Material Matters

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Why creatives want substrates with positive impact

By Kaisha Jantsch

Communication philosopher Marshall McLuhan may have anticipated our digital world in 1964 when he famously theorized that, “The medium is the message,” or that the channel or material used to deliver content carries a message itself. In 2020 and well into the Digital Age, that channel is usually a screen. But according to today’s experts, physical form still matters, and the substrates brands use in their messaging make all the difference.

Terry Marks, board member for the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and founder of Tmarks Design, says substrates are valuable because they have characteristics that go beyond the screen and complement designs created for a digital space. These physical materials have weight, texture, color and rigidity. They can be smooth or coarse and consumers can really experience them.

“If you saw a photo on your phone of a really beautiful diamond ring, you might go, ‘Oh, that’s really cool,’” Marks says, “but if you’re holding it in your hand, it’s a completely different thing. When you have something that’s tangible in front of somebody, it makes a bigger dent [and] you have the opportunity to really blow someone’s mind.”

That is what Marks tried to do with the soy sauce “Thank You” postcards he created for his company. Because his mom is Korean and the Kikkoman soy sauce bottle has always been important to him, he illustrated the bottle, substituted the original branding for his own, and finished the illustrated bottle with ultraviolet coding.

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“Every time I send one of those,” Marks says, “someone sends me a note back saying, ‘Oh my god, this is the coolest thing in the world.’”

That is not the only time that getting creative incorporating substrates into design paid off for Marks. He once did some work for an attorney who specialized in cases involving DUIs and who was known for offering his clients “Seven Rules of the Road.”

In marketing the attorney’s brand, Marks developed black cards resembling the mud flaps on trucks. The front of the cards featured a silver foiling of the female-mud-flap silhouette and the name of the attorney’s firm. The back listed his “Seven Rules of the Road.” The cards ended up being so successful that Marks created another version for beer coasters that were distributed to local bars.

It is the success of design projects like these that continually reiterates to Marks just how valuable substrates are and how important it is for companies and designers to consider the messages that materials and channels can send. “When someone doesn’t give thought to things and [they] just go into Microsoft Word and design [a brochure or pamphlet] and pop it out of a printer, what they’re saying is, ‘I don’t care and I don’t mind being perceived as inexpensive and not very thoughtful.’ Substrates have an amazing effect; by not investing time or thought into [substrates], you make a bad impression.”

Or the wrong one.

For example, if a brand manager markets their company as environmentally friendly or environmentally conscious but uses wasteful or harmful substrates for its product information, printing and packaging, he/she actually signals to consumers, through those substrates, that the company doesn’t really care about what it says it does.

“Substrates have an amazing effect; by not investing time or thought into [substrates], you make a bad impression.”
— Terry Marks, Tmarks Design

“We’re on the cusp of plant-based plastics,” Marks says, which means brands will soon be able to print and package without leaving a footprint. Companies that claim to care about the earth have to be mindful of these kinds of options.

All about the mission

Creative Director at Polyient Labs, Cody Robertson, says that the substrates have to align with the mission. “You can’t talk about saving the environment when you’re destroying it.”

But that gap between substrate and brand doesn’t have to be that glaring to still send the wrong message. For example, credit cards these days are about the material. Thicker, matte cards indicate prestige and luxury. “You drop [one of those cards] and it has that thud,” Robertson says.

When you hold it in your hand it feels smooth and substantial, as if it really carries the money behind it.

Robertson says these luxurious credit cards are designed for a wealthier, high-end demographic, and the cards themselves—sleek and dense—communicate that. Laminated, plastic-y cards don’t send the same specialized message. Flimsier, they seem common and convenient—an intelligent choice for a more financially-modest market.

Given how delicate substrate choices can be in properly communicating a brand’s message, it can be difficult to make the right ones. But Robertson has some advice for the business leaders and designers making those decisions: Know your brand. “The main thing is, you’ve got to know the brand and the purpose. Substrates are an extension of your brand values and your mission. Figure out your mission, your values, your demographic.”

“The main thing is, you’ve got to know the brand and the purpose. Substrates are an extension of your brand values and your mission.”
— Cody Robertson, Polyient Labs

The form will unfold from that.

Marks also offered some wisdom: Put in the time to get it right. “When your paper representative wants to see you, see your paper representative. Think about things like the dye line. And don’t forget that something tangible has a different effect. You can choose to believe whether [substrates] are part of the message or not, but they always are.”

Seven ways to make substrates part of your design

  1. Lead with your brand.
  2. Know your audience.
  3. Learn more about the substrates available.
  4. Find materials that tie function and form.
  5. Use substrates to differentiate yourself from the competition.
  6. Think about the environment.
  7. Never miss the opportunity to make a lasting emotional connection.