Coming to terms with digital

Starting my own business has been a sobering experience for many reasons. For one thing, I’ve realised how long it takes to turn a lead into a client. For another, I’ve been forced to confront a paradox that I’ve been ignoring for years: outside work, I live a digital life, at work I’m a digital refusenik.

As far as possible, I deal with the administrative detritus of life online: banking; shopping; dealing with my local council; calculating and paying taxes. But above all, I get most of my information and entertainment online. I’m an avid reader of the Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post, I watch Stephen Colbert’s monologues and Alec Baldwin’s impersonations of Trump. All online. I’ve always loved ‘finding things out’, and the digital era has made that so much easier that it really is impossible to imagine going back to an analogue world — I don’t think I’ve bought a magazine or a printed newspaper for over a decade. I should add, however, that even outside work I’ve managed to steer clear of social media.

So, as a user, I am (partially) embedded in the digital world. As a producer, I couldn’t have been further from it short of taking up farming or whittling.

My career has coincided with the digital era, but when I started work it seemed like was a choice between print and digital, and I came down absolutely on the print side. That choice was essentially made for me by the fact that I am a verbal and visual person. I understand things through words and images, not numbers. I studied literature, art, philosophy, politics and history. I absolutely respect science and maths, they’re just not me. Coding felt like trying to learn a new language in a completely different alphabet.

The WYSIWYG world of QuarkXpress 3.32, Photoshop 3 and Illustrator 5, on the other hand, fitted me like a glove. No code. Little or no maths. Predictable results (although Quark and/or my Mac crashing almost every day, sometimes every hour, were equally predictable).

Web design seemed in many ways retrogressive. Why go through the extra step of writing code when the apparently random bricolage of brackets, angled brackets, colons, slashes and sundry other punctuation marks was safely hidden under the sleek, friendly interface of Adobe’s software? And why fight with the multitude of different browsers trying to make them show the same thing? When I sent a job off to print, I usually got back exactly what I was expecting. Print design offered quality and control — I got beautiful photo reproduction, wonderful paper finishes, an almost infinite choice of typefaces, and I could position a letter to a thousandth of a millimetre. Nineties web design was best viewed through … well, actually, best avoided.

Print design felt like having a whole orchestra at my command; web design felt like having a stylophone, a kazoo and a young child absentmindedly bashing a toy glockenspiel. If you were also in Brighton in the early 90s, you probably saw that ensemble playing to two people in a pub.

In the meantime, the world has moved on. When I put a portfolio together in my freelance days in the 2000s, it consisted entirely of printed material: glossy reports, magazines, posters. When I made up a portfolio recently, I realised that I really didn’t have much print. I’ve sent much less to print in the last few years, partly because I’ve spent more time working on branding projects, partly because I’ve been managing designers as much as designing. But also because there’s been an undeniable movement away from print towards digital.

One reason for that is the perception that digital is cheap and print is expensive. Apart from direct mail, print is becoming seen as a high end, craft product, like a Leica film camera, or a vinyl record. We’re told that the LP is enjoying a renaissance and that sales are increasing every year, rising by 53 per cent to a total across all titles of 3.2 million in 2016. But the fact that the most popular song on Spotify has been streamed 1.2 billion times in less than a year puts that into stark perspective. Far from dying out, vinyl has found a niche, but it’s a small one and that’s where we’ll probably find print in the future.

Digital is winning not because of price per se but price per view. The infrastructure and payroll costs of digital are actually probably higher, but the potential reach is so much greater that the cost-per-eyeball is a fraction that of print. And those eyeballs are the reason I’m coming to terms with digital, probably 10 years too late, but here I am, slowly picking it up. I don’t where I’ll go with it, but I’m already getting frustrated with the over-simplification of various web builders. Maybe I’ll have to make friends with the angled bracket after all.

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