De Monsterkamer

Tactility (= sense of reality) in paper publications

Curator Freek Lomme invited me to write about tactility in print for the publication that appears at the occasion of the exhibition “Can you feel it? Tactility and/in print” at the Frans Masereel Centre. Below my contribution to the book:

Can you feel it? Publication and exhibition.
Graphic design: Pierre Martin Vielcazat.
Paper advice: De Monsterkamer

Tactility (or how something feels: smooth, soft, rough, etc.) is a concept which plays a big role in paper publications at the moment. Through the sense of touch we orient ourselves and make contact with our physical environment. Apart from visual and auditory possibilities, digital media can be quite limited and one dimensional when it comes to tactile sense. What you feel while using a computer or smartphone is not much more than the keys of a keyboard or the glass of the screen, which may give off small vibrations. And although there are developments which aim to focus on tactile senses by using haptic feedback, these techniques are still in their early stages.

Out of the five senses, ‘seeing’, ‘hearing’, ‘tasting’, ‘smelling’ and ‘feeling’, digital media only fully address ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’. So, we miss a part of reality, because tasting, smelling and feeling are not called upon. This explains, as I see it, the need for paper and print techniques that highlight the tactile senses. Feeling is missing in the digital world, and it is something we also want to experience, because it is, in fact, part of our perception. For feeling there is a big opportunity in print. With a history of a thousand years and endless modes of expression, paper and print are fantastic tools for discovering reality and imagination through stimulating the tactile senses. With tactile printing you can diversify yourself, not just from the computer screen, but also from other (bulk)publications. Starting from my field expertise as a paper adviser, I will outline some remarkable developments on the case of tactility:


Business cards: ‘Dick, dicker, am dicksten?’
The business card: a simple card the size of a credit card featuring your contact details, that you give to a business relation so that they might remember you. Why should this be more than an unnoticeable carrier of information? But still you see the desire for thicker cards, even up to half a centimeter. Not very practical, but it makes an impression. The German paper supplier Metapaper has launched a campaign called ‘Dick, Dicker, Am Dicksten’ for a kind of paper that is especially developed to print thick business cards on a digital printing press. ‘Multiloft’ is the name of the paper, which consists of a top layer that can be printed on digitally and which can be glued onto one or more colored layers of cardboard on the inside. The glue has already been applied to the paper and cardboard and can go through the printer as it is – making the paper easy to handle. The American company offers the same type of cards with the slogan ‘A difference you can truly feel: everyone who receives one will experience a quality and weight like no other card.’ 

Colorplan paper

Another example is a beautifully colored paper called ‘Colorplan’. Colorplan is available in 50 colors and 8 different weights (up till 700 g/m2). Different layers of this paper can be glued together; This is called ‘duplexing’. This technique is used often for business cards, of which the front side has a different color than the back side. The trend of using business cards that are overweight has also not remained unnoticed by the online printing press They offer, among other things, aluminum business cards of 0,4 mm (1080 g/m2). Weight is thus a keyword when it comes to tactility.

Revival of the ‘old’ printing techniques
The recent revival of ‘old’ printing techniques such as letterpress (printing press) and riso print (stencil printing) is to me an indication that tactility plays a big role in distinguishing between forms of print today. Letterpress is suddenly hip again, which fits in with the broader social desire for authenticity and purity. Letterpress is a first-rate tactile printing technique, because of the laborious process: the use of lead type and cliches, heavy presses and ink that sticks to the palette-knives. It is possible to produce a large amount of copies with letterpress at a printing office specialized in foil press, or you can do it yourself in a small letterpress studio. In relief printing the paper will show lasting, be it minute marks. This being as typical for the technique as the overflow of ink around the edges of the printed typeface was avoided because looking old-fashioned in the time offset came up. Today the ‘imprint’ or ’embossment’ is seen as a fine and haptic quality to be recognized by the sensitive. The paper suppliers have followed this trend by producing specific letterpress papers containing a large percentage of cotton, which is very suitable for an effective and deep embossing. For example, the paper manufacturer Gmund from Germany makes ‘Gmund Cotton’, a 100% cotton paper with a thickness up to as much as 900 grams. Gmund’s tagline for the product is ‘pure cotton, soft and gentle, elegant and superlatively thick. Feeling is believing!’ With letterpress, you actually hold something in your hands, the whole process requires a hands-on mentality.

