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This is how I choose paper: as part of the initial concept.

Hans Wolbers is a Dutch art director who studied applied arts and design at the University of Arts in Utrecht, The Netherlands. After graduating, he founded Lava Amsterdam, a studio that soon became one of Holland’s leading design agencies known for its talent in creating and developing smart and trendy editorial publications. In 2002, he became a member of the AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale). Today, as Lava’s principal, Wolbers and his team focus on creative strategy, editorial design, interactive design and dynamic identities. The agency has won numerous international awards and its work was exhibited in various countries. Wolbers regularly conducts workshops and lectures in Europe, Russia, Taiwan, China, Indonesia and Iran. In 2012 Lava expanded its creative activities with collaborative projects in Moscow, Istanbul and Seoul – and with the opening of a permanent office in Beijing.

The Lava office, inside an old grain elevator on the Amsterdam waterfront, is a cathedral full of light. But when you walk in, what attracts your attention at first is not the soaring space but rather the perspective at eye level. Every available surface, it seems, is covered with piles of paper. Heaps of paper. Reams of paper. Rolls of paper. The white sheets are stacked on long counters, with workstations squeezed in between. Around the place, on bulletin boards, paper charts are posted, covered with notes layered on top of each other. “The people who use the most paper in our company are the web designers,” explains Hans Wolbers, who founded Lava 25 years ago. “They need paper to think. It is so much faster than digital tools.”

Today, only a third of the work done at the agency ends up in print. It used to be a lot more, when editorial design was Lava’s main focus. Now the creative teams include graphic, motion and interactive designers who handle branding and communication projects for a wide range of clients. “We do not specify paper as often as we did ten years ago, but when we do, we are particularly attentive to what our choice says about the project,” remarks Wolbers. “The personality of the paper must reflect the personality of the brand message.”

In the Netherlands, paper is serious business. For his etchings, Rembrandt would experiment with different papers (some local, some imported from Japan) in order to get drastically different tonal variations. By the end of the 18th century, Dutch paper was considered the finest in Europe. The techniques of fabrication were the most advanced, allowing for exceptionally beautiful results in printmaking. “But the best paper on earth is worth nothing if the information on it is meaningless,” observes Wolbers. “That’s why I have a love-hate relationship with paper. It’s tricky: you have to choose the right paper because what it says is part of the content.”

Véronique Vienne

His paper

Curious Collection Metallics Shadow 120g.

Paper which has a rainbow effect with intense magnetism, creating a contrast with the cyan blue of its visual aspect.


VV :

How do you know it’s the “right” paper?


The choice of paper starts with its “feel” but also its weight. If you are after the perception that what’s printed on it is valuable, then weight is a good thing. The lighter the paper, the less respect readers will have for what they read. There are many clichés such as this one. However trite they may seem, you can’t ignore them.

You have to think about the assumptions readers will make regarding the feel of paper. For example, even though uncoated paper might be a lot more expensive than coated paper, the perception is that it is cheaper. And you wouldn’t want to print something about the environment on glossy paper – even if it happens to be more eco-friendly than some fancy matte paper – it would simply send the wrong message.

The choice of paper is not only part of the brand message, it also informs users on what to do afterwards, whether to keep or throw away the publication, the book, or the magazine they just read.

Printed matter is something most of us are reluctant to throw away. Information seen or read on a page is more memorable than the same information seen or read on a screen – so, naturally, the tendency is to keep it.

Granted, stuff you want to keep, think about, etc. is best printed on paper. Print media belongs to a much slower timeframe than its digital counterpart. Not only because it lasts longer, but also because it is slower to produce. But that’s not the main issue. Let’s assume that somewhere in South Korea – as we speak – someone is inventing a digital screen that looks and feels just like paper. But so what? What does it means in terms of longevity? Will the information on it survive? Will it be more attractive, more interesting, or more memorable than the information printed on traditional paper?

What matters to me is how long the information will remain relevant, not whether it’s available on paper, on a screen, or on some other miracle surface.

Are you talking about information as text? What about images? They look better on a bright and glossy surface, don’t they?

The problem with printed images is not the way they look but the way they function. Because of the technology, there is no shortage of great-looking photographs these days, but what do they mean? Sure, what people want are visual stories – stories told in images. But let me ask you: why stare at pictures when you can watch small documentaries on your tablet? When I send photographers on assignment, I tell them to make short five-second films instead of portraits or pictures. If you want pictures, you can go to museums to gaze at paintings, drawings, etchings, watercolors and beautiful printed posters.

You don’t think that pictures have a place in our culture anymore?

Truth be told, we don’t really know anymore what visual communication really is. We’ve lost the ability to read images as symbols. In the past, people who couldn’t read could nonetheless read signs. Illiterate people looked at visuals and got the message in a way we can’t even comprehend today.

Comments like “This is really a beautiful picture” are meaningless, in my opinion. Personally, I don’t care about beautiful pictures – I want to know what they are trying to say. I am a typical agency man. I am not an artist. I go for the concept that’s right.

Unfortunately, too many digital designers are still thinking like print designers, with information delivered on a screen as a series of still images – almost like revolving posters on street display panels. I even know of some designers who design static posters and then post them on a screen as pdf’s. It’s ridiculous. On that same screen, they could as easily show moving images or at least post links to videos. This is something we still have to teach designers: stop translating print media into digital media, and instead think directly into moving images.

If only we could make printed images come to life!

This is exactly what I am working on these days. I have developed this new viewing device that allows you to look at layers of printed images under controlled RGB light. When you slowly change the balance between the red, the green and the blue light, different parts of the images come alive. It’s spectacular. You get the impression that the picture is moving right in front of your eyes. What looks like a regular poster in daylight, when seen through my device becomes a living, breathing, animated image.

Is it analog or digital? I don’t care.

What I care about is that my layered images be printed on the best paper possible, so that the whites are bright and the printed colors are as brilliant as possible. This is how I choose paper: as part of the initial concept. I love paper, but it has to serve a purpose that I can identify.

Would you say that paper is a language of its own? It’s more than a mere surface, it’s a form of expression?

Ask my web designers. For them paper is the language of thought, of research, of analysis. They appreciate the versatility of paper – its formats and its convenience. For book designers, it might be about texture, color and weight. For printers it might be the way paper reacts to various inks. For me, paper is a communication tool. Even when printed matter is not the final product, somewhere along the creative process, I know that paper will play a critical role.

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