Fear Not, Gentle Reader

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My concern while working on “The Vivid Word”—Print’s state-of-the-union assessment of print with a lowercase p—was that we’d come off sputtering defenses like Michael Palin’s sheepish pet-store owner in Monty Python’s expired-parrot sketch. (“He’s not dead—he’s resting!”) We’re no Luddites: Despite a moniker indicating otherwise, Print holds in one embrace design’s wide-ranging contributions to communications, from letterpress printing to motion graphics. But in light of the accelerated efforts moving text from page to screen, the demands new media forms place on our time and attention spans, and the need for evaluating this avalanche of information, we felt there was no better time to focus on design’s alpha medium. We wanted to connect with print’s roots, take stock of its present, and peer into its future.

While times are indeed turbulent in publishing, the print medium is far from setting off code-blue alarms. Advances in publishing technology are, in fact, enabling designers to experiment with the medium’s formats in exciting new ways. Thanks to improvements in layout software, as Colin Berry reports here, a new breed of specialty publishers is producing an array of compact, affordable art books—portable galleries, really—that bring emerging artists to a wider audience and add a new form to the field of urban-art collectibles.

In the magazine industry, electronic publishing capabilities are allowing ad-vertisers to infuse print ads with interactive elements, thereby developing richer forms of storytelling. The benefits to audiences are clear, but the boundaries that normally define the form and the roles of its creators are blurring. As Anthony Vagnoni points out in “Print Ads Cut Loose,” the transition to multimedia is forcing agencies to rethink the established divisions between their interactive and creative departments as the two groups join forces to apply ad messages across a range of media.

As a universal library of millions of deeply linked and tagged texts looms near, cultural critic Mark Dery raises important questions about the changing nature of reading and learning. While we’re hopscotching among pages online, he asks, are we grasping information as wholly as we did with a book? Can screen-reading ever replicate the sensual experience of physically turning a page, or embody personal histories as would a library book’s dog-eared, scribbled pages?

Questioning and redefining of this sort occur with each new chapter of technology, of course. In the 1950s and ’60s, the impact of the computer was a frequent topic of discussion in the design community. Past predictions of design’s future from industry leaders, culled from Print’s archives by Martin Fox and illuminated beautifully by artist Marian Bantjes, appear in this issue. The projections, expressed in what now seems like charmingly antiquated locution, are actually stunningly prescient in fore-casting the drive today toward increased engagement with content through inter-activity and personalization.

Although the appeal of interactivity is undeniable, the allure of print remains strong. For every new blog chronicling surgical mishaps or misbegotten store-sign punctuation, there rolls off press another new magazine, silk-screened poster, or experimental monograph. In Los Angeles, a new crop of art and culture journals is defining that city’s underground art community. In New York, two Jewish hipster magazines are wittily capturing a small but distinctive aesthetic. In Chicago, Audrey Niffenegger, known best as a traditional novelist, is equally obsessed with producing handmade illustrated books to drive her offbeat narratives. And the exploding genre of chick-lit novels, ridiculed of late for their copycat story lines (and one exposed plagiarist), have a hilariously limited visual vocabulary as well; writer Jami Attenberg and design team Giampietro+Smith literally connect the dots in “The Girls’ Guide to Writing and Publishing.”

And while these pristine new releases flow unceasingly to bookstores and newsstands, a tenacious group of archivists toil to protect print’s past from history’s dustbin, from Nicholson Baker salvaging early American newspapers to Michael Patrick Hearn rescuing a forgotten chapter of children’s books produced during the Soviet Union’s early years (“Agitprop Primers”). Even design conferences are carving out time to elevate appreciation of the written word. At “Radical Craft,” held this spring at the Art Center College of Design, poets and lexicographers were given center stage and received the rousing ovations associated with rock stars.

For now, we’re a long way from seeing the applause die and the lights fade for print. As embodied gorgeously in Bantjes’s cover for this issue, the word is electric as never before.