The most exciting design tool ever

drupa 2021 – In praise of digital print

Amarula save the elephant campaign Photo Amarula via Internet
Amarula save the elephant campaign Photo Amarula via Internet

I believe that the design community, to which I belong, should embrace digital print as their new design tool. And I also expect companies will address this community, or target audience, by catering to their needs with tools to actually make it happen.

As an art director looking at the world through a creative lens, print has always been a means to an end. I’ve always loved print as such, but I was ambivalent about it as I felt I had to compromise my creative ideas to get the best printed results. Whether this was due to color or to production constraints, it was a limiting factor.

Over the last decade, however, I’ve had the privilege of managing the creative work done by HP Indigo and became intimately acquainted with digital print. I’ve fallen head over heels in love with it! Instead of limiting my work, it has enabled me to reach new heights of creativity and stretch the limits of my imagination. I have discovered that digital print is the best, newest, most exciting design tool there is. It is my new paintbrush, my color pallet, and my toolbox.

The air-brush of today and tomorrow

The development of digital print is reminiscent of the advent of the modern air-brush: suddenly, there was a new technology for releasing ink onto paper. It was easy to learn and use, and it quickly became popular. With this new tool, a whole new art form started, taking photo-realism and photo-retouching to a completely new level. Digital printing can do just that and be the new air-brush for the graphic-design community, an exciting new chapter that quickly expands design capabilities.

As designers, customers have also changed, and so have their marketing and branding requirements. This affects what is required of us – basically, it changes our own product. In the past, branding was based on consistency with the psychological rationale that familiarity will lead to brand recognition, brand preference, buying, and loyalty. 

When my generation, so-called generation X, walked into a supermarket and saw the myriad brand options on-shelf, our hands would somehow instinctively reach for the familiar one. The brand looked the same as it always had been, reminding us of home, safety, and predictability.

Then the millennials came along, who were brought up to expect personal service. Safety or predictability was less of an issue, and familiarity was nothing to them – on the contrary, it was ‘boring.’ Millennials don’t see themselves as ‘part of a crowd’ – they prefer to be regarded as ‘one of a kind.’ They expect brand-owners to treat them as individuals and target their products specifically to themselves.

Sustainability also became an issue, and altogether, mass production and traditional advertising were not cutting it. As a response, marketing departments and advertising agencies started developing more targeted campaigns with ‘activation’ tactics to reach and appeal to these new consumers. However, still, overall, the personal touch was mostly missing. Millennials, who grew up with the internet, are

certainly more used to sharing their personal data in exchange for content. They are happy to participate and click if this means the brand will acknowledge them personally. They expect the brands to use this data and get the product right.

Now comes generation Z, which is even more internet savvy in every possible way. To them, technology comes as naturally as the air they breathe. It’s taken for granted. According to a recent report on customer trust trends from Salesforce, “Although a slim majority of consumers are still wary of companies’ intentions when it comes to handing over personal data, Gen Z and millennials are more game to take that risk — as long as they are getting something in return.” So, how do we offer today’s customers the right product in today’s consumer market? The ultimate answer to this question is: with digital print! Digital print allows us to control and change the data on a print product, using information the consumer has given us to make it the most relevant product possible for them.

Mind the gap

At the moment, there is a gap between the possibility or idea and what the design world is doing. In most cases, designers, unaware of the potential of digital, still design ‘for any print technology,’ being wary of color limitations and not using the digital tools potentially available to them for an improved brand experience. Closing this gap lies in the hands of the print-vendor (or print service provider). Proactive and agile printing firms can help their customers achieve huge marketing success by offering them such design tools.

I once worked with a team on developing such tools. I had the honor of collaborating with big international brands who used these tools to deliver astonishing, impactful campaigns where digital print enabled the product itself to become the media. The first campaign was a collaboration with Diet Coke in Israel: 2 million different Diet Coke bottles. In Israel, Coca Cola was looking to increase its Diet Coke sales, and the brand manager, an innovative young millennial, was seeking something new, something different. 

Diet Coke Israel sleeve labels created using HP's Mosaic algorithm Image Coca Cola via Internet
Diet Coke Israel sleeve labels created using HP’s Mosaic algorithm Image Coca Cola via Internet

Having experienced the power of digital print with the ‘Share a Coke’ campaign in summer 2014, a campaign that broke the boundaries of personalized mass production, she realized that the campaign’s staggering results pointed to an obvious customer need or desire. She then reached out to our marketing team, and her brief to us was this: “We need 2 million bottles, every single one different from the other – doesn’t matter how. Just keep the logo and ingredients as they are. Everything must be on the shelf in 2 months.”

