Wednesday, 18 September 2013

OUGD601 // Dissertation // Print or Digital; the future of publishing?

The internet and technological advancements affecting out experience of the web are redefining the way we consume information. While demand for design publishing hasnt changed, distribution has - radically. Where once we would have looked to the pages of magazines such as creative review or design week, or the latest Laurence king or Phaidon publication for out curated insight on all things design related, we are now turning increasingly to online resources such as blogs and webzines for our fix.
An ever-growing demand for mobile content was confirmed with news that the Gaurdian iphone app has been downloaded over 100,000 times in a little over two months, making it number one in the top paid for app charts in the UK. For a small one off fee users are able to customise their experience of the Guardian, specifically targeting the features and information they are most interested in and downloading the content for consumption on or offline. A glimpse of the not so distant future for all publishers worldwide perhaps?
But designers are a different breed. Our industry cut its teeth on paper and ink and the nostalgia towards this platform drives a demand that has seen more periodicals hitting the shelves, including new title such as Idpure and process, not fewer, as expected.
This begs the question, what is the importance of print in design publishing's future? Its a difficult one to answer in the absence of a crystal ball and without exhibiting a little bias, as the vast majority of my work is in print and i love the medium, but ill do my best.
To begin with , the biggest problem with printed publishing in general is that the vast majority is old news. In the time between the writing of this article and it being printed, the subject matter will have been covered numerous times elsewhere online. Why wait for a creative review monthly journal to tell me how the latest Sony commercial was made when John Smith is hosting a 'making of' video on their Tumblr, announced via Twitter or an RSS feed. The very fact that i can now watch the video apposed to being presented with a few select screens is a significant advantage in itself.
Convenience is another of the internets biggest attributes. With a web device and internet connection, content is readily available wherever you are and whenever you want it. You don't have to wait for information to come to you anymore, you can go get it, it is more cost effective, as putting ink to paper is more costly than pixel to screen. Furthermore, should an article need updating, it can be done in a matter of seconds at no further expense. The same cant be said for print.
Online design resources come equipped with functionality, encouraging designers to congregate and discuss their passions and professions. Comment streams and forums allow publishers to engage their audience, sharing information, opinions, inspiration and observations, essentially generating new, free content. In contrast, print only facilitates a one way conversation. Sure, you can send an email to Design Week voicing your thoughts on a recently covered feature, and if your lucky you'll get a mention in the readers response section but that was so last week. News has moved on, and so have most of the audience.
Previously, both the value of distribution and of the content itself were intertwined, but now they are separable. Print no longer holds exclusively over great journalism or writing, and where once being 'printed' offered kudos, esteemed industry professionals are happy to offer their insight, indiscriminately, online or offset. After all, if the ultimate goal of broadcasting ones thoughts is to talk to the biggest audience possible, then the global reach of the web wins every time. But for the design community print does, of course, have some redeeming features, one of which is its very physicality. In a day and age where everything is becoming digital, from out music collection to our photo albums, the value of 'real' can be significant. The very fact that a print publication is tangible makes us drawn to it. It offers exclusivity, even collectability, and these are connections that have yet to be made in any online offerings. When the web truly discovers a solution of archiving content that isnt susceptible to virus or accidental deletion, and is as accessible as a brief walk across to the bookshelf, then it will stand a better chance.
For print designers specifically, the tactile nature of a magazine or journal can serve as a source of inspiration in itself, beyond the content. In an industry where much of our success is based upon a final aesthetic, print displays an appealing sensitivity to presentation, finishing and typography that the internet simple cannot provide.
Then there's the 'readability' factor to consider. I have friends who would prefer to print out text-heavy web pages to read comfortably at their leisure, rather than strain their eyes looking at a screen. Also, some passages of text may require more than one visit, and it can be frustrating to keep revisiting a web page to find your place when you can just turn to the folded corner of a book or magazine. With simultaneous development of both web interfaces and of screen hardware im sure this problem will be resolved, but it may take some time.
So what is the future for print in design publishing?
You could argue that the popularity of online content will challenge our expectations of print, and in doing so champion quality. Publication such as  Design Week may be forced to concentrate solely on subscriptions-based internet service as its value is in its immediacy, not in its presentation. However, publication such as baseline that still have a loyal print following may need to reappraise their investment in design and print finishing.
