15th February 2019

A brief history of print

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Marc Swarbrick

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Although a large portion of the work we do at Abstrakt is digital design, digital marketing and digital (obviously) web development, we still do analogue things such as design for print! Whether it’s packaging, brochures, exhibitions or corporate stationery, our roots are based in this traditional discipline so we’re taking a dive into the history of printing.

Spreading the word.

German born inventor, Johannes Gutenberg, is often credited with the invention of the printing press but it actually began more than a thousand years earlier in Eastern Asia. In China, printing as we would recognise it began around 200 A.D. using a technique called woodblock printing. As the name suggests, this process involved carving a negative image from a wooden block and then applying ink before pressing it onto material - initially this was usually for garments but later, due to the spread of Buddhism, paper began to be used.

The original technique for getting letterforms onto the blocks was a lengthy process which began with a manuscript being transcribed onto thin, waxy paper. Wax stopped ink being absorbed so it could be transferred to the block and thus create the negative image. A skilled engraver would then use a variety of sharp tools to cut away areas without ink on them and leave behind a raised copy of the original text.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, a step in the process that we still adhere to today is proofreading, as tip-ex was not readily available in the 7th Century.

Woodblock printing meant that one plate could be used for thousands of books and although this played a significant part in spreading culture there were still drawbacks, such as the time and labour intensive process, the amount of materials needed and the difficulty of correcting any mistakes that my be made or damage that may occur.

Moving along.

Around the middle of the eleventh century, a Chinese artisan named Bi Sheng designed a system known as ‘movable type’ using ceramic materials and involving the creation of individual characters, which could be set into a frame hence the term ‘typesetting’.

This new system overcame many of the shortcomings of woodblock printing such as the individual types being smaller and easier to store, pages of text were much easier and faster to assemble, and if a mistake was made it was much easier to rectify.

Further enhancements were made when the individual types started to be cast from copper, bronze and tin, from depressing carved wooden blocks into troughs of fine clay. A major benefit of this method, is that the initial wood carving can be created as a positive image, so when it is then pressed into the clay, it forms the negative mould for the molten metal to be poured into. There was still one thing that was holding printing back though - it was still an incredibly time-consuming process which is where Gutenberg came in.

Pressing on.

The turning point for printing came in 1439 when Gutenberg, an inventor from Strasbourg, combined several inventions including the mass production of moveable type, oil based inks and adjustable moulds. An alloy was used which allowed for faster more economical manufacturing and also resulted in a more durable type.

The combination and adaptation of these existing technologies paved the way for others to improve upon and by 1500, tens of millions of volumes had been printed all across Europe. This explosion of knowledge sharing caused a major cultural shift, increasing literacy in the middle classes, encouraging the communication of scientific discoveries and bringing an end to the literate elite.

Over the next few centuries the underlying technologies went largely unchanged until the industrial revolution ushered in the era of steam powered machinery which also coincided with the use of cylinders as opposed to a flatbed press. By the early 1800’s several technologies were colliding and by the middle of the century, a printing press had been designed to allow the production of millions of copies of single pages in a day and was used by The Times in London to produce their newspaper.

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Printing in the present.

Fast forward to the 21st century and things have moved on considerably. At the beginning of this article I promised myself I wouldn’t mention digital outside of the title, but as I sit here typing on a computer, I realise it’s unavoidable. The invention of the personal computer and the advent of desktop publishing brought about digital printers, and whilst initially primitive, they can now match traditional printing presses for quality.

While initially limited, modern digital printers can now print using special inks and finishes without the need to use a large press, opening up the possibility for designers to produce far more interesting pieces of work on short runs.

So if history has taught us anything, it’s that print has the power to change perceptions and drive innovation. It’s been the medium we use to share knowledge, communicate and disseminate information for almost two millennia and we don’t see that changing anytime soon. So if you’ve got a message you’d like to get out there, get in touch and we’ll be happy help.

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