Commentary / Jon Edwards

There’s Something About Paper

I want you to do something before you read any further. I know I just started writing and I’m already making demands, but it’ll only take a second. Pick up your smartphone or tablet computer, if you’re not already holding one, and navigate to a website. Any website will do. Read a few words. Click on a link or two. Meander a bit. Or, if you’d rather not make an effort, just flick through an email. Swipe at anything.

What did that feel like? I don’t mean your emotional response, if you had one, to the content or the design. I mean what did the physical response feel like when your finger interacted with the screen? “Smooth” is probably a fair word to use. Maybe “greasy” if you haven’t wiped the glass lately. Maybe it was “slick” or “cold.” What it probably wasn’t, was “textured,” “interesting,” “compelling” or “different.” It probably wasn’t anything other than a universal experience that is the same to everyone, every time.

And that’s okay. A screen can only be a screen. It’s meant to be homogeneous and only do one thing while doing that one thing well. That slick little aluminosilicate screen is an entry point. It’s a conduit. It works just as it should. The same is true for large ISP monitors and relatively small laptop screens (though probably without the touching part). They’re all, within their own type, uniformly perfect in accomplishing their tasks. But they are, from a purely tangible standpoint, all the same. That’s the way they’re made. That’s why they work as well as they do.

Much like an audiophile mourns vinyl, it pains me when we shuffle ever farther away from paper. It’s true that the convenience of having everything with you at all times trumps the benefits of paper in most instances. I wouldn’t argue that. I’m addicted to my iPhone in a legitimately unhealthy way, and I enjoy website design just as much as I do laying out a complex grid for a multi-page printed publication. The screen of my computer monitor is my canvas for just about everything I do once I’ve moved on from my sketch pad, so I’m not knocking it.

But there’s just something about paper.

Paper is analog. It’s imperfection is what makes it perfect. The choice in paper can mean the difference between your audience keeping a brochure or tossing it in the trash before they’ve even bothered to read the lead-in. It can create, diminish, improve or reinforce the perception of a product, a business or an entire movement by touch alone. There is a visceral experience between the audience and the object that is, at the very least, different, than any interaction with a screen. As a medium, screens are always just screens. Paper, on the other hand, can create a connection. It can set the tone for the beginnings of a story and guide you on to the first building blocks of the design and the content. Paper has a soul in a way that a screen does not and cannot.

Fortunately, despite the continuous surge to an all-digital, all-the-time way of life that makes paper less necessary, there will always be a place for it. If anything, the evolution from ink to screen is a good thing for the craft. It makes printed design that much more valuable. Just as letterpress is so uncommon that it’s striking when you see it and touch it, print, in general, will likely be relegated to the peculiar in the best possible way. The lack of its commonality will transform it into something impressive and desirable if only because it stands out from the pack and looks different than everything else.

With that said, it’s eventual rarity won’t change the fact that not all paper is equal. Paper should work in harmony with design, not against it. The type of paper you select can be the difference between making a good design better, or devaluing a great design into something that is predictably passable. Things like subject matter, the call to action and, more than anything, the brand, are all deciding factors in what paper is right for the job. A thin sheet of cheap, glossy paper just doesn’t feel right if you’re trying to convince someone that a high-end, expensive neighborhood is oozing with sophistication and wealth. Heavy, expensive card stock won’t send the right message to your audience if you’re asking for monetary donations to keep the doors of your struggling non-profit organization open. And linen… linen is never a good idea, really, for much of anything.

The type of paper you choose for a project can make a design sing or fall to the ground in a clumsy, unfortunate mess. It’s as important as any part of the design or the message, and it should never be an afterthought. It’s not something to be thrown into the mix at the last second, or reduced in quality to marginally lower the budget. Paper is a design choice, along with typography, color, form, layout, illustration, photography… all of it. It matters.

Next time you grab a business card or sort through a handful of direct mailers, pay attention to the paper. Go by feel alone and see what stands out and what falls to the bottom of the barrel. See what works with the design and what works against it. Because here’s the thing: your target audience is already doing that, whether they realize it or not. So make it count and choose a paper that isn’t as forgettable and ordinary as the screen on your phone.