforts by designers can be found in both the concept and form of the work. In this digital age, aided by the processing power of the computer, the designer is able to explore and execute ideas with the twist of the wrist (Shaughnessy 2010). However, even the most innovative of print design still has the outcome of a one-dimensional form on a printed surface. There is space for innovative use of printing methods and finishes as tools for communicating, rather than just as embellishments for visual effects, or having the choice of printing methods determined only by the amount of ink colours available and printable materials.
Hendrik Werkman, a commercial printer from Groningen, Holland in the 1920s and 30s, is known for his innovative collaged artworks composed of type, rules, printing furniture and other objects (Marsh 2013). Many of the methods used by modern letterpress printers of this day were pioneered by Werkman, a result of his experimental letterpress work. While other designers during his era forced the letterpress process to achieve their designs, Werkman allowed the design to emerge from the printing process (Marsh 2013). In his own words: “Do you know the difference between me and the others? They are designers who do not work at a press and instead leave the production to others, while I produce designs during the course of printing” (Marsh 2013). All of this happened during the time when letterpress printing was considered a commercial printing method, confined to the original purpose of its function. Werkman also developed a printmaking process he called “hot printing,” a technique incorporating found materials that added repeated design elements directly onto the paper—all without the use of a printing press (Purvis & Werkman 2004). In this modern age, with printing technologies that have well advanced beyond the era of Werkman, the possibilities for innovation should be boundless.
For practitioners in the communication design industry, there is still a wealth of knowledge to be learnt about printing processes. Characteristics found within a digital print must be examined, allowing greater insight into the diverse qualities—including vibrancy and control over colour, line definition and the ability to print at varying scales, onto different substrates (Hamilton 2003). While the experts of this field will undoubtedly always be those working in the printing industry itself, it would be beneficial for this knowledge to be made available to practitioners in other industries as well. Designers who haven’t had the opportunity to deal directly with print production may not possess the experience or knowledge of what the results of certain printing processes and finishes would physically look and feel like in their final product, besides making rough guesses based on photographed images and information from text in books, articles, or available online. Manuals and guides are readily available for typefaces, branding, and colour, but the same can’t be said for a physical representation of various printing methods when it comes to accessibility as a compendium.
In Communication Design courses and programs, design students may have a lack of exposure to printing methods and systems—factors include the subject of print production not being included in the course syllabus, and institutions being unable to own a variety of printing equipment. To have something to assess physically or virtually it must first be produced, and print production in educational establishments is facing many restraining factors (Hamilton 2003). Today, financial restraints and other extraneous factors debase facilities and practice in education (Hamilton 2003). There is also a higher dependence on digital methods and software for design, where everything is displayed on a screen. While students may have a chance to experience working with screenprinting or letterpress, they might not gain substantial knowledge of printing systems until they enter the industry. Until then, the printer is only seen as a means to produce the final work, instead of an active method within the design process itself.
With all these in mind, there exists a need for designers to work towards better access to knowledge of printing methods and finishes. In the course of finding relevant literature, there seems to be a lack of academic literature and research about printing systems and its implications for design practice as well. As designers work towards this goal, the full advantage of this better understanding of printing should be taken and used as an opportunity for creative risk and innovative thinking in communication.
The practice based component of this research began with an investigation into existing works by designers and practitioners of other related fields who are involved in experimenting with printers in some form. The work of groups such as Maximage and individuals like Xavier Antin and Dafi Kühne provided key starting points on how some of their methods may be appropriated into the context of everyday printing systems. These ideas further led to other ideas for experimentation that were attempted.
Interruptions In Process
Printing processes were originally developed for the exchange and storage of information adapted to human vision (Cooper, Gridneff & Haslam 2013). Major digital printing systems that exist today operate through contact transfer of an image or pattern from a master or drum to a substrate: offset printing, laser printing, and Risograph printing. There are a number of steps that occur throughout this process—between the sending of the information from a computer to the final produced image on the substrate. This provides the multiple opportunities for manipulation or interruption at various stages of the printing process.
