Tag Archives: substrates


This is a continuation of the previous look at the typographer’s process at the beginning of a project, and we’ll end up talking about paper and other substrates.

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A quick note on the creative brief before we proceed

Not only should the creative brief be clear about which objectives the project attempts to satisfy, it should articulate how it intends to do this as explicitly as possible. This second half of the brief is commonly overlooked or postponed in order to keep the process flexible. Make it explicit. Don’t let it just get rolled into the client approval process. My suggestion is to keep the brief updated and referred to regularly by both you and the client as the job progresses. That way, it serves as both a solid base and a structure from which the work can proceed, that adapts as necessary.

In the case of designing a set of concert tour materials, one example of an above adaptation may be to go from designing a single tour poster—to a small poster series done by studio collaborators. In the case of a publication, it may mean to transition from five 16-page daily broadsheets to a weekly-published 64-page tabloid.

Considerations the typographer is making at this point

As the brief solidifies, the job of the designer is to give the textual elements and their medium physical form. Even small projects pose big questions here, because of the seemingly endless possibilities and the constraints each imposes. In print design, getting the body copy working with the publication dimensions, adjusting each as one goes, and exploring substrates and the processes by which the piece is produced and bound is the first step toward putting real evidence behind this second part of the brief. With each serious paper option, run press checks and make a series of paper dummies to hold, heft, flip through, and examine how each feels.

What’s a substrate? Most commonly in print work, it’s paper. Substrate is a broad generic term for the underlying physical layer onto which one puts content. This includes all materials that carry the graphic information you apply to them, even physical pixels. And also in print there are a range of non-paper substrates used, each with its own limitations and peculiar processes for printing on or otherwise marking the sheet.

Paper and paper-like substrates

Paper, either hand-made or machine-made comes in a broad spectrum of weights, finishes, fiber content, colors, coatings, and specialized purposes. This is not to mention that there are fundamental differences in the ways that different classes of paper are produced. All laid, for example has a characteristic set of chain lines visible when held up to light. Most of the paper in use today is wove, which has a more or less uniform texture throughout. I could describe each category listed above in more detail, but I suggest instead a field trip to a paper supplier or well-stocked design studio, or that you order a range of samples for comparison. I do want to briefly focus on two important aspects of paper:

Basis Weight generally helps in determining the suitability of a paper stock to a given usage. It’s the paper’s density that the word ‘weight’ here is trying to describe. In the US, you need to pay close attention to whether it’s a cover weight or a text weight for the number to be remotely useful. It’s given in pounds, with the understanding that, for example, one ream of 40 pound text (40#t), weighs 40 pounds. You may be asking yourself, “Forty? Really? A ream is only 500 sheets. They must be huge sheets of paper.” You’d be right. For text grades, the sheet measured is 25 × 38 inches. Different grades are measured off of different standard sizes (and different quantities for what constitutes a ream). Without physically examining a given stock of paper from a manufacturer, it’s impossible to know what you’re getting. I really envy what the metric system has done elsewhere, with its no-nonsense paper density measured in grams per square meter.

Grain determines in which direction a sheet of paper naturally bends, and most successfully folds. To experience this, pick up any normal sheet of office paper. Put your hands together in front of you with palms facing up and place the paper on top. As you begin to close your palms together, as you would to fold the sheet in half, note the resistance the paper gives to being folded. Now open your hands, turn the sheet 90° and repeat the process. Feel that? One axis bends easily; the other is a bit stiffer. Put the paper back in front of you in the position where it bends easily, and raise your hands to eye level. You’re now looking along the grain. This means that the paper’s fibers lay primarily in the direction you’re now looking. When designing any printed piece with pages that a reader turns, this is the orientation the grain should be in—parallel with the spine. When ordering paper, the direction of the grain is marked either implicitly, 13 × 19, by the second number, or more explicitly, with an underline, 18 × 24. Knowing this stuff is especially important if the design requires folds.

You may be asking yourself at this point, “Didn’t this discussion leave the subject of typography a long way back?” Well, it turns out that the whole of type, the history of the forms themselves, their units of measurement, etc., are responses to the societal, economic, and technical constraints of the time, including for a long portion of its history, the means of printing and ranges of quality in paper. So, the consideration of the suitability of a given type family to a paper stock is one; and two, if the typographer’s expertise is to extend thus far in creating the feel of the book or other publication, should it not also consider how the pages move when turned?

Other substrates

Once you get started, there’s really no end. Wood, glass, metal, concrete, stone, porcelain, fabric, leather, even live animals are subject to branding. Each has its own processes.

We’ll pick up this discussion next week, and I’ll get a into inks and processes. That’s it for now. Using Type continues here Thursday. Thanks to Berton Hasebe’s Alda for setting the title.


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