ultural pundits and technophiles have been crowing about the imminent death of paper as we know it ever since television invaded our living rooms in the 50’s, and still paper found a way to stay relevant and central in our lives. But now with the developed world firmly in the grip of the digital age, it may seem like paper media’s last stand is upon us.
And there likely isn’t a graphic designer out there that won’t acknowledge the tectonic shift from print media to digital, where they used to be neck deep in paper samples, but now are more likely to be grappling with back-end programming. It’s difficult to ignore.
Nowadays digital media delivers information in a much more efficient, cost-effective and accessible way to the public. Digital is more elastic and adaptable and can very easily be updated. Once the paper is printed, it is already out of date, due to the very nature of time.
People can not only see digital media, but hear, and now with the emergence of virtual reality, be tricked into feeling like, on some level, they are actually experiencing something, instead of just being shown it, or having it be described to them. Of course, this technology is in its infancy, but even in the last half a decade it has made tremendous gains. And even without VR, commenting on or sharing things on social media websites and blogs, gives people a real feeling of interacting with the information they are receiving. In many instances, these amateur social commentators get drawn in and become part of the story themselves, as the press these days seem all to keen to live stream public reaction to a story.
It does rather seem like digital media, has completely taken over many of the central roles that paper media once played. And in many cases it has. Indeed paper media does not serve the same function as it did of sole provider of information, but is it dead? Curiously the answer is a resounding no. While the razzmatazz of digital media may seem to be stealing the show, quietly in the background the charisma of paper is becoming more obvious.
Paper media provides different experiences than digital media. Although we can watch, read and listen to things through digital media, we can’t touch them. Paper, as the material itself, sends people messages by its texture. It can be a thin and cheaply printed flyer with some slogans for people to have a quick glance, or it can be a well-crafted wedding invite that makes people feel special. In other words, digital media delivers the information itself, whereas paper media not only presents the information but also communicates with people, as the material itself, on a much more visceral level.
Information nowadays is so readily available, and the way people digest information has changed radically with the digital presentation. They will surf, swipe and skim their way through digesting the opening paragraphs, call outs and sound bites, and then move on to the next. They don’t have to physically go to the paper shop or bookstore to get the information, it is gained with relative ease, and so gets valued accordingly.
Let’s think about water for a bit. The necessity for life. And for modern civilization to have open and easy access to clean drinking water is paramount. It is the reason the developed nations have gone to great lengths to make it directly available to all its citizens, a personal supply directly to taps in their own homes. Its value is immeasurable in providing a minimum level of health, and supporting economic growth. Yet those same citizens take it so for granted that they are barely aware of its existence in their daily lives. The preciousness of water becomes more obvious though when you live in an area without clean running drinking water, and have to carry your families daily supply a kilometre on your head.
Just as digital media has introduced people to functions that paper media can never offer, paper media also provides things that digital media can’t emulate.
The same has happened with information. Information is power, and people strived to be informed, either through cultural and educational institutions or through less formal avenues. Yet now that information is available with little effort, the entirety of human knowledge literally carried around in a pocket, they choose to look at and share cat videos. The most important resource to humanity, access to information, has become cheap. Paradoxically, collectively we give the clue that it is of extreme importance by shelling out untold hundreds on fancy smart phones and service plans that connect us to the information. But when the finger comes to the touchscreen, everything turns supercilious. It’s almost as if with digital, we value the ability to access information but not the information itself.
Paper media brings back the respect and value of information. Just as many things have sides, that can cut both ways, because of the efficiency and ease of getting information that digital media offers, it is being taken for granted. There is a saying, that an idea will seem more real once seen in black and white, and while this is true with traditional paper media, it seems to hold only fifty percent weight at most with digital media. The advent of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, and their ability to muddy pixels and infiltrate the realm of respectable information would have been much harder, impossible even, without digital media.
Paper media shows the physical existence of the information and makes a psychological connection on the information behalf. The act of having to interact with paper, akin to each individual discovering for themselves the information somehow brings more meaning to the absorption of information. It is to do with the phenomenon that watching television, or online videos, or being a social media voyeur is a passive pursuit, that requires little engagement of the little gray cells. But engaging with a book, paper or magazine while also being physically in command of the experience, the user is also actively engaging mentally in that experience.