A prime example of introducing interruptions in the printing process is Les Impressions Magiques, an artist book created by Swiss collective Maximage Société Suisse. The booklet was designed directly in the print shop, where David Keshavjee and Julien Tavelli made manual interventions straight on the offset printing plate by using chemical developers, engraving, photo compositions or heat marking. The entire process was analogical and irreversible, from crop marks to overprinting. The design process became a direct part of the production (Stohler 2011). Les Impressions Magiques became a “best of” all the tests that they did.
This same technique was also used on a previous project of theirs—the album cover and posters for the band ‘Honey for Petzi’ which was a commissioned project. They only drafted the typography on the computer, and everything else was done by hand, based on the principle of addition and subtraction of offset colour on four square surfaces (Stohler 2011).
Some printers are more suited to customisation than others due to more accessible parts or a lower risk and resulting costs if the components were to be damaged. A desktop inkjet printer is suited for this compared to more costly equipment such as a high-capacity laser printer.
Xavier Antin is known for his projects involving modifications of or hacking of printers, in works such as Just in Time. Subtitled A Short History of Desktop Publishing, it is a self-published title that documents the separation of four colour printing (CMYK) into a history lesson of desktop publishing. The magenta for each image is first printed on a stencil duplicator (or mimeograph) from 1880 and then feeds into a Spirit Duplicator from 1923, which adds the cyan. The black is printed by a laser printer from 1969 and the yellow is then added from an inkjet printer from 1976 (Dyment 2014). The result is a 42 page, 21 × 29 cm, staple-bound zine in a limited edition of 100 copies.
Another one of Antin’s projects is Printing at Home—a spring-bound book documenting fictional modifications of a home inkjet printer, ranging from the possible to the wacky. The book provides cheeky step-by-step instructions coupled with photos on how to turn your regular inkjet printer into contraptions such as a watercolour printer, an acid printer, and a potato printer. While some of these “inventions” are likely non-functional, they get us thinking about how we could use a printer beyond its intended functions.
A "Makeready" is a sheet of paper that a printer uses at the beginning and end of a print run. Often re-used, they can become layered with several print runs, and are a waste-product of printing. Makeready Readymade, an exhibition by then Chase & Galley director Stuart Geddes, displays a collection of makeready sheets and creates new works from the makeready sheets of photographs of this makeready collection (Geddes 2011). 29 makeready sheets of up to 1020mm × 1440mm in size were sourced from a local offset poster printer and displayed at the exhibition. These sheets bear the marks of multiple gig, event, and festival posters.
The exhibition is accompanied by a book that documents the makeready collection displayed in the exhibition as well as several short writings and thoughts about printing, design, language and art. The book is produced using offset lithography, stencil duplicator (Risograph) and letterpress printing, and while it was made as a numbered edition of 250, each book is unique, the paper having been sourced from the Risograph makeready sheets of A Small Press (Geddes 2011).
Making multiple passes through the press and sopping up excess ink, the makeready sheets accumulate layers over weeks and months until they're too heavy to handle—then they're usually thrown out (Daniel 2011). While these sheets may be a waste product of a printing process, it would be interesting to see how this concept may be appropriated as an intentional design, by overprinting layer upon layer, making multiple passes on a substrate through multiple printers.
Documenting the Experimental Process
Acid Test by Maximage, Tatiana Rihs and Körner Union was their first foray into drawings mechanically reproduced during offset printing, inspired by a conversation with a printer about how he once cut himself and blood dropped onto the offset plate, causing a few printed pages to be stained with blood. The resulting booklet and poster became a comprehensive study of offset printing possibilities (Meister 2013).
Wood Type Now! is an online research catalogue by Dafi Kühne documenting the design principles and techniques which have been acquired through extensive practical tests on traditional letterpress and relief printing methods. This project was an inquiry into the design potential in the combination of digital composing and production methods and analogue letterpress techniques. The result is a website documenting a broad range of possibilities in a contemporary context without trying to be conclusive, rather inviting further experimentation and interpretation (Kühne 2009).