The Importance of Innovation in Print

Wide format is an evolving industry. Is your shop keeping up?

Much like “blue sky thinking”  or “core competencies,” “innovation” is sometimes thought of as one of those business buzzwords that gets thrown around so much it doesn’t actually mean anything. Often, too, the word conjures up associations with companies like Apple and Google, or plucky small-time tech startups in Silicon Valley.

The truth, though, is that innovation continues to be vitally important in every industry, and print is no different. There’s nothing particularly mysterious about the concept itself; the Cambridge English Dictionary defines the word simply as “(the use of) a new idea or method.”

Most of us know intuitively that ingenious new ideas can be rocket fuel for success in many fields. And yet, we can get caught up in the day-to-day running of our businesses and eventually end up doing things because we’ve “always done them that way.”

The problem isn’t just that an unimaginative company will fail to get ahead in its industry. The reality is much worse; A company that fails to embrace innovation whilst surrounded by innovative competitors will actually end up moving backward, becoming more and more irrelevant and out of date over time. 

Some of us think of innovation as inherently risky. It often involves an investment of time, money, or other resources on new technology, expensive creative talent, and so on – an investment that never involves a 100-percent guarantee of seeing a return. But is this more risky than the practically certain slow death of stagnation in an industry as dynamic as print? 

Paths to Innovation

Business experts sometimes subcategorize the idea of innovation into four types, which can be useful starting points for out-of-the-box thinking: 

  • Product: New products emerge regularly, and businesses that embrace these set themselves up for greater success in the long term. The products a print supplier offers its clients are (usually) the core of their businesses, and simply staying “in tune” with new solutions in the industry, whether that’s substrates, inks, or installations, can help you remain on the cutting edge. 
  • Process: It’s not just about what you make – it’s about how you make it. Some of the best print innovation takes place behind the scenes, on the shop floor, and in the processes that go into the work we produce. Whether this means investing in the latest technology to increase your workflow (being able to check in on the status of a printer from a smartphone is pretty handy), maintaining color consistency across a range of different substrates simultaneously, or coming up with an ingenious new way of logging requests, remember even small process innovations can make a noticeable difference. 
  • Supply Chain: It may not be as glamorous as a shiny new product for your customers (literally, if you offer mirror substrates), but there might be room to innovate with regard to where materials or equipment are sourced. Whether this means forming unique agreements with suppliers or cutting out the proverbial middle man where possible, finding ways to work smart and not hard when it comes to your supply chain is vital. 
  • Marketing: Being innovative in the way you market your services – even if the services themselves don’t change all that much – can significantly boost your print company’s performance. Remember, Coca-Cola used to struggle to sell their drinks in the winter until they came up with their now-iconic Santa Claus campaign; the drink didn’t change, but their marketing did. By being innovative in the way your company markets itself, you can open up a world of potential. 

Of course, you don’t have to subscribe to one school of innovation alone. At PressOn, for example, we’ve tried to innovate in multiple ways to ensure we’re offering our clients the best solutions that go above and beyond their requirements. We’re dedicated to adopting new technologies, and we’ve also found success by taking unusual approaches to marketing, client acquisition, and being willing to rock the boat a bit with some of the projects we take on (more on that later).

Thinking Outside the Box 

Innovation doesn’t have to be limited to what you do; it can also involve who you do it for. If your business is stuck in a proverbial rut, offering the same products to the same businesses continuously, you can shake things up by targeting highly visible clients with a popular following. Doing so, and providing print for a project that could become a talking point, can really raise your company’s profile.

Importantly, to really innovate in this regard, you need to think broadly about who you’re willing to work with. Campaigns for established brands in standard formats are valuable (and essential) to a supplier, but thinking outside the box can make all the difference. Artists, photographers, celebrities, infrastructure projects, and unique events such as music festivals can all offer valuable opportunities to break the mold. 

quoteAt PressOn, some of our most recognizable and successful work has been for these kinds of clients, and we’re always on the lookout for “weird and wonderful” projects. It may seem as if there aren’t many dramatic or exciting applications you can create with printing, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. If you think about what’s possible, not just what you and everyone else usually does, all kinds of opportunities can present themselves. 

