'Digital fatigue' and Covid-19: Print matters.

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As a designer who's been immersed in print-based creative projects for over 12 years now, something has occurred to me during the current Covid-19 era; why is print not more prevalent now than ever? It really should be.

The default position taken by the majority of businesses has been - 'print is physical, it involves touching things, this is not good for spreading infections. Also - we are all working remotely from home and so communications need to be more digital - think Zoom, think Teams, think more emails - henceforth we shall go all-digital!' I would argue that this is a very blinkered approach that is effectively an obvious quick-win, backed-up of course by forced necessity (at first glance). Whilst of course the fact that a large majority of the global workforce are now having to work remotely, and of course digital is the now the new status-quo, we really shouldn't forget print - and in fact - I would argue that print is even more important in these times than ever. How many times have you been sick of scaring at a screen all day? Tired of joining 'team quiz's'? Dis-engaged from attending digital training sessions? Sick of the endless video meetings? Surely now there is a huge gap in the market for the welcomed receiving of printed goods - something that can take us away from our glaring screens, something tangible to hold and touch and appreciate the physicality of? Especially as lockdown has eased and a sense of bau is slowly returning.

I understand completely the practical limitations - some countries borders have been or are still closed and possibly restricting the traffic of certain goods. Many printers cannot maintain social distancing measures and so have had to halt operations, or at least reduce them. But printers are now running the presses, couriers are working, of course they are, and issues with closed or restricted borders can be partially resolved by printing locally and shipping inland. I guess one major hurdle is that most marketing mailing lists include business addresses, not home ones – so there’s a whole new challenge to overcome when it comes to print for sure.

The speed at which various printworks in my network had to close, lay-off or reduce staff's pay or introduce furloughs throughout the organisation slightly astounded me. In early lockdown I recall hearing an anecdotal comment from a publishing employee who said something like "surely we'll never print journals again?". The change in mindset happened so quickly, without that much ‘outside the box’ thinking in my opinion.

There are issues with certain aspects of the print industry, of course it’s true. We can all relate to having felt constantly frustrated by the amount of 'junk-mail' being shoved through our letterboxes on a daily basis - and when I advocate for the resurgence of print, I certainly don't mean the dull drudgery of cold, generic, tree-chopping direct mail, no - rather that there is surely a newly-formed desire, and thus audience, for bespoke, intelligently created and targeted print communications. If we can combine the use of interesting printing techniques such as foiling, die-cutting, 3D printing etc., with much more personal and relevant targeting, then I think the receivership of such material could be welcomed with open arms, especially perhaps, for those die-hard digital enthusiasts if engaging digital tools like augmented reality could be incorporated at the same time. Companies could send internal comm's to their staff via the postal system, subscribed-to marketing newsletters could be sent in print – wouldn’t that be wonderful! I know that I for one would welcome the opportunity to step away from my laptop or phone to read something more tangible and easier on the eyes – I’m fed up with how long I have to stare at a computer screen these days – not to mention my frustration with the amount of headaches it’s giving me – I for one am certainly suffering from digital fatigue.

On the subject of 'easier-on-the-eyes', it's worth noting at this point that there is much research available on the subject of the damage of blue light - namely the light emitted from almost all laptops, pc screens, mobile phones and tablets. Blue light disturbs our sleep, gives us headaches and dries our eye's out, not to mention how our posture can be damaged and our backs strained by the constant leaning into a screen!

I would argue that right now is the time to embrace and rejoice in print again, and for all of us to start thinking about innovative ways of utilising print. It’s funny to think that right-now – the most innovative, and forward-thinking medium by which to engage and communicate could be print!

So if we’re going to embrace print again, perhaps we should really do it well – let’s not go back to cheap, mass-produced marketing material on low-grade paper, covered in non-recyclable laminate, let’s innovate, let’s do something quirky, let’s support all those uber-talented freelance designers out there who are just itching to work on something different and creative. I recall a good few years back now, indeed it was 2007 when design agency Bruketa & Zinić designed the annual report for food company Podravka that has a central part of the report which needs to be baked at 100 degrees celsius for 25 minutes before you can read it due to it being printed in thermo-reactive ink: http://bruketa-zinic.com/2011/02/05/4136/. This project had such an impact on me at the time because it was so innovative and engaging, not to mention clever. Imagine the pure joy and fun of receiving a report which had blank (partially anyway) pages which only revealed their secrets once you cooked it! Brilliant!

The project list goes on – it doesn’t take too much digging to find more examples of beautiful examples of print-based communications. This tactile book showcases 17 Hungarian museums and features embossing, spot colors, edge-painting, sewn binding and silkscreen printing: https://www.sweetideadude.com/post/hungarian-museum-book

This Behance project showcases some of the simply elegant and tactile things you can do with paper right now: https://www.behance.net/gallery/85083039/MATERIAL-MATTERS-04-Paper?trackingid=VKW3KFDR&mv=email

There’s a print & production studio that i'm very close to in Shoreditch that takes the craft of working with paper and cardboard to a whole new level of cool: https://www.toduk.com/en/

Another printer that i'm very close to, CPI Colour, have this to say on the matter:

Print is very much alive in the digital age of everything.

In recent days, our government has chosen to use print as its preferred method of delivering their COVID-19 message to the 27.6 million households in the UK. Why? Because print delivers what digital can't.

Communication through smartphones, online services, TV and social media means that people receive about 105,000 words or 23 words per second during their waking hours (12 hours).  

Print materials can provide a physical touchpoint and cut through the digital noise. It can also provide a personalised experience and is the preferred method of communication for those who crave a digital detox.

Zara Clarke, CPI Colour

It's also interesting to note that Royal Mail recently undertook a new survey of 1,269 participants and the results showed that 65% said they would give printed mail their full attention over digital, and 70% said it made them feel more valued.

This is a great organisation if you haven’t heard of it already, based in the US that focuses entirely on the dissemination of printed books and magazines only: https://www.printedmatter.org/

So, to close, you can tell this is something I’m passionate about - and perhaps we should all be advocates of bringing print back to life – but not necessarily as we knew it before. Of course, printers must be mindful of our environment, they must at least adhere to FSC standards if not be carbon-neutral, and of course shipping airmiles are something to be very wary of. But if we can all play our own part in supporting the resurgence of printworks, the re-employment of designers out of work, all in the cause of defeating digital-fatigue and its associated detrimental effects to our health, whilst at the same time facilitating innovative new or revived ways to share stories and messages with each other through the physical, tactile medium of print, then surely we can right now make the world a little more creative, and a little bit more joyful?


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