Today the ‘imprint’ or ’embossment’ is seen as a fine and haptic quality. Paper: Gmund Cotton. Photo:

Risography, the old stencil printing from the ’60 and ’70, has seen a revival as well. Artists, designers and independent publishers are experimenting with Riso. Risograph printing is an affordable technique for producing a small amount of copies. The Netherlands is home to riso specialists such as Knust in Nijmegen and the Charles Nypels Lab, part of the Jan van Eyck Academy. In 2014 The Charles Nypels Lab organized the first International RISO Expert Meeting. Riso ink on paper produces a very special, intense effect. The ink is absorbed by the paper and the color literally starts to vibrate. If you aren’t careful, the ink can lead to stains or stick to your fingers. For Riso, only a rough (and bulky) types of paper are suitable. This adds to the raw, DIY, and non-pretentious vibe of the technique, which differs greatly from offset and the daily prints we see in everyday life.

“With Riso, you’re a kind of alchemist that makes it’s own colors” Sigrid Calon

Paper with a touch
You have to see and feel paper. This is the reason why I started De Monsterkamer, a physical database for paper which, for now, there is no digital equivalent of. Some suppliers have impressive websites, or for example, where you can get a fairly good look at the colors and textures of the paper they supply. The ability to feel the paper, however, is missing completely. Which would seem a significant omission, no?

The Paper Book by Arjo Wiggins

The last couple of years has seen a reduction in paper production, which results in a large amount of paper types not being available anymore. Yet, the field is still innovating, including innovations in special paper. Paper manufacturer Arjowiggins has just released a collection book weighing 3,5 kilos: The Paper Book shows their entire collection of creative paper on A4. The Arjowiggins collection contains multiple innovative types of paper with a special ‘touch’. For example, ‘Curious Touch’ which offers a sensual, soft and rubberlike coating. Another example is ‘Curious Matter’, a paper covered with microscopic balls of potato starch, which gives it the feel of sand, or a soft kind of sand paper.

The new paper collection of G.F Smith

The English paper manufacturer G.F Smith presented their entire paper collection in a big book as well, weighing 1,5 kilos and counting 403 pages. The book shows us 130 years of experience bundled up in beautiful paper, 45 brands and 5 different collections. This is a new way of presenting paper. Special paper as a niche product is presented in exclusive books.

Paper manufacturer Fedrigoni presents their paper in beautifully designed lookbooks

Paper with structure
When it comes to creating subtle surfaces, The Japanese are the masters. Japanese manufacturer and distributor Takeo has in its selection a range of paper with very fine structures. The last exhibition about paper from Takeo (which they have organized since 1965) had the suitable title and theme ‘Subtle’.

Paper with a subtle surface. Photo: Yoshihiko Ueda

The book “Subtle”, design by Kenya Hara, published by Takeo

German manufacturer Gmund recently introduced ‘Gmund Urban’. This collection contains paper with real cement, paper structured with wood nerves and with very delicate micro-embossings. “Introducing a fresh take on raw materials.” It’s back to basics, but more high tech. The simplest and cheapest way of giving print a special feel is by using a soft touch laminate. Laminate is something that can be added to every standard paper, and which has a very surprising effect.

Gmund Urban

Binding makes all the difference
How a book feels in your hand, makes a big difference as to how you perceive it. Is it heavy or light, flexible or hard, thick or thin? Some designers make the mistake of choosing a rather stiff paper, with too many grams, because they are afraid ‘it will shine through’ in case they choose a lightweight paper. The result is a book in which the pages turn as if they were wooden planks. The weight of a book – or even that of a business card, as we have seen before – is part of its tactility. To make a book lighter but still voluminous, one can use bulky paper. This is paper that contains air. Sometimes a thick book with bulky paper might not seem as heavy as you thought once you pick it up. On the other hand, a machine coated paper can be used to make a book heavier, which can also add a certain charm. There are flexible ways of binding books, and ways that make it more stiff. Cold glue is flexible, PUR is stiff, and Hotmelt is something in between those two. A very popular binding method is the ‘exposed sewing’. With this technique a bound book block is fixed with transparent glue. The book cover and the spine are left out, which has the advantage that the book is opening up easily. This book binding method gives the book an unfinished look, which might not be appreciated by every reader. There have been stories of publishers who received their books back, because the consumer thought there was a mistake in the printing process.

Exposed sewing bookbinding. Photo:

Tactility is in fact a subtle combination of material, weight, surface, printing and book binding method. Or did I forget something? Oh yes, the perceiver. 

by Esther Krop