Looking at an ad on a screen and holding a letterpress print are completely different ways of experiencing design. Drawing your fingertips across the ridges of an illustration, seeing the light catch and throw shadows on the letterforms, smelling that hint of ink left behind. A drop shadow is not the same as a die cut and a silver gradient is not the sheen of metallic ink. In other words, touchscreens don't stimulate our actual sense of touch. Tactile design produces an emotional response that many think is missing from digital, and in response some designers are reverting to a tactile approach. Others, meanwhile, attempt to replicate the experience through digital tools.
What can we expect to see in 2012?
Next year, young designers will push the tactile design trend even further. One to watch is Kyle Durrie, a letterpress printer from Portland, Oregon, who has made it her personal mission to teach letterpress techniques from the back of a traveling van (with support from the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum). Typographer Jessica Hische is helping connect designers and businesses worldwide with specialty printing studios through her most recent web project, Inker Linker. One of the groups, Studio on Fire, is a leader in the letterpress revolution with a mission statement that resounds with the community: to "produce work with a tactile and distinctively modern edge.
"We can also expect to see the convergence of tactile and digital, and for these mediums to interact in new ways. An exhibition in Chicago this year, "Wood Type, Evolved: Experimental Letterpress & Relief Printing in the 21st Century," examined the relationship between technology and traditional print methods. The show was curated in part by Nick Sherman, a typographer who works primarily in web fonts and user-experience design but also harbors a love for the handmade. Sherman carved and printed eight-foot-tall wood type for the exhibit. For other brands and designers this convergence means creating faux-tactile design, such as the textured leather user-interface elements in Apple's recent Find My Friends application. LetterMpress, a virtual letterpress iPad app, tries to replicate not just the aesthetics, but some aspects of the experience of printing: Designers can choose and combine "wood" blocks and then "ink" and "print" using their touchscreens.
What are the implications of this trend for brands?
The tactile trend is an opportunity for brands to connect with consumers on a more sensory and emotional level. Consumer packaged goods brands have the advantage because their products and packaging are literally touched and held by consumers. Jack Daniels, for example, completed a project with Yee-Haw Industries to produce limited-edition letterpress posters. Some of the whiskey was poured into the ink, just to make it more authentic. Why letterpress posters? Because, in their words, "Yee-Haw makes things the way they think is best-not the cheapest or fastest way, but with an independent spirit Jack would have been proud of. "For brands where a literally tactile design solution isn't readily applicable, the question remains: Can faux tactile elicit the same emotional response? Perhaps in some cases it can. When it can't, there's still an insight to glean from the tactile trend-consumers crave something that feels a little more "real."
By Marissa Winkler