The development of print goes hand-in-hand with the history of design, whether books, posters, advertising or today’s websites. The Museum of Printing in the heart of the city of Lyon, France, an important crossroads between northern and southern Europe, bears witness to this fascinating relationship...

The Story of Print

Among the many inventions that have changed the world we live in, the invention of print surely ranks in the top ten. It has democratised learning, printed the world’s classics, permitted the universalisation of self-expression, enabled library services, created an advertising industry and disseminated iconic images worldwide. Without the printing press today's world would not be possible.

The Museum of Printing in the city of Lyon is one of the most important of its kind in the world. Concerned with every aspect of printing and the revolutions this ever developing technology promoted or made possible, the museum tells the remarkable story of the factors that needed to come together to put the novel in your hand, the newspaper through your letterbox, the invoice in the brown envelope, the magazine in the newsagent and the book on the library shelf.

This is a story where simple innovations have radical and far-reaching effects such as the invention of moveable single character blocks in Korea in the third century that would eventually liberate Europe from the single block woodcut, or the move from parchment to paper which through ever more refined industrial processes became cheap enough to allow the mass production of books.

Not only the hardware: presses, papers and inks, are important in this story. The history of the typeface reflects the growth of humanism across Europe. The heavy Gothic scripts, still favoured in German printing until recently, but the origins of which lie in the medieval, hand-written manuscript, were replaced in Southern Europe, including Lyon, by Roman typefaces such as we still read today. The reasons were practical and ideological: legibility was important in books as they became smaller but the Roman typeface referenced classical learning and science over ecclesiastical dogma.

The adoption of printing gave rise to a proliferation and spread of ideas that led in many countries to the creation of a legal deposit system which acts as the foundation for national collections. The aim however was not the acquisition of knowledge as much as the need to control the types of knowledge out there. With the growth in printing came the growth of censorship.

The city of Lyon was one of the major European centres for the growth of printing. Rabelais was first printed there; the humanists, including Erasmus, had their works disseminated from this great city. Situated on a geographical crossroads and home to two of France's greatest rivers, the Soane and the Rhone, printed material from Lyon crossed Europe and went further afield as European imperialism expanded.

The Industrial Revolution brought about a huge increase in the capability for the production of printed material. The newspaper, the novel and the printed government form all appeared and could be readily mass produced. The printed word was no longer the possession and privilege of the rich. Everyone who could read - and reading grew as printing grew - could pick up a book and decide on issues of the day for themselves.

And when governments tried to suppress printing, it went underground. In France printing helped disseminate the ideas of the Revolution, helped maintain morale during the Nazi occupation and inspired a generation of students to revolt in 1968. Our main sources for understanding these huge events is the printed material of the time now stored in our libraries for all to read and study.

Printing is fundamental to the development of design. From early block prints, repeatable but limited in components, to today’s explosion of rich colour printing on almost any surface or material, the possibilities that technology has offered has resulted in changing tastes and expectations in design output. Today’s designers, such as those working in the BDSDigital studio, will think in terms of brand and web as a starting point but this can develop in any numbers of directions, from the business card to the decal on an aeroplane or company van, from the planning of 3d exhibition spaces to 3d printing.

It all started with the creation of repeatable methods of applying ink to a support, the possibility to reproduce again and again almost identical copies of one piece of information, whether as a typeface or symbol or image.

Ironically, things have come full circle with the recent rise of print on demand. Today, a single master copy in digital format can be sent to a printing press and one single copy returned in the post. Print has continually developed and changed and in the process has changed the way we live, grow, interact with each other and the world around us.