The future has been digital for so long it is almost retro, lodged deep in the collective consciousness since computers entered popular culture, with The Matrix (1999) introducing the idea that digital illusions might be preferable to the ‘red pill’ of grim reality and HAL singing ‘Daisy, Daisy’ in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). For two decades, the ways in which billions consume, work, sell, buy, spend their leisure time and socialise have been transformed by digital systems and devices. Business and services have had to rethink and retool to survive in a world dominated by the unconscious biases, deliberate privacy invasions and unintended consequences of algorithms made by powerful software giants. Yet we still experience the world with analogue senses, enjoying music, radio, movies and television with old-fashioned ears and eyes. Printing is yet another example of a mature technology with an outcome – a printed artefact – that can be appreciated by nearly all our senses.
The first edition of Pulp examined the rapid evolution of digital printing at a time when offset litho printers’ fears regarding quality were being allayed by direct evidence, and bigger presses and faster speeds changed the parameters of pricing. Six years later, digital printing is growing and offering more possibilities than ever, but it is a quiet revolution. If this is the future, it is ‘not very evenly distributed yet’, to use the words of cyberpunk author William Gibson.
Digital runs are short, which means there is a multiplicity of small jobs at a quality and accuracy unimaginable in the twentieth century, and still not widely understood in the twenty-first.
Anyone trying to measure the rise of digital against the changes in offset litho finds it is impossible to compare like with like. Digital printing has made possible products and projects that were uneconomical or inconceivable in litho. Paper manufacturers have accordingly stepped up to the challenge of making stocks that are optimised for digital printing, such as the Fedrigoni Digital range of papers and boards, with ranges for electro-ink, dry toner and inkjet machines.
Hadar Peled Vaissman, formerly creative director at HP Indigo, compares the rise of digital printing to the advent of the airbrush, ‘a new technology for releasing ink on to paper’. She describes HP Indigo printing (which uses electro-ink) as ‘the best, newest, most exciting design tool there is. It is my new paintbrush, my colour palette and my toolbox.’
Fast, economical and clean
Printing is more than a medium of communication. Ricoh’s application and innovation manager Andy Campbell (see article ‘Day to day data’ about Fedrigoni 365) says: ‘A printing machine is part of a manufacturing process. Our business is selling part of – or the whole of – a production line.’
Much of printing has always been ‘transactional’ – phone bills, financial statements, medicine labels and legal documents, and digital printing has had a role here long before it became a serious rival in quality. Though a digital machine cannot beat offset litho printing for speed and economies of scale on a five-figure print run – whether that’s for a sales brochure or a Harry Potter reprint – the newer digital printers, with their faster speeds, increasingly large formats, multiple inks and coatings, are providing companies with new ways to deal with older challenges. The past decade has seen what Campbell calls an ‘incremental migration’ from offset to digital.
Some of digital’s most ardent proponents are printers who began their careers in offset, such as Pureprint manufacturing director Craig Berresford. ‘As an ex-litho guy, I have to admit that on the HP Indigo, the quality is better. When you see the lift you get on digital – I’ve no concerns. And the quality is much better on uncoated paper: the inks cure as they dry.’ He explains that the ink sits on the surface of the paper rather than soaking in.
Roy Killen, director at UK printers Push Print is equally evangelistic about his Fujifilm Jet Press. He says: ‘The B2 sheet size was critical, then getting comfortable with its quality. And it looks like a printing press – we’ve been very pleased.’
Killen points to its high level of consistency. ‘Whether you’re printing on the Jet Press on Tuesday morning or Friday afternoon, it’s always exactly the same.’ However for Push, the ability to offer both litho and digital is crucial.
Berresford’s fellow Pureprint director Richard Owers is an articulate evangelist for digital printing’s merits, though these are not always obvious to potential customers. ‘One of the hidden costs of printing is redundant stock … sometimes fifteen to twenty per cent of marketing collateral is thrown away because agencies over-order.’ Customers fear running out and incurring an expensive re-order. There are many digital projects now where redundant stock is zero, with clear environmental and economic advantages.
Fujifilm product manager Mark Stephenson highlights the advantages of digital for the circular economy for anyone concerned about the environmental impact of the print chain. ‘There are a low number of consumables compared to offset, no waste plates and blankets.’ He cheerfully points to de-inkability as one of the Jet Press’s advantages over its digital rivals, since it is more difficult to de-ink toner and electro-ink.
Personalisation is a feature of digital printing that has implications for both sustainability and creativity. It chimes with the evolving demands and aspirations of consumers for less waste and more special and unique artefacts, a feelgood combination of ‘we’ and ‘me’.
Peled Vaissman writes that variable data printing allows designers ‘to use information the consumer has given us to make it the most relevant product possible for them.’ HP’s Industrial Marketing Manager Dana Craciun notes the way customers increasingly seek work that is premium and customised, writing that HP Indigo ‘gives printers the flexibility to meet all of these needs efficiently.’ Ricoh’s Campbell sees variable data as a way to respond to current changes in consumption: ‘The pandemic may hasten the change or become a tipping point,’ he notes. ‘Brands need to establish trust, and personalisation is key.’
Creative director Silas Amos has no illusions about the challenges of explaining variable data projects to clients, and the need to find someone brave enough to try something new: ‘The ideal candidate is someone young enough to want to make their reputation, but senior enough to make their own decisions!’
Push’s Killen points out that the arts and cultural sector is getting more targeted, with ‘a strong, evolving niche in the market … jobs where there are only 100 copies but it has to look beautiful, with exposed binding and so on.’ Pureprint’s Owers says: ‘Now that we can vary the content of each copy on the run there are often very short runs at a price point that would have been impossible a few years ago.’ Yet variable data is not just about small print runs – Peled Vaissman has overseen packaging projects for clients such as Coca-Cola that run into millions, with every item different. Berresford picks up the thread. ‘We have just achieved a record number of orders in the last 24 hours. A lot of lay-flat books that look absolutely stunning. Nice thick pages that look gorgeous.’ However the ‘targeted’ nature of these products means that less adventurous clients know nothing about them.
The digitally printed projects shown in this edition of Pulp are just a small selection from the rapidly evolving digital printing universe, chosen to show a wide variety of inspiring approaches from ambitious makers, publishers and designers.