The Force Is with Us

Print has come a long way since Gutenberg’s celebrated invention.

I read an article recently on the website Owlcation about one of the patron saints of print. “Johannes Gutenberg and the Printing Press: Social and Cultural Impact,” written by Amanda Littlejohn, included a link to a video where you could watch a replica of the original press in action. (It reminded me a bit of Ye Olde Transfer T-Shirt Shoppe in the mall.) And from this contraption, we are all somehow connected. Bet you don’t find that on ancestry.com.

I have to confess, I didn’t know much about the guy. A fascinating and familiar story: Had a good job. Became a printer. Died broke. 

Oh yeah, he also changed the world. Time magazine named him “Man of the Millennium” in 1999. That’s our guy, ladies and gentleman. Go, printers! MVP! Yay, team!

It’s not ancient history. What we do remains important today for more reasons than just putting ink on paper. It’s the action of printing – making multiples by transferring one material in a liquid form onto another material, which then forms a newly created product. Traditionally, it was a graphic image like a book, but now it could be a T-shirt, a solar cell, a beer can. Printers make things. 

If there was a system of classification similar to biology, and manufacturing was a kingdom, then print would be a phylum. Print then gets broken into classes. The Big Five:

• Relief, or letterpress – like Gutenberg or a Japanese woodblock (or a Mark Andy flexographic line)

• Intaglio, or gravure – where the surface is etched or engraved and the ink goes in the depression (This is what they are referring to when they try to lure you upstairs to see etchings.) 

• Lithography or offset – where the (stone) plate uses the interference of oil and water (In its modern, mechanized form, the offset press is still the world champ of print volume.)

• Screen printing – where ink is forced through a stencil held on mesh (In primitive form, stencil patterns predated Gutenberg and the other classes identified above. Modern screen printing is only 100 years old, as we all know.)

• Last to the party is digital, the newest class of printing – where ink is spit or released from an array of nozzles directed by a digital signal (Some might argue digital is more of a phylum than a class.)  

 

If you’re still reading this and you followed any of the above kingdom > phylum > class > order thing, you’ve probably realized (a) I’m faking it, I was terrible in biology, (b) “digital” defines a type of printing distinct from the other four though 

we know it is used in the other classes of print, so it gets confusing, and (c) digital is as revolutionary as ol’ Johannes and his press for reasons other than just its printing ability. The social and cultural impact wrought by Gutenberg’s invention from the 1450s on is mirrored in the rapid, ongoing changes from digital communication technologies. 

It’s been suggested since the 1990s that traditional print is dead; digital information on screens will kill it. In the '90s, print actually employed as many people in North America as industry classifications such as auto, aerospace, and electrical. Unfortunately, because it was made up of thousands of small independent businesses in every town and city, and ran the gamut from big newspapers and magazines on massive web presses to Silkscreen Johnny’s T-Shirt Emporium, printing had a couple of problems – very little unified clout, and, being B2B, a low profile in the public eye. Two economic depressions (the dot-com bust of 2000 and the bank/mortgage mess in 2008) wiped out a lot of businesses, including printers. Was digital printing a factor? A bit. So far, the introduction of digital processing has grown the capabilities of all print, but has not resulted in a 100-percent changeover of analog to digital, except in specific segments.

Out in our wider society, where nobody really thinks about print but believes it must be dead, digital killing off traditional printing took the form of cell and tablet screens replacing magazines and newspapers as carriers of information, advertising, and culture. And no argument from me – it has happened. But what else did we get? Cellphone addiction, fake news, and the ability to control the thinking of millions by TV or Twitter or Facebook. We may have undone 600 years of literacy growth kick-started by Gutenberg. In less than 15 years, distracted driving due to cellphones has almost overtaken drunk driving as a cause of injury and death on the road. Is this Digital Darwinism? 

A funny thing happened while we were skipping down Digital Drive on the way to the graveyard of dead print technologies. We discovered we still need the ability to print, in all its forms. Equally important, we need to spread the knowledge of print used in graphic communications and industrial/functional applications. Schools and industry must continue to teach about print, how it still exists, and the careers and training required in a modern print shop in order to continue to invent new applications using all the tools available now. 

Because printing – traditional, analog printing, in the ultimate irony – makes the cellphone, the flexible electronics, the touch screens that allow those world changing digital devices to work. (“Luke, I am your father…”)

So let’s raise a glass to Gutenberg, and print, in all its forms. The glass should probably have a cool logo printed on the curved surface, and the beverage should come from a bottle with printing on the side. 

Read more witty insight from Andy MacDougall in his other Shop Talk columns. Check out more from the February/March 2019 issue.

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