De Monsterkamer

Hot Chip – Why make sense? is going to be all different

Of the projects we feature at De Monsterkamer, my favourites deal with core principles of design-for-print. The cover for the new studio album of British electronic music band Hot Chip falls into this category. The album, titled Why make sense?, will be released 18 May 2015. This is an exiting event; not only if you enjoy Hot Chip’s music, but also if you like your design slightly different.

The move toward smaller scale, more specialised publications is an obvious trend in print design. Fewer things than before specifically need to be published in print, and so things that are still printed tend to emphasise the qualities that come with that. This is part of the reason for the resurgence of, for example, letterpress printing; It is a technique that is clearly recognisable in the final object (these days often a business card). It feels honest, and it satisfies a desire we have for something bespoke to us. It makes sense that there should be comparable trends in music. After all, there is a similar move away from physical objects overall (who even has CD’s anymore?). It makes one wonder about the future of the partnership between music and design, specifically in the form of album art. When Why make sense? appears in shops next week, we will find a nice minimal moire-like pattern (inspired by the work of English artist Bridget Riley), sitting on a colour field. The real trick will come when you leaf through the albums in shop racks. You might find that the colour, as well as the pattern, are slightly, or even wildly different from one copy to the next. This is the work of designers Nick Relph and Matthew Cooper.

In doing this, the designers are subtly subverting the traditional function of print. That traditional function is not to be small-scale, or to fulfil a desire for something unique. After all, print was invented to mass-produce, to copy as perfectly as possible. Now that we are able to achieve this and reap the benefits, it is the little faults of print that we love. We see traditional mistakes become distinguishing features. A good example is the misprint, that one print or series of prints that was mistakenly published different from the rest; they do not seldom end up collector’s items. In the example of letterpress, this is the signature indent in the paper. Nowadays, this is letterpress’s main attraction (and the reason those business cards are so thick), in the past it was a beginner’s mistake. Why make sense? however, is nothing like this; it was not laboriously typeset by hand, nor is it a small-scale, handcrafted project. In fact, the album was mass-produced and printed digitally, using a process that most of us have only seen in our junk mail. Relph and Cooper have opted to use variable data printing for the production of the album. This technique is a direct outgrowth of digital printing. It is the method that has brought you those junk mail letters with your actual name on it. No, that wasn’t a coincidence; it is a system whereby an algorithm feeds changing information to a digital printer in a single print run. This allows certain parameters to change per print, such as the addressee name. Variable data printing is nothing new, but it has until now mostly gone from letterboxes to recycling bins without much of interest in between. Why make sense? is different. It takes a technique designed to make print advertising more like online ads, and uses it to give us a little bit of that unique print-mistake feeling.

According to an interview with Matthew Cooper on The Creator’s Project The designers were interested in the variations being quite subtle. “If you’re holding it in your hand, there is an illusion of movement like a Bridget Riley painting… and if you were flipping through the vinyl racks at a record shop, you might find two that look really, really close,” he added. “In the same way as if you picked up two normal record or CD covers and looked at them, and said, ‘Hold on a second, this one has a fleck of dirt on it, and this one has a slightly different color because it was made at the beginning of the print run.”

With the world of print design increasingly focusing on smaller editions, digital print’s low start-up costs are often seen as a way to make small publications possible that would otherwise be too expensive to produce. Variable data printing, by contrast, is most interesting in the context of large editions (such as the new album of an internationally recognised music group). In addition, (relatively) recent improvements to digital print tend to focus on quality; specifically, it is now possible to affordably print projects digitally that look and feel quite similar to offset. With Why make sense? Relph and Cooper have again done the opposite, they have taken some of the qualities of the digital world and invested them in a printed object. Why make sense? doesn’t try to provide us the feeling of uniqueness with print quality; it does it entirely in the digital world, with a specially written algorithm that made every album, literally, unique. On the one hand, the use of variable data printing can feel a bit too direct. Like a joke that is only funny once. And this may prove to be the case. On the other hand, this solution might be more interesting the more we see of it outside the world of advertising. Variable print could have interesting possibilities for print design. When it isn’t used to “target” an audience, it could ask some interesting questions about uniqueness, the concept of editions, and the idea of a collector’s item. It is also a method that lives between the digital and print worlds, truly using unique qualities of digital print, beyond economy of scale. I imagine “mistake”-ridden print methods on smaller editions will remain a central way to validate “going to print,” as it becomes rarer to do so. However, there is also an ever growing number of designers that are truly comfortable working both for print and for web. I, for one, would like to see how far they can push the digital world’s native printer.

Official page GIF courtesy Domino Records, images courtesy Matthew Cooper, via The Creator’s Project.

by Eva Hoevenaar