Sometimes even working with a single individual can be a great experience. Our recent collaboration with fashion photographer Ram Shergill is a great example. PressOn printed a collection of Shergill’s photographs in large format onto such substrates as aluminium and acrylic. The pieces formed part of his Exoskeleton exhibition, held in Los Angeles and London. 

You don’t have to think only in two dimensions; you can really up the “wow” factor with 3D. Last summer, we worked with a company called 3D Eye to make an enormous bank vault-style frontage for Harrods in London, which came out looking amazing. Projects like these can blur the line between strictly commercial advertising and a kind of art installation, plus they can be great for generating publicity. 

Print Is a Creative Medium

Print perhaps doesn’t seem to be as dynamic to some clients as it does to those in the industry. Without insider knowledge of the latest technologies, trends, and techniques, it would be easy to think that print is the same as it’s ever been. Many clients won’t really know the depths of what can be achieved with print, and it’s our job to tell them. 

It’s not just about innovating the way we work and the things we create – it’s about being innovative in how we present the print industry to our clients and the wider world. When deadlines are tight and things are busy, it’s easy to fall back into a safe routine and simply acquiesce to client requests without further thought.

pull quotePrint, though, is an inherently creative industry – even if it might not always seem so. If you commission an artist to create a painting, you don’t just expect them to paint exactly what you described; you want them to add their own style. While print specialists still need to meet the clients’ requirements, when it comes to the materials, processes, and products used, it’s important to think innovatively and creatively about the potential of a campaign.  

You don’t have to wait for people to come to you to ask for interesting projects printed onto unusual substrates. You can – and should – make creative suggestions about the print work to your clients, to help them broaden their understanding of how different products or techniques might make for more impactful installations. Usually, clients will have a pretty good idea of what they want, but most will be open to suggestions that could be even better. If you can make something truly original, it will help them stand out from the competition.

Even a standard installation can be elevated to the level of something remarkable with the simple addition of a custom element, an unusual substrate, or possibly a different product altogether. But your clients won’t always know what you can do, so be inventive in your thinking, and be confident in letting them know what you can help them achieve.

Think of the Planet

Something that customers do increasingly think about is the environment, particularly when it comes to plastics and solvents. We all know large-format printing isn’t often the most eco-conscious process, but this can change – and it is changing. New technologies and ideas emerge all the time, and innovation in this area could be the thing that sets a print specialist apart. 

Environmental conscientiousness is going to be a major consideration for print businesses in the coming years. Many customers are already asking if products are recyclable and inquiring about the carbon footprint of the solutions they’re ordering. The good news for printers is that sustainability is yet another opportunity to stand out from the competition. 

By switching some of your output to things like responsibly sourced substrates and eco-friendly inks, a print company can openly and honestly let its clients know it’s working to make print greener – and the eco-angle can also be used to help persuade them to try new products.

At PressOn, we’ve been offering tension fabric frames as a more eco-friendly alternative, and have recently started offering 3D box banners made from these frames. Not only do they look amazing, but they’re printed on textile media and utilize a completely reusable aluminum frame with almost no plastic components. This can reduce the amount of vinyl that ends up in the landfill; fabric panels and the frames themselves last for years, and are quickly and easily interchangeable. Sometimes innovation is about keeping an ear to the ground, staying abreast of new developments, and also watching the trajectory of the wider cultural zeitgeist. 

In the end, there are a thousand and one ways to innovate and break the mold. It’s not just good for business; it’s good for everybody on the team to produce work that’s exciting and inspiring, and feel proud about it when they go home at the end of the day. 

Sometimes it can take a little perspective (it can be hard to nurture fresh insights about an industry you live and breathe day in and day out), but often a little creativity is all it takes. After all, you should give people as many reasons as possible to choose your print firm over another – because just saying “we promise we’re really good” isn’t always enough. Sometimes, you have to prove it.


Nigel Webster is one of the managing directors of PressOn, a large-format digital printing company based in Chatham, Kent, UK. The shop specializes in temporary graphics for construction, vehicle wraps (from trucks to taxis), and all aspects of retail display, including window graphics. 

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