The Saturation of Material and Print Technologies in Branding

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The Saturation of Material and Print Technologies in Branding by Richard Baird

As a former writer for the The Dieline, current editor of BP&O and having written for Brand New, I’ve witnessed daily the cyclical nature of design. While often perceived as trends, the emergence, saturation and resurgence of particular ‘design tools’ are often great opportunities to leverage established consumer perceptions without the expense of education, to deliver clear and concise communication within the context of brand identity design.

Established over a long history of human communication, drawing equally from our technological present (efficiency, quality, pragmatism), our archaic past (heritage, tradition, craft) and everything in-between, these design tools can reach very specific or broad groups of people through long and sustained periods of exposure or significant short term impact. These tools feel familiar and can be remixed, cross-pollinated and compounded by the most capable designers across a range of touch points to appear fresh, whilst retaining their communicative value. Unfortunately, like any good tool, in unskilled hands these can be used in a way that undermines their value to other designers and potentially confusing consumers.

This article focuses primarily on material choice and print finish as two groups of design tools (which also include the current fascination designers have with stamps, stickers, embossers, edge painted detail and the letterpress) but it is a discussion that I believe extends to all manner of design techniques and approaches both in print (especially packaging) and online.

Adoption and saturation


With freelance constraints such as requests for single assets rather than extensive brand identities, the continued commoditisation of logo design (due to crowd-sourcing and off-the-shelf products), the increasing accessibility of design opportunities to the young, the subsidising of design fees to establish a commercial portfolio, or the inaccessibility of formal education due to rising costs, inexperienced designers – which grow as a result of these factors – often utilise popular aesthetics and tools to build credibility rather than using these with the communicative precision or restraint of the experienced.

The accessibility of design also has increased the volume of inexperienced clients who would have originally gone it alone. Typically drawn to portfolios that mirror their own personal rather than business expectations, it takes a seasoned designer to confidently tell a new client, in an informed way, why a particular aesthetic isn’t appropriate for their business or service. Without this ability to educate, inexperienced designers saturate the finishes that clients see as looking great as photographs online.


High prices due to R&D mean that new processes and material technologies can be very specific in their perceived value. This limited exposure can be leveraged to make a brand appear exclusive and unique. Managed by those that have the budget, and it isn’t to much of a leap to assume the necessary experience and knowledge to acquire such a budge, these are utilised in only the most appropriate and precise scenarios, making them particularly effective.

When this particular value or perceived quality and affordability meet — through early adoption, an increase in scale/efficiency and an eventual lowering of production costs — some degree of saturation is inevitable. This shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing, saturation can reinforce and develop consumer perceptions and increase the design intelligence of whole groups of people. The problem occurs when accessibility is mixed with an increasing number of inexperienced designers and leads to what I would describe as ‘miss-association’, that is a broad, confusing or contradictory set of values being attributed to a single print treatment or material. Consider how extensively gold foils are now used in the packaging of products of both high and low quality.

This communicative ‘miss association’ is perhaps most apparent in the font market, where typefaces once seen as conveying corporate professionalism are undermined by their extensive and unprofessional use by inexperienced designers.


Companies like on-line printer should be applauded for helping to increase the availability of certain communication tools, which now extend to triplex materials, but this often means that those that use these with a solid rationale are left with a less than communicative piece of design as the tool saturates. Rather than considering these as another valuable asset for communication they’re becoming the default.

I frequently write about the weight of duplex and triplex boards working particularly well for heavy industry and architecture businesses but I’ve also seen them creatively used as a reference to a closed book or as a centre line that reflects elements of a logo. Informed designers typically understand weight as playing in an important factor when it comes to conveying authority but in a lot of scenarios these are used indiscriminately, with little apparent reflection of brief or concept beyond the superficial. It’s not a significant leap to assume that these are being used by inexperienced designers to improve their own portfolio.

I believe accessibility through reduced cost and the increasing numbers of inexperienced designers is having a detrimental effect on the communicative effectiveness of material and print technologies.


How can designers counter the saturation and diminishing communicative value of material technologies and print finishes in branding?


Experienced designers handling larger budgets should be proactive in their search for new print and material technologies as a way to broaden available communication tools to all designers through an appropriate proliferation and the eventual lowering of cost.

Printers and manufactures should look to make their services more accessible to smaller agencies and individual designers in response to the increasing popularity but limited services of online print production business such as etc.

Designers should support and share new techniques and technologies through social media to help reduce their cost and increase the frequency and profitability of their development.

Experienced designers, through clear rationale laid out in their case studies, should help to educate inexperienced designers on the communicative dimensionality that can be achieved through material choice and print finish.

Seasoned designers should utilise their experience to understand how new untested materials and print finishes might be perceived by consumers and to help foster that perception and raise the general design intelligence of all consumer groups.

Inexperienced designers should take the time to consider, as part of a pre-design process, how material choices and print finishes might be utilised to reflect the values and propositions of their clients. For example wood veneers for flooring specialists, plastics to convey flexibility, foils for exclusivity, recycled or reclaimed substrates for sustainable services.

Designers should explain the communicative value and benefits of more exclusive/expensive material choices through solid rationale and examples to clients with smaller budgets.

For those with low budget clients, there is a wealth of materials out there that are affordable and communicative. Look to source materials yourself rather than relying on in-house stock, consider using off-cuts and recycled boards and papers.

And finally, if you’re new to design be sure to place your client and their brief ahead of your desire to improve your own portfolio. There will always be the temptation to utilise on-trend technique but it is restraint and communicative precision that ultimately leads to results with longevity.

Written by designer Richard Baird with the help of Tom and John of Studio Jubilee
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