Digital Print: is the medium the message?

Silas Amos looks at the new creative opportunities afforded by digital print

In Medieval Europe the use of chemistry and artistry to produce stained glass was boosted by two factors; in the world of engineering a leap in architecture gave us the Gothic arch. This allowed for large areas of load bearing wall to be freed up for windows in churches. In the realm of ideas the symbolic significance of light in Christianity made stained glass just the ticket for representations of the biblical story. Worshippers could look up in awe, their faces bathed in the beautiful light the windows infused the interiors of the cathedrals with. Any big jump needs both things – the engineering and the ideas.

‘The Medium is the message’ was a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan in 1967. It essentially means that the form of the medium ‘embeds itself’ in the message.

So for example we have all learned the ‘grammar’ of film. Over a century different techniques were developed to take films from essentially acted out plays to sophisticated visual storytelling that uses editing techniques and camera angles to manipulate and clarify the tale in the minds of us, the audience.

Orphan Barrel whisky by RPNYC Design House shows that digital print can be used with other print techniques to produce luxury standards of quality finish. Diageo Global Design Director Jeremy Lindley points out that this is about using digital technology as a creative tool “The speed and flexibility of the digital press then finished with emboss, texture, varnish and high-build silk screen suddenly gave us creative options I had never before imagined.”
Orphan Barrel whisky by RPNYC Design House shows that digital print can be used with other print techniques to produce luxury standards of quality finish. Diageo Global Design Director Jeremy Lindley points out that this is about using digital technology as a creative tool “The speed and flexibility of the digital press then finished with emboss, texture, varnish and high-build silk screen suddenly gave us creative options I had never before imagined.”

Digital print is in its infancy – to stretch the point we are arguably still at the Zoetrope stage. We have not yet fully understood the potential, how to effectively use creative techniques to squeeze the best out of the medium. ‘Our cameras’ will appear bulky and hand cranked to future print experts.

But we have a unique opportunity – the grammar of digital print does not yet exist. It is our privilege to be working at a time when anyone of us can make the communication breakthrough with this new ‘toy’. We are all developing the language of the medium on the hoof. We are singularly blessed with being pioneers, whether we like it or not.

In Japan, Mainichi printed 31 editions of a ‘newspaper’ on water bottles in a month, the better to connect with younger people who had never acquired the newspaper habit. The designs were augmented with AR codes. A great example of ‘real time’ packaging.
In Japan, Mainichi printed 31 editions of a ‘newspaper’ on water bottles in a month, the better to connect with younger people who had never acquired the newspaper habit. The designs were augmented with AR codes. A great example of ‘real time’ packaging.

McLuhan used the example of a light bulb as a ‘medium’ that had powerful social consequences without even needing content – by illuminating a room at night it changed that space and the activity within it without even having to deliver ‘content’. We are schooled to focus on the obvious – the content being carried forward by the new technology. We might be missing the deeper effect digital print will have on our world. Perhaps the digital printer, without the help of any of us, already has the potential to change society by its mere existence.

For Bud Light, innovative software took a handful of base patterns and made each of the 200,000 subsequent cans absolutely unique. Promoting a concert tour, local artists were involved location by location
For Bud Light, innovative software took a handful of base patterns and made each of the 200,000 subsequent cans absolutely unique. Promoting a concert tour, local artists were involved location by location

As someone who is too technically illiterate to follow the demonstrations I have attended on how digital presses work, I have stopped trying to understand what happens in the guts of the machine. For me they are magic boxes, and because they are liberated from printing off the old inflexible plates they allow us all to paint with light.

The above is an extract from Digital Print. A Bigger Spectrum by Silas Amos, designer James Lunn and HP which looks at the creative opportunities that digital print is opening up for creative and brands. The book is full of innovative examples of digital print in use and can be read online here

Cover of Digital Print. A Bigger Spectrum
Cover of Digital Print. A Bigger Spectrum
Spread from Digital Print. A Bigger Spectrum
Spread from Digital Print. A Bigger Spectrum

Lead image: People of Print’s Print Isn’t Dead magazine used digital print to enable readers to produce their own cover copy. “Here’s one I made earlier,” says Amos. “In shopping catalogues data can now be used to ensure we only receive a version that fits with our shopping habits, size and suchlike.”

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