Future of Print: How Design Brought it Back from the Dead

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by Jessica Ruscello at Blurb, Inc.

When we were sitting on our family computers in the basement of our parent’s Midwestern homes, downloading music from Napster, Limewire, and What.cd, we had no idea we were part of a revolution—a way of getting and hearing music that would fundamentally change the industry forever. We eventually quit because it was illegal and not worth the viruses, but not before that fundamental shift occurred. Nearly twenty years later, we don’t even bother with owning digital files, we stream them from various services.

And we collect vinyl.

For content and design, we’re currently sitting at a similar precipice. The revolution only began when content and design migrated to the web, and we’re in the thick of it now as we watch the resurgence of print. Print isn’t dead, digital didn’t kill it, and the hybrid we have now has a greater power to stand the test of time than digital content or print content on their own ever did.

It’s true that 2017 saw a continued decline in magazine and book sales, with Condé Nast, Hearst, and major booksellers like Barnes and Noble reporting low numbers across bread-and-butter publications and channels. But as Ruth Jamieson, author of Print is Dead. Long Live Print, points out, “Fewer magazines may be being bought in total, but the number of titles on offer has never been greater.” Furthermore, according to a global study from 2017, reading habits came down decidedly in favor of print.

  1. 71% believe reading news in a printed newspaper provides a deep understanding of the story.

  2. 73% believe reading a printed magazine is more enjoyable than reading a magazine on an electronic device.

  3. 54% are more likely to take action after seeing an ad in a printed newspaper or magazine than if they saw the same ad online.

The New Print

But how, after a 20-year push toward all things digital, is print doing so well? It comes down to Design’s response.

The New Print succeeds when:

1. There’s a complementary print-digital relationship.

When Bloomberg (both print and digital) went through its redesign a couple of years ago, it was the first publication of its scale and circulation to marry its print and digital in a way that articulated this new relationship: Print and digital as a unified reader/user experience with design and content best suited to the distinct mediums. It’s no longer about creating print and digital experiences that mirror each other for brands, it’s about creating two experiences that work symbiotically well together.

We’re also seeing digital brands creating print pieces to create real-world advantages, and major publishing houses launch new publications for the first time in years. HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines have added The Magnolia Journal to their home-improvement empire, and the content is richer and deeper than what could exist on social media. It connects show moments or brand relationships to customers in a way that only print advertising next to deep-dive branded content could.

In a surprising turn, major online retailers returned to their roots in print to make a difference this past holiday season with a 23% response in growth over 2016. Even Sears printed its iconic Christmas catalog, which had been non-existent. Advertisers and content creators have always needed to stand out, and it now easier to do that in a physical mailbox than an email one.

But these print pieces don’t exist in a vacuum: The catalogs are tied to an entire ecosystem that includes online ordering, social media campaigns and in-store sales and events. Retailers found the most success by integrating the analog and digital worlds into one compelling, cohesive campaign. Video media and events may be new and cutting edge, but what’ surprising is that print pieces are considered that, too.

2. There’s outstanding, innovative design.

The tactility of print design will always give it a sensory advantage. There’s the feel of the pages, the heft of the publication, the smell of ink and paper. But we’re talking more than that: We’re talking design that can’t be contained by pre-made CSS or site grids—dynamic design that breaks the confines of scrolling and “the fold”. In short: Print design does things that web design can’t do in terms of beauty, provocation, innovation, and variation. Without having to worry about being responsive, print designers can do new things with the static pages that can’t be coded for mobile. Niche publications can push social, cultural, and political boundaries with both content AND design, relying on tailored audiences and a loyal following. Digital printing has made new formats available for smaller publications, so books and magazines created for fewer than 5,000 copies can get fresh shapes and formats. Finally, designers who want big changes can push boundaries with print layouts without needing coding experts to make it happen on a screen. The transfer of idea to printed page is a much more ancient process that doesn’t require a digital middleman, so print publications can experiment and vary what they do from month to month without having to worry about site architecture.

3. There’s evolving understanding of the way people consume content.

In the old days of print media, books were the LP albums and magazines were the EPs. Tapes and CDs were extensions of that economy—still album dependent, with lower prices for copies of Singles. Web content came to life about the time as MP3s. There’s a new hierarchy emerging with mobile in the mix. Now, mobile content is as ephemeral and fast moving as Spotify. Designers adapt to these differences faster than anyone else. Studies show that people get their “news” from mobile devices, but their leisure reading is still predominately print-based. Digital spaces are designed to be efficient and informative, whereas print is for discovering new things, deep dives, and encounters with the beautiful a
nd interesting. The most successful print work acknowledges that the divide between reader intentions when arriving in both spaces is only getting wider. Print knows it’s print, knows why the reader came, and behaves accordingly. These print pieces act like vinyl, which hit a 30-year high last year.

The Bottom Line

As with music, content media is undergoing its own irreversible metamorphosis—and it’s driven by design. As music became easier and less expensive to distribute and access in the form of MP3s, new markets grew, hungry for more independent content. New bands could build a following with digital music that brought them to shows where people bought their album on vinyl—bypassing traditional distribution outlets. Revenue streams were re-directed, but the core hunger for the good stuff was still there. The first things to change may have been more fleeting print forms like magazines, but they’re the beginning of the print-digital hybrid. Print books are next. While branded content makes it harder to tell the difference between articles and advertising, we’ll continue to see content and campaigns straddle the print and digital divide, harmonizing both worlds instead of dividing them, and carrying us into a new print era.