Process, Print & Pixels: how do the processes of analogue and digital differ, and which is more satisfying?

Harry Bennett
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Process, Print & Pixels: how do the processes of analogue and digital differ, and which is more satisfying?

Continuing The Brand Identity’s partnership with Antalis Creative Power, The A Paper explores the often neglected and undervalued topics within the contemporary graphic design scene. For part one, we investigate the differences between analogue and digital processes; speaking to Jesse Reed, Co-founder of Brooklyn-based design office Order and publisher Standards Manual, London-based designer and artist Sarah Boris, Parisian type designer Morgane VanTorre and Ben Haworth, Co-founder of London-based creative studio Soft Power.

What are the differences in processes when tackling something digital and something analogue? Both in creative decision-making and technical operations, the landscapes of both fields are very distinct at first glance, but perhaps their relationship is much more entangled. After all, aren’t most printed publications crafted entirely on the computer, and digital identities are still pitched with a mockup of a business card? The entire digital field has come after print, with the foundations of its aesthetics coming exclusively from the latter, but it is now the platform we all turn to every morning on our phones. How does one affect the other, and is one process more satisfying?

“With print, I feel there is a definite commitment to put something out there that must be definite in its physical form,” London-based graphic designer and artist Sarah Boris explains. Driving the “very collaborative” process behind it, Boris remarks how many roles there are behind print production, giving a book as an example. “From the writer, the commissioning editor, the publisher, the sales and marketing team, the distributor, the bookshops and, of course, the designer,” Boris explains, “all of these teams have an impact in the process and in shaping what the final printed work will be.”

Despite digital being an equally collaborative process, albeit often concerning different roles, Boris suggests “the language of it is different,” but not necessarily for the worse. “I love the process of working with web developers, for instance,” she adds, “and how the thinking around turning pages in print or scrolling on a screen changes the design process.” It seems to be the case that they are often pitted against one another, in a competition rather than a discussion, when what is most interesting is what they provide one another through their differences.

Process, Print & Pixels: how do the processes of analogue and digital differ, and which is more satisfying?

“The way you design a book versus a poster is the same way you would design a box different than a website,” Jesse Reed, co-founder of Brooklyn-based design office Order, publisher Standards Manual and digital brand guidelines tool Standards explains, suggesting there are the differences in the process of individual printed forms, let alone between print and digital. For Parisian type designer Morgane VanTorre, the difference in her typographic processes between print and digital largely come down to technicalities, explaining “in general, screen typography needs to favour legibility,” due to the resolution available on-screen being much smaller than that in printed material – despite the capability for scale. “There are also many distractions from screens that catch your eyes to different places,” VanTorre remarks, “which could produce some fatigue when using a device,” explaining how the typefaces she develops need to be “simple and easy to understand at a glance.”

With this in mind, it raises the question of the contextual influences of print and digital in the processes they undertake, as well as the decisions made in their creation. Ink traps and serifs, for example, have been implemented into digital fonts for as long as there have been digital typefaces, but whilst serifs arguably have a contemporary function, that being increased legibility, ink traps don’t have a function in the digital realm other than their visual reference. “I think about classical ink traps, which were originally made to optimise the counter forms in printing,” VanTorre explains, “it’s something originally made to be functional which has been reinvented from an aesthetical point of view.”

Process, Print & Pixels: how do the processes of analogue and digital differ, and which is more satisfying?

Correspondingly, the influence digital has on print can be seen both positively and negatively, such as the process of designing a printed publication through software like InDesign. “Digital tools are more and more efficient and become more and more automatic,” VanTorre explains, noting how the speed and competency of software saves time and therefore increases productivity. “Knowing how to draw letters on paper with a sharp eye before being able to digitise them is no longer a standard,” she explains, noting the increased popularity and accessibility of type design within the graphic design community, perhaps without the contextual mastery of the craft.

“Many designers are moving away from paper to draw [typefaces] exclusively on software,” VanTorre adds, asking whether this shift undermines the design and the designer. “We have to be careful and remind ourselves softwares are tools first, not the players of the process,” she explains, remarking how the designer’s role is one of “the creator,” and in doing so, the responsibility is to “control softwares in order to act in good conscience.” But how do these tools that we use, and their corresponding speed, ease and accessibility, affect the designer’s relationship with the work?

