How to choose the right paper stock, with help from DutchScot, Elana Schlenker and Blok Design
Ask a designer why they love printed matter and there is usually one unanimous answer; the tangibility. Convenient as digital design can be, there’s nothing like holding a finished product in your hands and the sensory, tactile experience of leafing through freshly printed pages. Getting to that point can be difficult though, with so many paper stocks available combined with time and budget restrictions aplenty. That’s why we’re here to address the vital and often under-considered stage that is selecting the right paper.
The designers we approached have designed many beautiful printed publications, so we invited them to share what guides their paper selection process. Of course, there is never a straightforward framework or formula. For our respondents – DutchScot, Elana Schlenker, and Blok Design’s Vanessa Eckstein – multiple factors and considerations contribute to their final decisions.
“Book design is like music,” explains Eckstein, “it holds its own rhythm, pacing and it is in the subtleties of texture, tone, weight and empty space that you can truly feel it.” For the Founder and Creative Director of Toronto-based Blok Design, choosing the perfect paper comes from connecting with the content of the project itself. “We start every editorial design project with a discovery phase to gain insights and a deep understanding about the book’s true nature and intent.” This then guides the approach, both emotionally and conceptually. “I love when production choices can support and complement a project’s concept,” Schlenker concurs. A Creative Director and Designer based in New York, she begins her process with fundamental questions about the nature of the work she is engaging with. Then she will look for materials that can speak to that. “This might be achieved by sourcing papers that evoke a feeling; are of a certain colour, texture, or weight; or are of a relevant origin or production method.”
Paper and colour palettes often go hand in hand for us.
For some creative practices, such as London-based design and branding consultancy DutchScot, the decision-making process is more visual. For them, it is frequently driven by colour. “Paper and colour palettes often go hand in hand for us,” they reveal. “We often want to use a self-coloured stock for business cards, for example – which still remain a core component of most identity projects – so that is often a starting point.” After colour and texture are considered – all decisions will be intrinsic to the project itself. For example, when the studio has worked on projects that use translucent stocks, finding the right level of opacity was essential. “Where we are working with architects or interior designers, materiality is really important – texture, tone and weight of stock,” they recall. “We used Takeo Pachica on a stationery project once as we wanted to create a transparent window in the envelope to see the design of the stationery within. The stationery itself was then printed on a 100% cotton stock.”
When selecting the right paper, it is also important to consider how the design will look once printed onto the chosen stock. Whether translucent or textural, there are technical considerations that will influence the finish. It could be the printer or it could be the paper. “We are often using digital print so that is a factor,” DutchScot tell us, “as not all papers are compatible with digital presses.” Reproducing high-quality photography may call for a different stock compared to printing something purely typographic, Schlenker notes. DutchScot echo this sentiment, having worked on property projects where showcasing photography is vital. “We’ve often used Omnia on those occasions as it prints beautifully but has a lot of texture and an uncoated quality where it hasn’t been printed.”
I am actually finding myself speccing papers much earlier in a project.
Circumstances beyond the design and finish come into play, too. “If I’m producing a book and want the overall profile to bulk up or perhaps be very thin,” Schlenker reveals, “that would also inform the paper weight I select.” The Creative Director also highlights the wider concerns that stem from paper shortages and other supply chain issues. Because of this, she explains, “I am actually finding myself speccing papers much earlier in a project than I would have in the past so that we can get our order in and processing to avoid delays on press.”
When working through the paper selection process, Eckstein mentions that this will often involve understanding what is possible and impossible. “In our case, we like trying the impossible first,” she adds, “always searching for new materiality around the world, so as not to limit ourselves.” Before even starting to design, the team begins by making precise dummies. It can be felt in their hands to assess how the paper moves, along with the weight and shape. “If the materiality feels right, the design flows effortlessly.” Schlenker also finds it helpful to have dummies made, to ensure that the paper she’s selected – along with all other production decisions – is working as intended. “I’ll also order a wet proof to test my artwork (sometimes on multiple stocks) to decide what works best for my needs.”
If you’re ever unsure of something during the production process, it is always worth remembering that there are many an expert that can help you. Paper companies often have helpful reps that can offer guidance on your project. Similarly, printers are knowledgeable in finding the right options. DutchScot tell us that they work with some “brilliant” people in the print industry, as “they often have some useful insight into how various papers perform on press and what their strengths and weaknesses are.” The team also have managed to bag a deal on a few projects with paper companies, who in return will get a nice case study out of it. “The printers I work with also determine what papers are available to me,” Schlenker notes, “vendors in Europe for instance, have access to papers that printers in the US do not, and vice versa.”
We like trying the impossible first.
Then there is the elephant in the room that we need to address: costs. Spending can vary widely depending on scale, time and the client’s needs, as well as the material costs themselves. “We tend to manage the print process ourselves,” DutchScot note, and therefore work with the best printers who know the value of paper. Budget is a huge factor, and as Schlenker points out, “some papers just aren’t realistic on a small budget.” Despite any financial constraints, she tells us that the team will always try to get as close to the original design and material goals as possible.
“I worked on a book where we wanted to use a mix of many different coloured papers throughout the interior,” she recalls. “The client was only producing a small run, but each colour of paper required a minimum order size much larger and more expensive than was feasible for the job. I knew it was a brand of paper my printer worked with often and I had a hunch they might have some lying around. Sure enough, they had a number of colours leftover from other jobs, and by being flexible with the final colour combinations, we were able to achieve the range of colours we were looking for! So there are always ways to get creative and make things work!”
As Eckstein astutely summarises, “everything has constraints and possibilities.” She points out that the key is to use them to their advantage for the project to remain authentic and true to itself. “We have had projects with no budget limitations where we still chose to print on the third page of a carbon copy paper because we were looking for a certain feel.” Conversely, on their project LUCHA, about Mexican wrestlers, they printed “on high-end presses” with the “worst possible plates” to emulate the “bad quality” aesthetic of 1950’s Mexican glossy magazines. Experimentation and exploring new possibilities, within the given restrictions, can realise unexpected and exciting outcomes. “Every project is an opportunity to keep on pushing the limits of our work,” Eckstein concludes, “and we don’t like missing on any!”