Print, Luxury and Malcolm Gladwell

Commentary by Leslie Smolan

My dad always said that the world strives to achieve balance. If the pendulum swings too much in one direction, it ultimately needs to move in the opposite direction, trying to find middle ground. As our world has become decidedly digital, the opportunities for tactile, sensuous, ink-on-paper artifacts make them even more special. Now don’t get me wrong, I think digital communications are essential, and clearly the front door of any brand, but the sheer ubiquity of digital communications has created some awesome opportunities for print. Of course, I observe this with a bit of glee, as I’m a fanatic ink-on-paper kind of person.

The very definition of luxury is rareness — the opposite of mass-ness. And print has certainly become a rare luxury. Quantities are small. Beautiful materials are required. And stunning print requires a high level of craft. Luxury projects are perfect for print: a letterpress invitation; a beautiful box with a small gift or message inside; a personalized die-cut menu. It’s memorable. It’s tangible. It’s personal. It’s a keepsake. So much of my work within the hospitality sector is perfectly suited to ink-on-paper. It’s the equivalent of being in a beautifully designed room. But getting it right is not so easy.

As many of today’s designers have grown up in a digital world, they often lack an understanding of the process, and therefore lack the ability to control the outcome. I’m reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s contention that “… you need to have practiced, to have apprenticed for 10,000 hours before you get good.”  Well, I’ve definitely logged my 10,000 hours, many of them spent in Japan, marking up color proofs for the Day in the Life books. In those days, I was delivered “progs” — progressive paper proofs that showed each layer of film: magenta, cyan, yellow and black. From these proofs, I would evaluate the correct level of contrast, shadow densities and highlights, in order to make sure the images would visually jump off the page. Today, whenever I look at a color proof, I still see those four separate films in my head, visualizing what’s happening in each, helping me to provide guidance to the printer to make the images “glow”.

But now it’s even more challenging. I no longer have an original transparency to reference. The image looks totally different from monitor to monitor. This requires me to envision an image, rather than just replicate it. Clearly, not just practice, but an ability to see color and imagine what’s possible is ultimately required for mastery.

Evoking luxury is all about subtleties. It requires speaking with a whisper, not a shout. If you want to create impact and want people to take note — put it on paper, and then put it in someone’s hand. It will have more impact on your brand than ever before.

The above essay was previously published on LinkedIn Pulse.  

Leslie Smolan is a founding partner at Carbone Smolan Agency, and a creative director known for her relentless pursuit of timeless beauty. She is the co-author of Dialog, What makes a great design partnership and a recipient the AIGA Medal for lifetime achievement.

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