Why Print Can Exist in Harmony with Digital

Why Print Can Exist in Harmony with Digital

Mike Tyson
Aug 12, 2011

Since digital publishing has exploded in popularity, the dialogue over print media and its existence has been an intense one. For centuries the printed page has been heralded as the keeper and communicator of knowledge. It was an incredibly efficient means of disseminating information quickly and relatively cheaply. But then the digital age came along and now there is a new contender in the battle. And for a while we've seen the nature of this debate between print and digital focus on how print can deliver content differently and better than its digital counterpart. Instead of going down that path, we'd like discuss a rarely raised argument for print, from a designer's perspective.

To begin, we think the winner for content delivery will always be digital. Print has too many restrictions such as cost, format, physical characteristics, and permanence (can't edit once published) to contend with the vastly more nimble digital method. In digital publishing you can release limitless copies very cheaply, the format is adaptable, engaging, and non-linear, it is often lighter in weight than print, and it can be easily edited and updated with current information.

So if digital is largely more efficient and flexible in everyway, the purpose for print must be found elsewhere. We recently happened upon a perfect example as we were researching something completely different. Above is the New Yorker cover from September 24, 2001, the first issue released after the 9/11 attacks. It was designed by illustrator Art Spiegelman and featured a two-tone black on black illustration of the twin towers, in a humble and stark portrayal of the events that occurred but a few days before. The illustration was inspired by the painter Ad Reinhardt whose black on black canvases feature nearly imperceptible variations in hue as he added blues, greens, and reds, to his blacks and juxtaposed them side-by-side, testing the optical limits of our perception. His paintings are notoriously impossible to reproduce digitally. Any image you see of his online are either manipulated to exaggerate the differences between the hues, or so flat that the work appears as a single black field. Similarly, this New Yorker cover is lost in digital reproduction. Because the true printed matter reveals itself so subtly as you handle the printed piece and adjust it around the light. So to begin, digital imagery and quality, although having its own beautiful characteristics, will simply never match an original printed page.

A second, perhaps more striking example of the benefits of print that we could relate to this same cover is its quality as an objet and artifact. Think back to Sept 12th, 2001. We remember everyone scrambling to buy up every last newspaper and magazine on the shelves which depicted the events from the day before. To our knowledge, we don't know of anyone who went straight to the internet and started taking screenshots of The New York Times's website. There is something about the printed material that acts as a satisfying remembrance of whatever it contains. This could be seen as the reverse argument for the "permanence" of the page. Although things can easily be logged away on a hard drive it somehow doesn't feel as sincere of a gesture when its cluttered with other things. Similarly, when you look at the homepage of a news organization, it will change day-to-day and sometimes hour-to-hour. It is often filled with ads, as well. Contrast that with the beautifully interrupted New Yorker cover you see above, with the single image and title. It has feeling of reverence to its subject. And this isn't simply for 9/11 coverage — this same principle can apply to anything.

A parallel example we might be able to draw is between photography and videography. When video and cinema were introduced, people were fearful it would destroy the art of photography — that moving image and its thousands upon thousands of variations, would be more appealing to the audience than a static photographic image. And yet photography remains, as popular as ever. Why? Because it forces the perspective for the viewer into a single point in time and creates a single, poignant message or artifact of that image. This could be the same for print. A newspaper or magazine or even a book depicts its contents in a finite medium. There is a clear end (a static image) one can constantly refer to as a salient memory. The video (the web) by contrast, is filled with its constantly flickering images, change, and abundance. If you were to take a still frame from a video, or a screenshot from the web, it would feel less significant than that from a page in a book. Because with video, it is the collection of the whole which makes the subject meaningful whereas the single cover or narrative of a page needs to stand on its own and represent a much larger theme.

Perhaps we're being a bit too poetic as we defend our dearly beloved book or magazine. As designers, it's easy to feel an affinity for the object and the experience of flipping through a carefully crafted piece. But we think print need not worry about how it can modernize itself to stay relevant. It isn't about competing with digital. The task is to supplement it. By the very nature of the medium it will be in demand as a way to commemorate stories, events, or images.

What do you think? Is this a viable means for print's survival? Or is it still doomed for failure, regardless?

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