Physical Attraction: Can the Touch and Feel of Print Lure Creatives Back to the Office?

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“Seeing is believing,” goes the old adage. But few know that the full quote, by English historian and clergyman Thomas Fuller, concludes “but feeling is the truth.”

For many designers, this rings true. Molly Combs, an Oklahoma City-based creative, first fell in love with the touch of paper in a course on designing for print. 

“It’s very different from designing for the web,” she says. Combs revels in the dimension print adds to her work. “It’s really the tangible aspect of it. I like to design and then be able to touch it. It’s fun. And it adds a whole other exciting layer to the creative process.”

Chris Siarkiewicz, a Brooklyn-based graphic designer, agrees. “There’s a level of craft I take pride in, knowing that a printed piece has gone from design and will go into production and end up in somebody’s hands who will find it useful or enjoyable. I like to sit with it, experience it, interact with it,” he says.

Aside from the visceral connection, there are the practicalities of directly evaluating paper types. Picking the right weight, for instance, is “more important than many people think,” according to Siarkiewicz. Aside from the design, it may even be the single most critical aspect that influences the impression the final product will make. Heavier stock can feel more formal and valuable, while lighter weights are often more appropriate for temporary use or delicate pieces. A poorly chosen weight can lead to an imperfect ink coverage that gives the print a muddy look. Dimensions make a difference as well. An oversized brochure or distinctive foldout can really tell an engaging story. Texture matters too—is it glossy and slick, or matte and velvety? How will it affect a shopper’s reaction to, say, packaging for a cosmetic product?

“Paper is the vehicle for the design,” says Siarkiewicz.

COVID, however, has complicated the relationship between graphic artists and print. Taking workers away from the physicality of their shared offices removed the physical interaction with their work that speaks to many creatives. Typically, home offices simply don’t have the production equipment capable of printing on specialty stock, like heavyweight paper, or on anything larger than a traditional letter-sized sheet.

At home, screens abound. During the shutdown, many of us found ourselves in front of screens for work, leisure, and even awkward, laggy get-togethers with friends and family. Mounting evidence points to an adverse effect of all these screens on creativity. A 2013 article from Scientific American called “Why the Brain Prefers Paper” states that two decades’ worth of studies have found screens, in general, to be “more cognitively and physically taxing than paper.”

What’s come to be termed “digital fatigue” is widespread. The condition “can lead to lack of energy, mental clarity, burnout, and can cause negative psychological and physical effects to our overall well-being—let alone work output,” writes Tiffany Pham, CEO of recruitment company Mogul, in Entrepreneur. The causes of digital fatigue are varied. They include pragmatic ones, like the strain to eyesight caused by screens as well as the much-documented and lamented blurring of boundaries between work and home. And, for people who went into a creative field hoping to labor at least somewhat with their hands, work-from-home lacks a certain substance.

“My friends will ask me, ‘can’t you just do that from home?’ And I remind them, ‘not really,’ because in the studio we have a production-level printer. I can see exactly how the work will print, and I don’t have to try to decipher it over Zoom,” says Siarkiewicz.

Though many creatives, having grown disillusioned with digital everything, miss the hands-on opportunities that production equipment offers, few employees seem eager for a return to the office. The Economist cites a recent survey of office workers conducted by Slack, the messaging platform, in which 75% of executives stated that they wanted to return to the office three days a week or more, while “only 34% of non-executives felt the same way.”

The conveniences of skipping the commute and wearing sweatpants have captivated much of the workforce, prompting company leaders to look for ways to attract them back to the office.

Could print be the answer?

If the numbers from consumer surveys are any indication, print presents a unique cure for digital fatigue. A survey called “COVID Mail Attitudes” by the USPS reports that most respondents look forward to receiving mail, agreeing that it “lifts their spirits” and “helps them feel more connected.” Study after study confirms that consumers connect more deeply with messages in print. According to a study by Go Inspire Group, print marketing campaigns are five times more effective than email-only campaigns. Those that combine the two media are six times more effective (these numbers also represent a hopeful outlook for agencies looking to rev up client orders after a pandemic lull).

While these numbers speak more to the efficacy of marketing campaigns than to bringing agency teams back to shared workspaces, the feelings of excitement and connection generated by paper media seem to be a shared human response.

Siarkiewicz has chosen to return to the office five days a week. Was the easy-to-use Ricoh Color Digital Press, a compact yet professional-grade production printer, a draw?

“Definitely,” he says.

RICOH Graphic Communications is committed to supporting the vitality of the graphic arts community. Your brilliance continues to drive us and the products we create. This ongoing series explores the role, resurgence, and retro appeal of paper for creatives in today’s digital age.

Want to get your hands on some inspiring print pieces? Request samples here.