13 September 2008

Signs of printing's future

I went to the Print Buyers International conference in Boston this week. Margie Dana, the show's organizer, is a combination coach and cheerleader for the printing industry, and boy, do we need one.
When I wasn't manning the RR Donnelley booth in the library-quiet exhibit hall, I managed to take in a session by Frank Romano on digital print. Frank's lectures are noted for their imaginative use of video, and I was reminded of a YouTube video that was making the rounds among my graphic-arts buddies last year.
In it, a printer stands outside his shop, pumping his fists and screaming, "I f--ing love printing! I love the smell of ink! Love to spread it on my toast like f--ing Nutella!" About halfway though his three-and-a-half-minute rant, he shouts, "Now they try to tell me that computers are replacing printing! No, we conquered the computers! Now they work for us! Can you string a computer across the wall at a party that says 'Happy Birthday'? Can you fit a computer on a water bottle that says 'Evian'?"

I was inspired to start blogging in part by a conversation I had with Scott-Martin Kosofsky, the incumbent president of the Society of Printers, a 103-year old Boston institution often mocked as the Dead Printers Society (and of which I am a past president).
Scott and I were pondering the perennial paradox of the Society of Printers: that very few of us are actually employed in the printing trade. When I joined SP, I was working as a book designer, and part of the group's appeal to me was its unspoken principle that book printing was the only real printing. Everything else was just ephemera, stuff you might collect as a hobby, but not make your life's work. Maybe that's elitist, but elitism doesn't feel so bad when you're on the inside looking out--which I was, being a book designer.
These days, SP's program of lectures leans toward printing history, graphic design, book collecting, and limited editions, and its membership is increasingly composed of scholars and librarians. Books are less something to be made than something to be preserved, like an endangered species.
Which they very well might be. When the guy who spreads ink on his toast proclaimed there are things a computer can't do, he didn't mention books. He talked about ephemera--signs and labels. If he were to give a lecture at SP, he would have a field day with the idea that we still depend on printers to make stuff we're going to throw away--the Happy Birthday sign, the Evian label--but our culture's most important ideas end up in the most ephemeral form of all, tiny electric charges that are only made human-readable by devices that will surely be obsolete by the time Mr. Ink-on-Toast's grandchildren learn to read.
And by regarding the book as a collector's item rather than a commodity, the Society of Printers may be anticipating the future more than clinging to the past.

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