Tuesday 24th May 2016


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The future of print

Tim Milne

Founder of ARTOMATIC

Founder of ARTOMATIC Tim Milne is optimistic about the future of printed matter, now that digital publishing has freed the medium from its duty to inform.

Johannes Gutenberg, a German engineer and entrepreneur spotted an opportunity in 1439 to solve a very modern problem. Expensive armies of scribes hand writing books made knowledge expensive, elitist –and more importantly – inaccurate and unreliable­. Scribes’ numerous errors were compounded from one book to another. Gutenberg used existing medieval technology to create a fast, accurate and cheap way to distribute information.

So perfect was his invention that it remained unassailed as the primary mass information medium until the late twentieth century. Indeed, it’s changed very little; you would recognise a 15th century printing press more readily than a 1970’s computer.

In Gutenberg’s vision, only the content mattered – the term printed matter refers to the significance of the content not its physicality, which was unimportant as it was unremarkable. Physicality had no value when everything was physical.

The advent of virtual communications – messages that don’t physically exist – makes physicality itself, distinct. The proliferation of digital media means that physicality is now in the minority (even if it wasn’t in decline). It’s now novel, remarkable even.

The prognosis for print in the twenty first century is not unlike that of painting in mid-nineteenth century. The invention of photography in the 1840s challenged the main purpose of painting – to convey a visually accurate and informative view of the world. Yet a number of painters, Cezanne et al, realised they were no longer required to represent the world accurately. Instead they were free to paint how they felt. Painting thus became about a human motional relationship with the world. Painting became a significant cultural force and painters became celebrities.

Now that digital media is doing what print used to, print is free to do something else. Print is free from the yolk of information. For those in the print media, wrestling with the question of how to understand its future purpose, this throws up a difficult question: how can a medium relinquish its fundamental utility and still be viable?

The language of printed objects is an intuitive communication – a Kahneman system 1 process. Words, pictures, messages and information are an intellectual (Kahneman system 2) process – something we have to think about. All humans are cognitively lazy; we don’t like to think, it’s hard work. So, we read objects before we read messages. Junk mail isn’t junk because it’s not relevant or poorly targeted (as many in the direct marketing industry believe), it’s junk because it’s printed on poor quality paper for as little money as possible. We’ve already decided to throw it away before we pick it up off the doormat. Because we read objects before we read messages, the object influences our receptiveness, it primes our understanding and receptiveness of the content. In the race for attention, the object always wins.

Kahneman’s bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow identifies the myriad ways in which we rely on intuitive shortcuts to save our cognitive effort – heuristics. The language of printed objects enacts another mental shortcut: what I call the How It Feels Is How It Feels heuristic (HIFIHIF). The old English word feel used to make no distinction between tactile sensation and emotional meaning because both were seen as external to the self. A form of synaesthesia that confuses tactile sensation with strong emotional reactions is now believed to be quite common, e.g. sand paper might engender feelings of anger because it’s abrasive, a quality we often associate with angry, confrontational people. This synaesthesia may just be a more extreme version of a universal human mechanism.

When applied to print, the HIFIHIF mechanism is very sophisticated and nuanced because print has evolved so slowly in front of us. We can feel differences in paper thickness of only a few microns. Because this is an intuitive, not an intellectual mechanism, it’s unaffected by education, race, age or class. Pre-vocal infants are as fascinated with books as adults. Even when there are no overt visual or intellectual clues, we can still read this intuitive language. Bank note forgeries just feel wrong.

We shouldn’t mourn the demise of print as information medium. It was never good at it anyway. Print is historic and fixed. Any printer will gladly remind you of the first rule of print: you-can’t-take-the-ink-off-the-paper. Print remains a medieval technology and we’ve (at last) solved Gutenberg’s problem more effectively.

In the future, maybe we should think of printed matter in more physical terms– of it being made from atoms, not pixels.

Print is free from the burden of informing. The digital age offers the biggest opportunity for printed media since its invention. Print is free to do what it does best, to describe a vital part of the human experience – how the world feels in an age that’s increasingly dominated by virtual, intellectual messaging.

The future of print is as an emotion distribution medium.

Tim’s slide deck on the theme can be found here.


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