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Paper in the digital age

2nd September 2013 by Josh Beadon

Printing Graphic Design

It is perhaps tempting to think of paper (or stock) as an ‘old fashioned’ product, slowly being replaced by digital technology. I accept that the Kindle has affected the book publishing market, that the iPad is changing the way we engage with newspapers and that the growth of the web has impacted on the use of paper in general, but to dismiss paper as irrelevant or out-moded would be very wrong.

Paper and card is a remarkable commodity. It may be coloured, coated, printed, marked (and the mark erased). It can be laminated with fabric, plastic and metal. It can be opaque, translucent or transparent. It may be made tough enough to withstand acid, or soft enough for a baby’s skin, it can be put into a freezer or treated to withstand fire.

Importantly it can be re-used and recycled and it is made from a renewable and sustainable source.

Coated and Uncoated paper…

All paper falls into one of these two broad categories. Choosing which one to use is dictated by the unique requirements of each job - although personal preference can also be a factor.

Coating is a process by which paper or board is coated with an agent to improve brightness or printing properties. The application of a layer of china clay fills the miniscule recesses between the fibres in the base paper, giving it a smooth, flat surface. Coated paper can have a matt, silk (sometimes called satin) or gloss finish.

Uncoated paper is basically paper that is isn’t treated like this. The texture of this type of paper tends to feel slightly rough to the touch and usually a little more bulky.

So which should you use?

Coated paper improves the opacity, lustre and colour-absorption ability. This means that images and colours appear bright, sharp and vibrant – great for brochures, leaflets and corporate communications.

Printing onto uncoated paper gives images and colours a more subdued feel because the ink soaks into the paper and spreads out a little. It is used for jobs on which people are expected to write - typically letterheads and forms. Many people prefer the feel of this paper as it does give a natural, even eco, feel which often appeals to companies with a strong environmental ethic.

Paper and the environment

Recycled paper is better, right? Well maybe! The paper industry has been practising sustainable forest management for decades – this means that they plant more trees than they cut down, in fact in European forests are actually growing at a rate of 6450 km2 every year. Despite this, the use of recycled paper has grown enormously in recent years with many organisations in both the private and public sectors putting the use of recycled paper at the heart of their environmental and sustainable policies.

Across Europe 66% of paper is sent for recycling, 90% of newspapers are printed on recycled paper, and nearly 90% of corrugated cardboard uses recycled fibres. The paper industry cites this as a remarkable and impressive achievement, but some environmentalists aren’t so sure. They point out that the energy required to return the old paper back into a useable product far exceeds that of using ‘virgin pulp’ from freshly cut trees. They may have a point… the old paper has to be re-pulped, de-inked, and bleached before it can be made into useable paper, all of which uses huge amounts of energy.

The place of paper

Just think about how much paper you come into contact with on a daily basis. Upon getting up in the morning you immediately engage with paper – after dealing with ones ablutions (which may involve tissue paper), you will sit down to breakfast, perhaps cereal or maybe eggs (taken from a cardboard box), and whilst enjoying your food you may read the morning post. While you are waiting for the bus, you admire the new adshel poster at the bus stop. You buy a ticket and read the printed adverts on the inside of the bus. At work you deal with more post, perhaps write some cheques and do the banking. At lunch you buy a sandwich from a local supermarket cleverly packaged in a laminated card sleeve and make sure you keep the receipt to show the taxman! And so on…

…paper is an essential part of our modern lives and the people who specify all this material and ensure we engage with it effectively are graphic designers, so next time you think about your upcoming advertising or marketing initiative, give a thought to how paper and card might be used. It doesn’t have to be boring or uninspiring - new papers and techniques are being developed every day. Go on, challenge your designer to create something truly new - there’s still plenty of room for innovation.

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