“I think there is an assumption that digital is quicker most of the time, yet it’s not,” Boris contests, having done both digital and printed projects that lasted equally long or equally short amounts of time. This leads to inquiring whether the assumed slower nature of print means that the end result is more meaningful than something digital, but Boris again thinks that this is another misconstrusion, confessing that some of her favourite and best pieces are actually ones she took the least amount of time on. “Often a print project sits with me, in my mind and I live with it for a while,” Boris recalls, “when I get to it, it can be made fairly quickly,” but the fact the printed matter cannot be altered afterwards, and the subsequent extensive checks, content and considerations, means that there is arguably a greater sense of creative and personal involvement.

That being said, Ben Haworth, Co-founder of London-based creative studio Soft Power notes that the slower pace of print often comes from technical and administrative aspects of the project and not necessarily the creative considerations – as well as explaining that he finds digital can often take as long, if not longer, than print-based projects. “A big part of the print process is making sure there are no surprises on delivery of the finished piece,” Haworth tells us, “waiting for samples, dummies and transit trial results,” he explains, cheekily adding, “plenty of time to be working on digital while you wait.”

But can technological limitations be a stumbling block to creativity? “I feel there is more control when making print,” Boris remarks, “and there is less compromise on design than digital where designs need to fit multiple platforms and be responsive,” once again questioning the assumption that digital provides more creative freedom than print. “I actually find print more aesthetically driven as there is utter control and everything is custom designed for each format,” Boris explains, contrary to the view that the pace of digital makes the results more visually driven then conceptual.

Here we find the crux of this debate, as well as what is most important about the industry and creative practice; the enthusiasm and personal connection to what they do and how they do it. Whether that is the “undeniably ‘added value’” of print “due to the texture of the medium,” as VanTorre suggests, or the “powerful stuff” of “old crafted pixels smashing up against genuine human emotion,” as Haworth recalls of the D&AD pencil winners filter they created. Design at whatever level has the ability to move us, never mind its space. “We’ve had feedback on how a website redesign has improved the culture of a company,” Haworth remarks, explaining the rewarding nature of working within a digital space.

Process, Print & Pixels: how do the processes of analogue and digital differ, and which is more satisfying?

For print-based work, that is a greater sense of physicality; as VanTorre explains, “there is a sensitive part which wakes our eyes, hands or even our nose,” adding “we don’t find this on our screens too.” Similarly, Boris revels in the rewarding feeling printed material brings, telling us “creating something physical that can live on and be looked at with no electricity supply or screen feels even more appealing in this day and age,” especially whilst we all spend “so much (too much)” time looking at a screen.

But that being said, VanTorre justifies her remark as being her “own sensitivity,” further suggesting that from her point of view there isn’t a rivalry between print and digital because “they both have their own characteristics.” as well as fighting for the attention of different audiences. “Great things are made today with coding and new technologies, and I think it’s obviously quite inspiring and intriguing,” VanTorre adds, “I guess the best is to think of both, simultaneously,” in doing so representing both spaces that complement each other in their combination.

Also adoring both print and digital, finding them “equally satisfying,” Boris explains that there is a sense of novelty and achievement to working in a space that you’re not as accustomed to, however adding “you can’t replace the satisfaction of receiving a project back from the printers and holding it in your hands.” Getting her hands and face covered in paint and ink, Boris remarks, “from mixing colours to the final print, there is a result, texture, emotion, vibrancy that no form of digital work can bring,” concluding “print is tangible, and that brings so much joy.”

For Haworth, “calling” a print vs digital debate is essentially impossible, explaining “there are different potential ‘satisfaction points’ in the timeline of a project, and the obvious would be to jump to how that completed piece makes you feel.” In Haworth’s practice, the satisfaction of working digitally is the reward at every level of interaction, remarking the immediate engagement the audience receives when clicking onto something online, “the client tracks hits, follows and sales, you’re satisfied, you’re king of the world,” Haworth notes. However, a similar story can be told on the other side of the aisle. “You’re opening that first delivery from the printers on a finished piece,” Haworth adds, “it’s over £15 a unit, and you sold in that one risky finish that the client thought was maybe a bit unnecessary,” Haworth recalls, “Breath… it all came together beautifully… are we satisfied? Damn right.” Making the call between the two is hard, and it is only the individual’s creative process that determines which is more satisfying to them, and them alone.