The Value of Strange Printers in Design.

An essay by Christopher Swift

What is common and boring with time becomes rare and strange. The elements of the thing that were ubiquitous and unassuming become communicative of a time, or a place, or an idea. As we become experts with our tools the excitement of what is possible becomes a mild sort of resentment at knowing, in fact, that what is possible is limited. When we are able/cursed with the ability to see a new piece of work and know how it was made, to see which tools were used, what materials were used, how well they were used, then we may be drawn to the edges of the bell curve; we again start to seek out something new, something novel and uncommon to renew our excitement for what is possible. As our technologies get more and more precise, as the effective resolutions become so high that human eyes can’t differentiate between technologies, as every measurable or discernable difference is seen as something to be fixed, as we flatten out the lumps and bumps, as we smooth the edges of all things, we lose the stories that are in those differences—in the small details that can tell us about our world. Seeking out tools and techniques that have their own voices, that have their own ways to do things, those voices add to our works, they add content to the narrative, they force us into different spaces, they make the work strange and often better.

Digital sound can feel hollow because we sometimes want the messiness of analog records, the hiss and pop which are not planned but are not mistakes. We add filters and depth of field to our pixel perfect photos because we miss the happy accidents of a non-perfect process, we miss light leaks and the graininess of 1200 iso black and white film. What at one time we thought were errors in the technologies we eventually learn are, in fact, features. Printing with older analog or even early digital processes, technologies such as letterpress or duplicators have their own inherent limits and ways of working. Working with these kinds of tools and not just accepting but building on their particularities creates interesting, authentic, uncommon and more alive work. The weight and size of paper, the kinds and colors of ink, the ways that the inks work with paper creates obstructions to the simple and obvious solutions that modern tools and techniques offer.

When we look at printed images, we are tricked into seeing a whole and life like object. With better eye sight (or with a magnifying glass) we see the bizarre reality of the image. A series of tiny dots in four colors in a radial patter of spots. Where those dots overlap new colors are made, and when seen from a normal distance without any magnification those dots merge into one big blended presentation of color. Different technologies do this sort of thing somewhat differently from each other, but the vast majority of commercial printing in North America is offset lithography using various line screen densities to show us printed images. Uncommon printing technologies such as a Risograph use radically different methods of applying color and can create exciting and unexpected results. In Risograph printing separate “masters” are created for each color to be printed, but there is no color necessarily associated with that master color template. While using the printer different colors can be used on the masters creating wildly different color combinations that do not follow traditional color matching methods. Instead of printing an image in the traditional cyan, magenta, yellow, and black a designer could switch out the inks for florescent violet, bright orange, red, and forest green creating compelling and strange new images. Risograph printing commonly can only print two colors at a time, an obstruction to current printing expectations, that forces the designer to think of new methods of expression. Using techniques developed by Kodak in experimentation about color constancy with just a two-color print from a Risograph a piece can still express a rich range of colors through file manipulation that challenges our misunderstandings about how we perceive colors. Uncommon technologies can challenge our understandings of color, something we think we understand well but which is so complex and so fascinating. They are a way to create novel expressions and challenge audiences.

Unless a painting is famous there will always be a small audience for it. The limitation of this sort of one of a kind communication is that they are in fact on of a kind. The tools of publication are inherently about mass production, they are made to communicate with an audience, they exist to reproduce and disseminate an idea. The mass produced are not delicate, they are not precious, they are not rare, they do not gain value through scarcity. They are made to share, made to be used. This commonness makes the thing more accessible; its material quality does not demand white gloves to be touched, they can be bent and torn, notes can be taken on them.

Zine culture and other small press projects are not often concerned with efficiency in production. In the time it takes to set a single page of text on a letterpress you could print a hundred books on a digital printer. For ease of access a laser printer/copier is incredibly common and available for use cheaply, but this ease of production can also express a lack of care or quality. The painstaking time spent in the production and creation of an uncommon object using uncommon tools and techniques can express a value that, while maybe at odds with the urgency that zine production often expresses in its aesthetic, communicates the importance of the content and message. We can add value expressed by care and time spent.