Just as digital media has introduced people to functions that paper media can never offer, paper media also provides things that digital media can’t emulate. Even though being able to browse pretty much everywhere around the world through Google Maps in any given minute is completely mind blowing, we still have the urge to travel to different places physically, and experience them in person for ourselves. Just as seeing a lion on one of David Attenborough’s incredible documentaries, it still takes second place to actually being there yourself, finding the animal in its natural habitat, the smell, the adrenalin, your heightened awareness. You are actively experiencing, not just passively watching. Nothing beats the human experience. And paper media brings and completes the dimensions that digital media doesn’t have because it actually exists, it’s not a digital manifestation of itself.
This immediately adds value to the information, and because there is proof in your hands it enhances it’s credibility. Everybody can put down their opinions online for free. However for printed media, people at least need to pay for the printing and material cost, and in that way, the content will automatically be treated more seriously.
But more than that, paper media has become personal. Since touch is our most intimate sense, it creates a physical intimacy unconsciously. It plays on and appeals to our sentimental side, which explains why some people not only download music from iTunes but also buy the physical albums with cover. In fact, the sale of vinyl has skyrocketed over the last half a decade, making it competitive with digital sales in some markets. And this is because the physical existence allows people to have the emotional bond to it. The same is true of bespoke books. I have a friend (no names), whom would think nothing about shelling out hundreds of dollars for special edition books about various lady pop stars. Of course, these books are meticulously researched, images printed in dazzling technique, and the papers exuding an excitement and quality all of their own. They feel like true collector’s pieces and are usually showcased in some indiscreet way, as a centrepiece on a coffee table. But why is that, when most of the information the book offers can be found online? Believe me, there is no judgment here. I myself have been guilty of purchasing glorious volumes of the life’s work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Massive thick books documenting all his masterpieces. The book is less of a coffee table book, and more a table itself, it is so substantial. Just legs needed. There are plans and elevations galore that are presented in such a way, you get to feel like you are touching the very work that the architect drew up. It feels like I own a part of his craft, his history.
“Paper media is also a conduit for people’s memories. From this perspective, it is no longer about the information it carries, but more about the experiences you have with it.”
You probably will never not go into a non-chain restaurant and be handed that menu with tantalizing options seeming to jump out of the letters as you form the very words. You will probably never not appreciate receiving a birthday card more than a social emoji and feel more special because of it. That time you received a thank you card for hosting a dinner, just seemed so darn classy. Receiving a fantastically designed wedding invite conveys the honour and specialness of being invited infinitely more than an animated email could. And it is this power of emotional connection that paper media has over us that, applies across all applications, that will make it hard for us to give up the paper as a medium of communication.
Paper media is also a conduit for people’s memories. From this perspective, it is no longer about the information it carries, but more about the experiences you have with it. You were given the book as a gift, perhaps you inherited it from your grandmother, or you remember reading it in your youth, and suddenly memories more than just the book itself come flooding back. If the book is old, you can feel the history when flipping through, from its look, its texture and even its smell, the authenticity of its own history brings a gravitas.
With the advent and proliferation of the iPad, it seems that most small children instinctively know their way around the tablet, before they can even conjugate a full sentence. They navigate the games and videos with staggering ease, and yet in this techno environment, printed media still rules supreme in the child’s world. And this in part is what gives us the clue as to the longevity of printed media. Just this year reading to your kids has been scientifically proven by researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, to aid in developing early literacy and oral language readiness, and children’s book sales trends, back up the general broad cultural understanding that print media in this area is highly valued, with significant increases around the world.
Packaging is another area of the none digital realm that will help paper media stand the test of time. We all buy things, from basic foodstuffs such as milk to (some of you) diamond-studded timepieces. They and everything in between are packaged. And every package is a chance to hammer home the brand of the purveyor of your fine goods. The ingenuity of packaging is forever enhancing products and enticing our impulse to purchase. Can you imagine Tiffany & Co. without their little tropical blue boxes and accompanying brand collateral. Would you have stopped to try that new tea if it weren’t for its funky new packaging? As long as merchants have wares to sell you, there will be in your hand, paper media packaging to razzle dazzle you into parting with your hard earned coin.
The printing process has also gone through some advances of its own. Ironically with the emergence of digital press technologies, small print runs are available at relatively low cost compared to offset printing. This has helped keep print media more flexible and competitive.
So is paper media dead? Far from it. It has modified its roll from the mainstream to something a little bit more special. It is still the main part of initial human and intellectual development. The go to for meaningful quality communication. Something that says, it’s well thought out, you are well thought of, this has extra value. It makes a human connection on a personal level and alludes an essence of integrity. For now, at least paper media is here to stay. It’s not going anywhere.
This has been The Long and Short on ‘Is Paper Media Dead’. We hope you have found it to be at least a little informative. For more chat on graphic design topics in the future, be sure to check back in with us here, follow us on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.