Love letter to print: Why I still simp for paper

Print media still rules, I don’t care what the haters say. I will always enjoy sitting down with a physical newspaper, magazine, or a book, even when I have to force myself to read because of pandemic anxiety. So I penned this love letter to print and called it a blog post. Maybe I should have made a zine.

I’m not just talking about newspapers, magazines, and other serious-business stuff. Comic books, trading cards, zines, flyers, posters, stickers, and even hand-written notes all count. If someone applied ink to paper to make it, that’s my jam.

My view on print is idiosyncratic. Of the people with strong opinions on the medium, most seem to view it as a relic that belongs in the past. A smaller group holds on to unrealistic hopes that print will return to dominance some day in the future. I guess what makes me unique is I’m more interested in what it’s doing in the present.

I think print still has a place today, but I’m realistic about it. People will never go back to getting their news from a paper delivered daily to their doors. Glossy magazines don’t guide our important cultural conversations like they used to. Now their websites do that. The magazine is just there for posterity.

What I love about print are the aspects that make it unique. Printed works are physical objects in a way that other media, especially digital media, are not. They come with a unique design language. Paper-based media have the potential to the there forever. I think print media should lean into these elements and regard them as strengths.

You can feel, and smell, the power of print

Print is a physical medium. That alone is not unique. I’m more interested in its effects on our senses, notably smell.

Taking hits of that sweet inky air is half the fun of engaging with print media. Though sometimes the smell is not ink but the paper itself releasing volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, after reacting with the air. That’s why old books smell so good. No one has invented a website you can smell yet. Though if they did, you probably wouldn’t want to smell it. You know what the internet is like.

Electronic devices do have a smell, and that’s also caused by VOCs. Those VOCs aren’t exactly enjoyable to inhale though. Books produce hard-to-pronounce chemicals that smell sweet, sometimes like vanilla or almonds. Electronics have a much more industrial odour when you first get them. From there, if they start to smell, it’s usually a sign that they’re overheating.

Online, I’ve seen these scents described as akin to burning, body odour, and chemicals. No one is going to make a candle of that like so many companies have done with old books. There are so many that BookRiot narrowed it down to the best 15 such candles.

Again, it’s not all about books for me. Anyone who has opened a pack of Magic: The Gathering or Pokémon cards knows about the associated odour. I find Magic’s a bit acrid compared to Pokémon’s. Comics have a distinct smell too, especially older ones that have been stored in sleeves or other plastic materials to avoid contact with air.  

One day we’ll get a functional Smell-O-Vision that works at a consumer scale so we can enjoy old-book smell while browsing the web. Until then, print will be the only medium that makes scents.

Print media design just hits different

I don’t want to frame my thoughts on design language in terms of competition. Digital and print media feature design solutions that work in their unique contexts. But I do want to emphasize the elements I enjoy about print, and it’s helpful to compare. To be clear, I am not saying one is better, even though this is a love letter to print.

Usually the term “design language” refers to the visual aesthetic one brand uses, but here I’m scaling it up to talk about aesthetics that apply to an entire medium. Many print products use similar design elements that are difficult to replicate well digitally. They include:

  • Column-based grids
  • Paired content like sidebars
  • The assumption readers will see the page as a whole

It’s not impossible to do some of that stuff digitally, but you would not want to. If you have ever seen one of the rare websites that present stories in a horizontal-column format, you’ll understand why. Instead, digital design uses different techniques to accomplish similar goals.

It all comes down to the object the audience will use to access the content. With print, you have full control over page sizes. You can safely put two elements side by side because you always know how big your product will be in the reader’s hands.

Websites, meanwhile, must be designed so they can be displayed on devices of varying sizes, including devices that currently do not exist. Seriously.

Something like a sidebar doesn’t work on a phone screen because it squishes the text. On a computer screen, it forces users to scroll up and down over and over to read all the content. Online, you would make the sidebar a separate article and link to it.

Don’t mistake this love letter to print as an attack on digital

I don’t mean to knock digital design whatsoever. I love an accessible, well-designed webpage (it must be accessible to be well-designed). But I appreciate those weird flourishes that only make sense in a print context.

Print can present multiple stories in one comprehensive package to the reader. I enjoy turning to the centre spread of a newspaper or magazine and seeing colourful sidebars, bright photos, and multiple stories on one theme. To me, that builds authority. It says, “look at all the work we have done on this topic”.

But it’s also just nice to look at. Massive photography, uncommon design elements like charts and infographics, and text commingle to create something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. It doesn’t have to be a centre spread either. You can achieve the same effect on a smaller scale on one page, or even on part of a page. Each page of a comic book essentially does this too.

In the digital realm, you might build a similar hub for all stories on a major topic, but rather than presenting articles in full, you would use links to each article. That builds the same authority, as does the inclusion of those links in each story. You can absolutely make that hub as excellent to look at as any print design. It’s just going to have a different feel, more like a base camp from which you reach various points as opposed to print, which feels like someone laying out a collection of things on a table in front of you.

Forget diamonds. Print is forever

My final point in this love letter to print is the longevity of the medium. If stored correctly, print media can last almost indefinitely. You can return to a book as many times as you like and always get the same experience.

You have no such control over media that lives online. That’s in the hands of the webmaster, who has the freedom to change anything from the content to the site’s design. They may even take the site down entirely. Caching services like the Wayback Machine do archive as much of the web as possible, but that’s clearly different than grabbing a book that’s been sitting on a shelf where you left it 20 years ago. Good luck finding that Geocities page you read 20 years ago.

Old print products are basically mini time capsules. They provide a sense of their period’s aesthetics, the available technology, and even the ideas of the day.

Again, this isn’t just about books and newspapers. You can glean all that from mundane materials like manuals and brochures. I own a travel document advertising events that happened in my hometown during Canada’s centennial in 1967. None of the information is relevant anymore, but it now serves as a piece of history. Likewise, I have electricity bills from the 1950s that set my grandparents back roughly $3 each. I have no clue why they saved those. But they did, and at this point they’re antiques.

Such is the fate of anything printed on paper. This can, of course, also be a curse. Your typos, poor grammar, and factual errors are eternal when you print them out. On this website, I quietly fix typos all the time. I also can’t accidentally destroy my blog by spilling coffee on it. You have to take the good with the bad.

Do you love me back, print? (Y/N)

Well that was my love letter to print. Do you think they will go to the dance with me? I really like them. They’re so cute when they uh … wear a nicely designed centre spread.

What about you? Do you like print as much as me, or have you fully embraced the digital revolution? Do you save your electricity bills for your grandchildren to look at? Let me know in the comments below or on social media.

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