The value of strange and obscure technologies, or cheap and ubiquitous ones, is that they have not been adopted by very exclusive and expensive niche markets in the way that letterpress printing has. The commercially viability of many letterpress studios relies heavily on the wedding industry. The aesthetic value of heavy printed impressions on thick cotton based papers had become what is understood as traditional, valuable, bespoke. Duplicators and photocopiers are unlikely to become considered valuable in material quality and in tradition.

The low screen density, the color limitations, and the odd assortment of colors used in Risograph printing creates a tool- and material-based aesthetic that is very specific and very obvious. Most traditional printed corporate marketing materials that we see out in the world are far more concerned with crispness, with clarity, with repetition without differences—the quality of production is a communication of the quality of the product or service. Our current mediated view of the world through the high-resolution screens in our daily lives creates an aesthetic that claims to be so clear that we can’t tell the difference between image and reality. The technology of our hand-held phone cameras presents what looks like a one-to-one replication of our world, the complexity of the process hidden behind user interface. The processes of how light is received through a lens and then translated to data, rebuilt as signals for a screen that then travel to our eyes to be understood as image and color are hardly known by most. That this is an act of translation, not a perfect and true capturing of the real thing, and that we act and understand the world like it is not mediated, alters our expectations of other forms of reproduction. Photography printed in high resolution with colors corrected to the most average of conditions, printed on smooth bright white paper is what we understand to be a real and honest representation of the thing that has been photographed.

The low-resolution line screen of the Risograph, the slight shifting of the color registration, the range of colors that we do not expect to see in print, these things make Risograph printing seem unsuitable for the aesthetic of commercial work. The roughness of the printing, it’s non-perfect clarity, its visual strangeness come to seem like flaws in our pixel perfect, high-res view of the world. Like silk screening this tool’s fingerprint is too obvious for many designers to feel comfortable using. The lack of total control over the final output is deemed too much of a sacrifice, too much of a risk to be acceptable.

The uncommon nature of these other kinds of printing make them harder to find, harder to learn to use, harder to work with. A Risograph can in some ways compete on a price per page measure (depending on the number of colors, etc.), but even in those cases the ability to find a printer to work with on a project as opposed to the ease of finding a full color toner based printer makes the choice of Risograph for a project very hard to justify in terms of efficiency.

Specific tools make specific marks. Each process of recording or producing has an effect on the final output. The nature of the tool becomes part of the thing. These effects have major impacts on how we make things, on the choices made by artists and engineers. The physical realities of the process, of the tool, of the operator, form the edges of what is possible. A letterpress printer hitting the type with too much backing paper creates a visible and tactile impression in the paper, a misregistered plate creates overlapping colors, a slow film speed used to photograph a fast-moving object blurs the image—these effects are built into the nature of the process. With digital tools we create glitches, we look for ways to bring imperfection to our otherwise perfect and precise tools. The fingerprints of different technologies are digitally recreated to bring something possibly nostalgic or maybe just more physical and natural into our final outputs. Faked letterpress impressions, intentional misregistered color, added motion blurs or depth of field, these are commonly added to digitally produced work to create the impression of nostalgia or for something approaching authenticity. But once you know what you are looking for these attempts seem clumsy, lazy, occasionally manipulative, and annoying.

The material nature of a project creates a certain status for it which is bound up in those material qualities. A stop sign is its shape, its color, its words, and its materials. A knitted wool stop sign with all other aspects maintained would be unlikely to stop many cars. The paper we print on, the binding method, the technology we print with, the material status of those elements affect the object and are part of its narrative. At higher education institutions in the US a printed viewbook, using expensive uncoated paper (often Mohawk Superfine), with five or more colors and high-quality photography and printing are a standard element of the story that allows parents to know that this is a real and serious institution.

Uncommon output methods like duplicators with their strange and imperfect reproductions of our world will likely stay on the fringes of production, and that is good. The commercial design and marketing world already has all of the tools to use, the things they value are reflected in their material choices. Non-traditional publications can intentionally reflect their values in their material choices as well. The decision to use technologies that run counter to commercial interests, that are rare and strange, that are not the most competitive, communicates important ideas about the work and about those who make those choices.