In the mid 1400s Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press, a technology which allowed information to spread far more rapidly thanks to what is now a simple concept: movable type.
Nearly 550 years later, the advent of the internet had much the same effect, but you’ll have a hard time getting people to agree over which invention had a greater impact.
Graphic designers James Cuddy and Roma Levin along with digital maker Danilo Di Cuia comprise a London-based design collective that is tackling that question head-on. Their ongoing project, Out of Print, is an interactive exploration of the interplay between technology and the tangible.
With an installation that featured as part of autumn’s London Design Festival, an app, and a website in development, Out of Print is a multimedia endeavor that stemmed in part from the collective’s desire to reconcile two very different parts of their lives.
“We’ve all done printing and things that take a while—they’re quite tactile and they’re quite considered. But we also work in advertising where it’s very disposable and ‘now,’” Levin said. “We wanted to use letterpress not as a way to paint quaint, cute posters but as a way to show the contrast between the two technologies and the fact that they can work together at the same time.”
Step one was creating software that would generate headlines at random by aggregating words from trending headlines across selected news sources. The app uses the simple headline structure of subject, action, object—modeled after the loathed and loved British tabloid the Daily Mail—as the base of a simple algorithm.
When attendees of the exhibition entered the space, they chose what should be printed from a stream of fabricated headlines on a computer. The trio then used the most basic printing technology possible to create posters which filled the wall space. Think of it as a physical manifestation of Twitter, just much slower.
“There’s the idea that when you send a Tweet you forget about it after a couple of hours,” Levin said. “Whereas we wanted to play with what would happen if the Tweet turns into what looks like a work of art.”
Even though the assembly of the headlines was generated randomly by the created app, Cuddy said something resembling the hashtag phenomenon was evident as the exhibition progressed.
“You’d roughly see the things in the news change over the days. One day it’d be all about Kate Middleton and the next day something else,” Cuddy said. “So we want to take that idea and build the website around building up an archive of 2013 news.”
While the project did create aesthetically pleasing posters and generate some sales, the trio says that for them, using a printing press is not just a simple exercise in nostalgia destined to end up on Pinterest. Levin, who works in advertising, says he is increasingly put off by the fact that digital media is predominately used in a commercial capacity.
“For me, the project came about as a kind of reaction against the fact that digital is used heavily to just sell more things,” Levin said “So that was one of reasons why we wanted to reverse it and look at it from more of a perspective of how tech can serve other purposes.”
Cuddy added that despite the heavy use of technology throughout their design work, the collective’s ethos is all about putting a focus on the intrinsic value of a tangible object, and how that can coexist with technology.
“I do still value physical objects and I think things have almost come full circle in that the internet is now increasingly controlling physical objects,” Cuddy said “A lot of these new technologies are so young and are constantly being shaped, so I think it’s useful to step sideways a little and just sort of let them—they are changing the way we communicate, but they also have the potential to enhance it.”