Paper & Pixels: A Brief History

For over a decade, we’ve been supposedly hearing the death knell for print: print is dead, nobody prints anymore, everything is electronic… You’ve heard it too. In the past several decades, communication has changed drastically due to new technology — cell phones, wireless internet, tablets, social media, ebooks. Questions are asked when new technology is introduced, and they all tend to be the same. In regards to communication, a common question is “Will [     ] kill print?” The answer is no.

Print is a sector of the communication industry, and people are communicating more now than ever before — on all channels. To understand how print has adapted in the past, we’re going to take a quick glimpse of the history of communication.

PRINT book

Paper has been around for over 2,000 years, and for centuries it was the only form of written communication. Roughly 550 years ago a young German came up with a way to move letters around on a wine press. He put some linseed oil on that type, pressed paper on it, and Johannes Gutenberg started the information age.

Because of this new form of communication Martin Luther was able to change the Catholic Church and after printing Poor Richards Almanac, Benjamin Franklin was able to found a country. William Randolph Hurst also made a fortune printing newspapers and Walter Annenberg by printing a TV guide.

In the 1800’s two entrepreneurs out of Chicago made their fortune printing a thick book with everything they could think of in it. Mr. Sears and Mr. Roebuck sent their catalog out on the newly expanding network of railroads that were spreading out from Chicago across the country. Now every family in the prairie could order everything from stoves to petticoats and have them delivered on the train the next month. 150 years later another entrepreneur, Jeff Bezos, copied that idea but this time instead of printing a catalog on paper, he made it with pixels and sent it out on the then newly developed network of the World Wide Web.

Since Gutenberg’s invention, printing on paper had a good monopoly on communication. In the 1930’s, radio came on the scene. Now everyone in the country could listen as Seabiscuit won the Triple Crown in real time. For the first time in history, we didn’t have to wait for the morning newspaper to learn the news. A couple of decades later, sight was added to sound and television changed mass media forever. Now when we came home at the end of the day we sat in front of the “boob tube” to get our nightly news and be entertained by shows like Gun Smoke and I Love Lucy, all while being told what kind of car we should drive or what kind of cigarettes we should smoke.

This takes us to today: the internet is to information and communication what the sun is to the dark morning sky. Suddenly billions of pieces of information are available at our fingertips, more than we could ever comprehend just a few decades earlier. The problem now is not getting information but filtering the information we get. Every day businesses are putting up thousands of websites and we’re blasted with hundreds of emails. Marketers have a new problem of how to get heard through the clutter.

Pixels

One of the most cost effective tools marketers use to get heard is good old fashion print on paper. 39% of customers try a business for the first time because of direct mail advertising. Consider this when you get home tonight and go through the mail: there will be a catalog or two there waiting for you to browse through. Tens of thousands of dollars are spent by these companies to print and mail them to you because they know you’ll likely browse through those catalogs and find a sweater or shirt you like, and then you’ll go online to buy it.

Email has revolutionized written communication, it’s instant and convenient. When was the last time you received a letter? However, the mere fact that letters are not mailed as much anymore means that they stand out from the crowd when they are. Letters create intimacy, credibility, and permanence in the words you are writing.

And what about the business card? Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley have tried and failed for years to replace this little 2 x 3 ½ piece of paper that we carry with us. There’s something about the tactile feeling of handing a business card to someone that tells them about you. Like a firm handshake, a business card makes an impression, a physical impression, on the person we hand it to. In 1984 John Nesbit wrote the bestselling book “Megatrends”. In it he predicted that “the more a society becomes high-tech, the more it longs for high-touch”. You can see that today in the resurgence in hand crafted beers, the restaurants we frequent, and the clothes we buy. The more a society becomes high-tech, the more it longs for high-touch.

Consider Elizabeth Weil, a 29 year old executive at Twitter. Whenever someone new is hired by this cutting-edge high tech firm Elizabeth pens them a welcome note on hand crafted paper and mails it to them using a stamp and envelope. When asked why she goes to the trouble of writing a note on paper Ms. Weil recently told a reporter for the Wall Street Journal:

“Paper has a particular appeal for those of us who spend hours at a time in front of a screen. Selecting a special card printed on fine paper, writing in ink, and dropping a stamped envelope into a mailbox —– not to mention the boundary-crossing step of obtaining a home address –– designates a friendship as significant.”

RGB vs CMYK

This technology swap goes both ways. By now, printers have adapted to the new normal of social media and digital communication. We’re all over Twitter, sharing the latest news and print humor. Our products (particularly letterpress) dominate Pinterest boards of wedding invitations, art prints, and graphic design. LinkedIn boasts strong industry groups and connections. Blogs that act more like galleries like The Dieline have become wildly popular. The print industry may have been hesitant to adapt, but adapt we have. Print is not dead — and if given the choice between paper and pixels, take both.

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