With a combined effort between R & D and design teams, we came up with ‘HP Smartstream Mosaic,’ an algorithm that manipulated the design result. It’s a plug-in for Adobe CC and is very easy to use. The result is one that manual labor could never achieve. How does the algorithm work? In short, the designer supplies the ‘seed pattern’, and the algorithm manipulates it into different results each time a page is printed. Never repeating, always changing. The design work took two weeks, with 23 seed patterns created to achieve 2 million different individual designs. Digital print allowed a fast turnaround, and the product was on the shelf on time.

Save the elephants

A second such campaign example and a personal favorite of mine used the same algorithm and digital print technology to support an even bigger goal, namely ’cause driven marketing.’ “Millennials and Generation Z are continuously changing the way consumer experiences are being created. Cause driven marketing plays a large role in this change, and brands and marketers should find a cause to stand for to impact these generations.”

Many marketing research studies have concluded this, and Amarula, a liquor brand from South Africa, embodies this by supporting the ‘save the elephants’ campaign. Elephants are relentlessly poached for their ivory, and the Amarula brand has from the start been supporting the cause to save them – symbolized by the elephant on its label.

Using HP Smartstream mosaic, Amarula put 400,000 different bottles on-shelf, each with a differently designed elephant that represents a living one. Two seed patterns were created, and the digital press and software handled the rest. For every bottle purchased, Amarula donated money to a foundation they partnered with. Digital print enabled this emotional, big-issue message to get across on-shelf as every bottle could be as unique as every real elephant. Just as with Diet Coke, the message from the brand to today’s younger generation was carried on the product and was supported by a 360˚ campaign, which drove consumer engagement and brand equity through the roof.

So, to re-cap my arguments – today’s consumer market thrives on personalized, individualized, brand communications. However, many brands are still confused by this fundamental consumer change and how it affects their supply-chain. Printers themselves hold the key to new digital print capabilities but don’t actually participate in marketing strategy talks with brands or their designers – and so the gap remains! The design community has a real opportunity to unleash digital as their new ‘air-brush’ to create beautiful, personalized multichannel campaigns and enable a new kind of marketing.

At drupa 2021, you will witness a world of almost endless possibilities. Visit drupa, get in touch, and embrace the future!

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

Indian Printer and Publisher founded in 1979 is the oldest B2B trade publication in the multi-platform and multi-channel IPPGroup. While the print and packaging industries have been resilient in the past 33 months since the pandemic lockdown of 25 March 2020, the commercial printing and newspaper industries have yet to recover their pre-Covid trajectory.

The fragmented commercial printing industry faces substantial challenges as does the newspaper industry. While digital short-run printing and the signage industry seem to be recovering a bit faster, ultimately their growth will also be moderated by the progress of the overall economy. On the other hand book printing exports are doing well but they too face several supply-chain and logistics challenges.

The price of publication papers including newsprint has been high in the past year while availability is diminished by several mills shutting down their publication paper and newsprint machines in the past four years. Indian paper mills are also exporting many types of paper and have raised prices for Indian printers. To some extent, this has helped in the recovery of the digital printing industry with its on-demand short-run and low-wastage paradigm.

Ultimately digital print and other digital channels will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future. For instance, there is no alternative to a rise in textbook consumption but this segment will only reach normality in the next financial year beginning on 1 April 2023.

Thus while the new normal is a moving target and many commercial printers look to diversification, we believe that our target audiences may shift and change. Like them, we will also have to adapt with agility to keep up with their business and technical information needs.

Our 2023 media kit is ready, and it is the right time to take stock and reconnect with your potential markets and customers. Print is the glue for the growth of liberal education, new industry, and an emerging economy. We seek your participation in what promises to be an interesting ride.

– Naresh Khanna

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  1. The paradigm is interesting — to present a press or a digital press system with its variable algorithm software as a tool. The author tries to encourage printers to think like designers, just as an airbrush or a pencil is a light tool in the hands of a designer, for the printer the system including the prepress software and the digital press should be seen as a tool. This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. I know printers in Noida who show you their multicolor with coater million-dollar press and then describe this space, their pressroom as “my studio.” This is the creative capability and mindset needed to be a real printer.


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