Is Print Dead? Why the Question Just Won’t Die

Just when I thought it was safe to put December behind me—since the Mayan calendar proved to be wrong, and the holidays went off without too much stress—the next round of cliff dwellers and doom-and-gloomers emerged.

Have we reached the end of the print era?
At first, I dismissed the online discussion surrounding this question with a shoulder shrug and a “Really? Are we still talking about this?” attitude.

There were comments on how print works together with digital:

“I think it is because of those mobile apps that print design is still viable and valuable. They complement each other and drive creativity,” asserted Lorraine.

And one of my favorites: “Print what matters and put the rest on the Internet.”

Ninety more heated comments later, the discussion is still in full swing. Clearly, what might seem passé to you and me obviously continues to agitate the hearts and minds of designers and print buyers.

Here are two key aspects from the discussion that I think we should take to heart:

1) Educate your clients.

While the 90+ commenters agreed that print was here to stay, they also mentioned over and over again a need for education in all printed-related activities.

“I think that students coming out of school have the technical skills,” noted Carmit. “…I think schools should always teach you the basic theory from where you can grow and wear different hats once you are in the field.”

“We all love print,” agreed Barry, “but how many print reps do you know now vs. 20 years ago? When is the last time a paper rep called on you?”

And, of course, Barry has a point. We don’t live in a perfect world—if there ever was such a thing. Since there are so few paper reps today, it’s up to you and me to share our knowledge and passion for print and paper with newcomers to our industry. We should make sure that our clients understand print and its enormous potential.

Sabine Lenz is the founder of, the first online paper database and community specifically designed for paper specifiers.

Growing up in Germany, Sabine started her design career in Frankfurt, before moving to Australia and then the United States. She has worked on design projects ranging from corporate identities to major road shows and product launches. From start-ups to Fortune 500 companies, her list of clients included Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Deutsche Bank, IBM and KPMG.

Seeing designers struggle worldwide to stay current with new papers and paper trends inspired Sabine to create PaperSpecs, an independent and comprehensive Web-based paper database and weekly e-newsletter. She is also a speaker on paper issues and the paper industry. Some refer to her lovingly as the "paper queen" who combines her passion for this wonderful substrate called paper with a hands-on approach to sharing her knowledge. 

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  • Bob Wagner, Xerox Corp.

    Happy New Year, Sabine! I love your resolutions. Thanks. Here’s my take:

    There’s been a lot written about the demise of paper, but there are great examples of print’s continued vitality—demonstrating how marks on pages are still meaningful in many bold and believable ways. Here are two short stories that make the point:

    1. Angie’s List, the popular on-line home service rating company, now publishes a printed member magazine because it says print drives incremental business. In the digital era, it seems, many companies founded as digital-only entities—like Angie’s List—soon learn that including print in their marketing mix improves their business results.

    2. Season ticket holders of the minor league Winston-Salem Dash baseball team get fully personalized tickets that include game-specific photos, advertising that provides new revenue streams for the team, bar codes to track ticket usage, and account numbers, enabling ballpark staff to identify ticket holders for more personal service. And the ticket booklets include loyalty awards: coupons for ballpark giveaways. The tickets look better and deliver new value—a big home run for the Dash and the club’s fans.

    Sure, the role of paper is changing, but I think its death is premature. There are plenty of novel and innovative print pieces that are delivering new value in this digital world.

  • carl gerhardt

    Since the "is print dead" is somewhat of an obvious overstatement it opens up the room for dialog on both sides of the argument. So it will never die. Is a substantial portion of print dying? The answer a definite yes. Many "printers’ are not willing to let go of this and find other sources of revenue. The will fall victim of consolidation sooner or later.
    I am of the mind that conventional offset is dying a lot faster than many realize. But there I go again, it’s not dying it’s just shrinking. Some of it is being replaced by digital printing and the rest is going to digital media.
    The only question left open for debate should be how fast is conventional offset and even some digital printing shrinking? The book recently drafted by Frank Romano’s Print Media class at RIP predicted that the USPS would close in a few years, I forget which one. Is that an overstatement? Probably! But they are the generation that will use whatever print is left and the rest digital media.
    Regardless of the repetition of this dialog it is still fun to speculate and thank you for being very articulate on the subject.

  • Athena M. Lakis

    I agree with you Leo. Most of my training at RIT was only in the design elements, and not very much into transitioning design into printable work. I once asked if I could take undergrad classes working on the Harris press and I was told "you are going to learn to manage people. You don’t need to know how it works." I completely disagree. I began at the ground-floor of a printshop and only a small handful of my classmates really knew the workings of production labor. I was also looked down upon for my hard earned skills. When I tried sharing my knowledge with my classmates I was shunned and deemed a ‘know it all"…I wonder how those students felt after they hung up their degree and gleefully lept into the real printing world. Real time production should be taught at the college level, too. Sabine is correct…educate the young to respect and understand prints worth in our society and the industry will remain strong.

  • Leo Black

    I cannot agree with the statement “I think that students coming out of school have the technical skills”. I manage two offset prepress shops and I am amazed on almost a daily basis with the lack of PRODUCTION knowledge of most graduates. While they do have the necessary design chops, I come across submitted print documents that are difficult, sometimes even impossible, to produce. I graduated with a honors degree in graphic design, yet I spent most of my early career in production because of my superior production skills. This production experience became invaluable as I progressed from art director to creative director to director of creative services. After the design jobs dried up (or burned out), I went back into production management because that’s where the money was. Even when I was in school, most of my classmates expected to be a six-figure designers upon graduation, and looked down upon those of us who had already secured production jobs in studios, agencies or print shops. But today, anyone with a computer, Microsoft Office and a color printer considers himself a "designer". The need for a degree, or any professional instruction, has become irrelevant.

  • Matthew Parker

    Great post Sabine! I hope everyone rises to the challenge you have laid down.

  • Kristina Smith

    Well, the points you mentioned are correct but still it is hard to say but it is true that there is a challenge for printing industry and it needs advancement in printing technology.

    Digital Printing

  • David Prizer

    It’s dead if the definition of print in a media company is something that is going to be aggressively driving profits over the next 5 years. It’s not dead if the definition is whether or not you are still printing something and it is relevant enough to have someone pay you for it. The reason that this question is even raised is that there are fewer and fewer of the latter instances, and more reliance than would be reasonable in the former instance. Not trying to punt on the question, it’s just that it’s not one that I would prefer to defend or refute. Print, and it’s place in the community, is different today and the change continues.

  • Ben Harper

    Sad to say that the Printing Industry was VERY slow in responding to the "War on Printing" conducted and driven by internet companies as well as other corporations desperate to pass the cost of printing documents on to their own clients. This is especially true in the "green" arena where we let false claims become truth. Finally in the last couple of years we are seeing major industry push back! Well done Sabine! I totally agree with you that educating your clients is the # 1 way to fight back. I have conducted and participated in numerous client forums on this topic and they have all been very grateful and welcome the truth about Prints true value in driving their ROI and ROMI.