Interview: Long Live Print
G.F Smith is a living proof against the claims of many that 'print is dead'. Their singular passion for paper has transformed them from a humble paper manufacturer into a leading icon for design and innovation in the creative industry. Personally, G.F Smith has been one of the brands that I would look to for design trends and research. It amazes me how a humble paper supplier could inspire and activate the creative industry from the bottom up—by fostering collaborations and building relationships with creatives from all over the world! Over this spring break, I took the initiative to find out more about their brand philosophy and thoughts towards our digital landscape through an interview with Alyson Hurst.
Alyson Hurst is a graphic art consultant for G.F Smith, guiding choices for print for premium papers, luxury presentations and packaging. In this interview, she shared about the relationship between the digital landscape and their brand, unveiling how the digitalization of our society has, contrary to popular beliefs, elevated and propelled the print industry. Alyson also shared about how they broke into international markets whilst preserving their culture and values.
How long have you been working with G.F Smith?
I have been working with G.F Smith for about 9 years, which is a relatively short period of time! A lot of other colleagues younger than myself have worked for 25—30 years, very much longer! Over this period of time, things have very much changed. It started when we engaged design studios Made Thought and Studio Makgill to oversee our visual strategy 7 years ago. But things really picked up when our marketing manager, James Groves, stepped in. Even though he is no longer with the company, he was really instrumental in transforming our whole mindset and approach to marketing.
In what ways did James use marketing to transform the brand?
He was key in getting everyone to understand our brand value. Branding aligns us with the design industry; the creative industries. Hopefully, we are seen as a partner more than just a supplier to them. We work with a huge amount of interesting and innovative aspirational brands and are really grateful for our association with them. It's fantastic for us! With our innovative edge, we hope to not just respond, but to inspire the creative industry collectively.
From your experience, why should paper be an integral part of a design process?
One of the things that I think is the most important to understand is that paper, along with print, is something that goes hand in hand with your design. If you are designing for print, or for anything that has a material form, you should consider this as the beginning of your whole process. It is part of the process. It is an integral part of the process. It is one of the areas that can really underly the strength of your message. Unlike online design, web design, the tactile of print is such that the paper actually has a really positive influence on how your design is received.
Does the current digital landscape have a positive or negative impact on the paper industry?
Funnily enough, think that it is affecting us in a positive way! 20 years ago, people would say that the computer and the internet would be the death of print. But actually, it has worked in the complete contrary. Today if you supply beautiful papers to the premium end of the industry, people would naturally purchase smaller quantity of papers. On top of that, digital print allows smaller runs and more targeted print pieces, thus makeing our premium papers more affordable.
Now, print is seen as something of a luxury. When you create something that has a physical being, it is more treasured, it is more beautiful. So the emphasis today is to make something more collectible and precious. People also tend to use more interesting papers because it is not something that you are going to print in tens of thousands. That's why I think it interestingly works in our favor.
It has definitely made print more desirable. I mean, you only have to look at prints like magazines. There is no reason for magazines to exist anymore because it can all be done online. Now you have online versions of everything! But still, it's the same with music. Everything can be streamed or downloaded online. But you still see collector's editions of CD's, collector's editions of DVD, limited edition books, everything. It is now more treasured.
I completely agree with you! On that note, I also noticed that G.F Smith has a very vibrant social media account, how has that been working out for you guys?
We actually have a full-time member of staff that does nothing but social media! It is very important for us especially as we increase our global presence. It serves as a way to connect the different marketplaces together, inspiring them through our existing hubs in London and New York. It is a very quick way to show our markets what is going on in the brand. It is the fastest way of communication. It is fantastic!
Also, because it is so quick and easily available, we can share students work with top agencies and brands worldwide too. It might be difficult for a student to make more than 1 or 2 copies of their job, but if they have that beautifully photographed and send it to us, we will tweet it just as much as we would tweet someone else's work. We help network the industry. I think that is a really key part of what we do. We network people together.
So more than just supplying paper, we are also trying to bring the industry together. As a 'paper consultant', my job is to visit customers and our potential customers. They could be students, a large brand or a print company, or a small brand or people just making greeting cards. Anything and whatsoever! Some of these people may be start-up companies who would need help looking for printing partners or other suppliers. We know people, we know everyone in the industry. So we really like putting people together.
How did you establish and maintain your international presence?
This is quite a new for us, we only really only started looking internationally maybe about 4-5 years ago. We have two team members that work primarily on our international markets. One who oversees international sales person, and another based in Switzerland who is responsible for Europe. We are now in lots of markets. We launched in India and Australia a few weeks ago. It's an ongoing process that is primarily led by one of our managing directors who is out constantly researching new partners and new markets.
A few years ago when we launched in the US, all of our team worked in New York for a month. Our team went to New York, not as a group because we are needed here, but one after the other. Each person works for a month to work with our American stockers to try and explain to them how we market our products, to get into the G.F Smith mindset. We do work quite hard to develop our presence internationally. We want people we work with to understand the design market locally and understand that our papers are not sold with a price list or a printer, but with inspiration and aspiration.
How do you cope with the cultural and language differences whilst working internationally?
We have an overseas representative who speaks 5 languages. We also connect with a local to translate and communicate our brand. And obviously, we have all our swatches and materials in their local languages as well. Everything is translated and printed for that market.
Agents and Stockers don't belong to us, but we call them partners. Every year we have an international conference which is held in Hull. It is very exciting every year, and we have all of our partners come over for a few days and they have activities and dinner and lectures and a really good time. It's like a party. The idea is that we share our experiences and difficulties and successes.
There is currently a growing trend in sustainable design, but G.F Smith has always been environmentally conscious since it's birth. How do you communicate this value to your clients who might not have that knowledge?
Actually, that is a very good question! I don't think we do it very well actually. I think we could probably do more to encourage questioning of that very subject. Because I think you're right. You're right that it's a trend at the moment, but it is actually not very often in meetings that we are asked about it. It is very rare for clients to ask about upholding sustainability in our meetings. Interesting, but very rarely. To be perfectly honest, the people who are most likely to ask me about it are students. It is often not even mentioned. They are just curious about trends, the company, our services and what we can provide. But really, very few people will go into sustainability. And the people that go into sustainability would be because their product is a sustainable product and they need to have the reassurance that what we are doing is going to complement what they are doing. I guess there is a need to communicate this better.
From bottom up, how does the value of sustainability translates?
It is about understanding that paper as itself is an ultimately recyclable product. In a way, design is something that should be both functional and beautiful—not being too overly extravagant with things. The paper merchant and the designers have to work together. It's not just the paper merchant's role to uphold sustainability.
Do you have any closing thoughts about the future of paper?
Years ago, someone was talking about moving paper by embedding chips to project moving images, which I think would be amazing. I can't see what that can't happen, I can't see why not! This is probably a little far in the future, but technology and print are really not enemies. If we can have clothing that reacts to the environment, I don't see why it can't be the same for paper. Clothing and paper are often made of very similar type of fibers, so I can't see why you can't incorporate other materials into paper that could become clever, like intelligent paper.
I think the future of GF. Smith would be outside of paper. I mean it the would always be about paper, but I am sure that the company would expand what it does even more. It could be anything; anything related to the creative industry. And technology will really be part of what we do.