Supply on Demand

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Is print-on-demand technology on the verge of a breakthrough? Students at Hochschule Darmstadt in Germany, led by professor Frank Philippin and British designer James Goggin, decided to find out this past summer by creating “Dear Lulu,” a 96-page book to test the reproduction quality of on-demand printers such as and Books on Demand. Goggin originally envisioned the book as a color test, but the scope of the project expanded to analyze the quality of typeface and point size reproduction, line weight, tone, and finishing techniques such as cropping and correct margins. The students had hoped that Lulu and similar companies could provide a green—yet aesthetically viable—alternative to traditional printing practices, avoiding the waste created by a large run of an unsuccessful seller. But the printing quality was a disappointment; even worse, the books were printed in Spain and then flown to Darmstadt and London, a less ecologically friendly process than they expected, to be sure. Still, Goggin says they had “great fun.” For the color tests, for instance, the students photographed each member of the class (including Goggin and Philippin) with color-coordinated outfits and props and printed them together in RGB, CMYK, grayscale, and halftone screen. Afterward, the school gathered on the lawn for a “human rainbow” portrait. ERIN O’HARA

The full interview with James Goggin is below.

First, what do you think about the sudden influx of print-on-demand services and materials across medium?
I like that economies of scale have shrunk to the extent of one-off production, where previously mass production was the only option if you wanted to publish and distribute something like a book. Apart from fairly professional-looking books or easily-produced zines, you can now make your own T-shirts, badges, mugs, even sneakers without a huge minimum order. The phenomenon expands one’s scope of possibility both in work for clients and for self-published projects, and also democratizes processes which previously were solely the domain of “professionals” or corporations. For graphic design, print-on-demand has the potential to offer an alternative to wasteful print runs, polluting printing processes and unnecessary transportation.

What were some specific production challenges you faced with “Dear Lulu”?
The workshop’s activities were determined precisely by production challenges, some assumed and some encountered in the feverish last hour of the project as we actually came to terms with the print-on-demand companies’ websites and production requirements. The publication in general relied on the idea that many issues would only become apparent after we had received the first document back from the printers and could then see what worked and what didn’t.

Before the workshop, I had not used any online print-on-demand services myself. The project was therefore a great leveler: Frank, the design school professor, myself, and the students were in the same position of inexperience.

Both the workshop and the lecture I gave to introduce the brief were titled “Farben on Demand,” as our main starting point was the reproduction of color. I envisaged the book as a color test. The scope naturally expanded as our questions turned to typeface and point size reproduction, line weight, tone and then on to actual finishing: cropping, correct margins, etc. Websites like Lulu seem geared toward print amateurs with its instructions and many areas are surprisingly vague, and actually less prescriptive than one would expect. As graphic designers, we had specific questions: RGB or CMYK (Lulu says both are fine: the book’s outcome indicates this isn’t necessarily so). Also, can you print on the inside front and back covers? (Answer: More than an hour of trawling FAQs to get a negative). Various methods for supplying artwork with bleed were outlined depending on which FAQ pages you happened to find. It took several failed uploads to realize that, against any designer’s instinct, one must submit bleed artwork sans cropmarks.

Such challenges, while frustrating for someone making a new project, were exactly what I was hoping for in terms of making a useful document (and informative workshop for the students).

How did you get the title?
As I mentioned above, the project brief was titled “Farben on Demand.” The eventual book title was the outcome of several group discussions that raised lots of interesting questions. Where exactly do they print the books? Who works on them? Would the quality vary depending on time of day, amount of ink in the machine, who was running the machines? Do the people running the machines actually look at the book covers? This question provided us with a book title: a cover design with ”Dear Lulu” or “Dear BoD” (for the slightly better quality Swiss/German Lulu competitor, Books on Demand) and a humble request for them to get to work on our calibration tests, with greetings from all of us.

In spite of the slightly methodical spirit of the finished document, you can get a sense of what was in reality a pretty freeform two days with a mad production rush on the last afternoon. In the process of generating our own calibration content, students variously corralled the whole school out into the yard into color-order for a “Human Rainbow” portrait; set up a photo studio requiring people to strip off “for a study in skin tones” and each dressed up as a randomly assigned color (CMYK, ROYGBIV, white and grey to make up the team of 13—myself and Prof. Philippin included) with accompanying colored objects hastily gathered from a trawl across all the school departments.

I had a 9pm flight from Frankfurt back to London on the evening of the second day and only just made it due to the many PDF uploading attempts and final copy errors being spotted halfway through upload. We had great fun.

What do you think about print-on-demand in general? What need is it fulfilling?
Generally print-on-demand feels like a logical progression of the web itself. As a first year graphic design student in 1994, it blew my mind to discover the world wide web and the ease with which anyone could upload an html page: instant publication and distribution. POD fulfills this in tangible form: sites like Lulu are both printer and distributor. You can print a one-off saddle-stitched booklet, or publish your novel, get an ISBN and even sell it on Amazon. It enables production for the general public without knowledge, or even the requirement, of printer, publisher, or bookshop.

What does it mean for design/printing/publishing? Is it positive or negative? Or both?
It is of course both good and bad. In terms of print quality, POD is still no match for well-printed offset litho. As for content, what happens when anyone can publish anything without the benefit of editors or publishers? I think that it is amazing that anyone can self-publish a magazine or book with global distribution, giving people a voice without the need for corporate or governmental vetting. But maybe with the ability for absolutely anyone to publish anything, we could end up wasting even more paper than current print and production processes.

My current print-on-demand experience has been fairly disappointing so far. Quality wasn’t great, delivery time to my London studio took over a week (even when I paid an “express” premium) and, perhaps most frustrating
ly given my original workshop brief’s fairly utopian description of POD’s potential ecological and decentralized distribution benefits, our “Dear Lulu” books were printed in Spain and flown by UPS to Darmstadt and London for delivery. But the fact that POD is quickly gaining popularity gives me hope that print quality and more localized production will improve.