Idea magazine is a great example of a publication that pushes the envelope on print, whilst consistently evolving its approach to content and visual communication. Its attention to detail an emphasis on more isolated subject matter establish it as an authority on great design, far from being a jack of all trades. Previous editions, such as its collaboration with Designers Republic, are even collectable and traded to the highest bidder years after being published, which is testimony to its enduring value and relevance.
Print finishing aside, publication such as FUTU and Elephant show a willingness to collaborate and invest in great design that help give it a valuable 'unique selling point'. By engaging talent such as Studio8, offering them a platform for creative expression, the publications become more than just a collection of articles. They challenge the conformities of traditional editorial design much like Fabien Baron's Vogue did before them, often scrapping the grid in favour of a more crafted, tailored approach, spread by spread. While their success is more a matter of individual taste, as creatives we tend to appreciate innovation and, like the magpies that we are, collect it.
To broaden its offer, Elephant has also made its publication available online as part of a digital subscription. At a significantly reduced cost users can view the magazine, spread for spread, as an interactive PDF. This approach to a digital platform is a concern to Studio8's Matt Wiley 'it makes no sense to simply replicate the print version online... the web is a very different environment with very different possibilities; the magazine's online presence has to make the most of that. Very few magazines have worked that out yet'. Few indeed, and of those who have, even fewer succeed in taking advantage of all that print can offer. A strong emphasis on design can be met with a mixed reception. When Graphics International repositioned itself as Grafik in 2003, with MadeThought spearheading the redesign, it risked alienating a significant proportion of its loyal following who preferred the previous 'content over design' approach. Striking that balance between expression and communication isn't easy, but provided the design doesnt suffocate and is supported by good content, it will inevitably find its niche. As Im writing this, the first edition of MadeThought's redesign can be found on eBay at several times its cover price.
Perhaps the most significant development in design press will be the advent of guerilla publishing houses such as Unit Editions. The self funded collaboration, founded in 2008 by Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy, has already produced one successful publication, Studio Culture, with a second Folkways, recently released. This unconventional approach offers an insight into design from those with industry pedigree, a pivotal factor in its success. With a healthy investment in both the quality of content and design, titles such as Studio Culture stand apart from all other publications aimed at the same demographic. While its online presence acts as a valuable extension of the brand, engaging the deign community, it is its investment in a printed form that has made Unit Editions such an exciting prospect.
Similarly, blogs such as Its Nice That have emerged amongst this new breed of publishers, using their web following as a captive audience for self-published periodicals. According to Alex Bec, the Director and Editor of Its Nice That, print allows them to show the work 'as always intended, printed well and with respect, rather than in RGB on a monitor at low resolution only a few pixels wide'. Their journals document the best of the site's offerings interwoven with new content and a spirited emphasis on strong design, concept and execution. In collaboration with Marque Creative Director Joseph Burrin, they have so far produced two editions, both selling out rapidly. The third instalment in the series, released in March of this year, will also be available in its entirety online, giving their audience the choice to support the traditional, printed version or opt for the immediacy and convenience of digital.
Examples such as this prove that while the pixel clearly holds many advantages over print, the two mediums can exist very happily together to provide a combined, superior offer. While there is still a demand for print, whether driven by nostalgia or necessity, publishers will continue to print periodicals that are supported by their more immediate online presence, ether as part of a subscription model or with shorter, more time sensitive observations on a public service basis.
To conclude, true tests to the format will come with the HTML developments of design components such as typography, allowing for more expression and less limitation without comprising accessibility. Technological advancements that change our experience of the web will also play their part. As I write this the world is waiting with bated breath for the arrival of the iPad, a product that is certain to make an impact on the publishing world and maybe even alter the value we place on print.
However, it is my belief that as long as ink is being laid on paper, print still has a significant role to play in design publishing, but only when it accepts its shortcomings and starts to take full advantage of its unquestionable strengths. When both platforms are combined to form a consolidated offer, the result is where the future of design publishing truly lies.

Written by Matt Judge, Design Assembly

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