Relief From the Mundane

Putting the user first has never been more important.

Words by canic canic
Published August 23, 2022
Last Updated July 1, 2024

Do you ever find yourself rubbing a piece of fabric or paper between your fingers? Running your fingertips through textures like fur or even patches of long grass? As designers, we observe and learn from our experiences, and we bring these qualities to both our print and our digital projects.

The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left a lot of us craving human connection and touch, perhaps further amplified by the cold, slick devices we utilize to stay connected. Putting the user first and designing solutions around what they need has never been more important. You may have noticed packaging textured to evoke a sense of luxury, or perhaps an eco-friendly aesthetic reassuring you that you’re making a good choice for the wellbeing of the environment. Each outcome is thoughtfully designed to provide the user with feedback. For example: that button that animates when we tap it, the click we hear when the lid is closed properly, or the soft wool that will feel comfortable on our skin. The emotional responses differ with each individual but are often tied to memories, personal experiences, or just a gut reaction. Employing these findings in our work makes for meaningful and memorable outcomes.

Digital applications of design, in particular, require careful consideration. With all the tapping, scrolling, and clicking we do while consuming large volumes of information, making the experience engaging and human-centered is an ongoing challenge.

We can find the humanity in our design experiences by looking to tried and tested systems in our past for clues, learning from techniques that produce patterns and textures, and leaning into qualities from our consumer psychology, pop, and cultural influences. In our search for the answers, we began our journey with the dawn of printing, originally developed to reproduce bodies of text and apply imagery to fabrics. This was achieved with a technique known as relief printing.

What is relief printing?

Relief printing is an artistic process, utilized to produce text and imagery. The artist first carves an image into a block (traditionally wood, but linoleum, rubber and polymers are all in use), then rolls ink onto the surface of the block. Only the areas that have not been carved away get coated in ink. Paper is laid on top of the block, and pressure is applied to transfer the ink from the block to the paper. This process produces a print.

Above: A process video of a recent carving project, utilizing a hybrid of new and old techniques to create the final print.

A quick history lesson

Woodcut (a form of relief printing) originated in China in antiquity as a method of printing on textiles and later on paper. The earliest woodblock printed fragments to survive are from China, from the Han dynasty (before 220), and are silk printed with flowers in three colors. This quickly moved to Japan and migrated to the West. These techniques were used in scriptures, supplied imagery to storytelling, and, as skills improved, developed into a fine art form.

One of the most well known woodblock prints is ‘Under the Wave off Kanagawa’ (Or ‘The Great Wave’ as it is commonly known) by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–May 10, 1849). He was a Japanese artist, ukiyo-e painter, and printmaker of the Edo period.

A famous ukiyo-e print showcasing a tumultuous sea with enormous waves, boats struggling against the powerful surf, and Mount Fuji in the background under a bright sky. The artwork is rich in blue and white, highlighting the dynamic movement of the water.

Above: Met Museum

The technique is still used today, as a way to capture a sense of heritage and transport the viewer to a time and place or more modern subject matter with an artisanal finish.

A section of a subway station wall at Charing Cross features black and white historical illustrations, a red and blue roundel with "Charing Cross" in the center, and three perforated metal benches in the foreground.

Above: Charing Cross Underground Station, London (UK)

Tools of the trade

These are pretty standard across all materials. Sharp chisels are used to carve an image into the surface; paper stocks bring a variety of qualities, such as colors, additional patterns, or textures; and an ever-growing range of water-based and oil-based inks adorn the designs with color.

Woodworking tools neatly arranged on shelves against a wooden wall. Various chisels and carving tools with wooden handles are displayed in rows, showcasing different shapes and sizes of handles and blades.

Above: A variety of woodcut chisels and gouges

For home printing and those just starting out, the back of a wooden spoon, a flat-based pebble, or a bamboo barren (circular tool with a flat face) is used for rubbing paper to effectively transfer ink. Professional printmakers would invest in a printing press, which applies even amounts of pressure to achieve consistent results.

A wooden spoon, a ceramic pot with a lid marked "Speedball," and a wrapped item with a red label sit on a wooden surface. The spoon has a light brown hue, while the pot and item create a rustic kitchen atmosphere.

Above: From left to right, a bamboo barren, the inexpensive option of a wooden spoon, and a modern plastic barren. All three can be utilized for home printing.

A black etching press on a wooden table, holding a blue inked linocut print. A sheet of paper partially covers the print, ready to be rolled through the press. The surrounding area is neatly organized, with additional paper in the background.

Above: A table-top printing press. The inked block is laid on the bed with a sheet of paper over it, the handle is then turned to roll the block under the metal cylinder. This applies even pressure and transfers the ink from the block to the paper to produce a print.

Digital and beyond

Though these blocks may be used to print off multiple copies and were the birthplace of reproductive design, each print is entirely unique. The smallest variations in ink application or pressure produce completely different results. This requires a lot of trial and error, but the payoff is a custom finish, texture, and a richness that is often missing in digital design today. All of these explorations in print and design continue their legacy and inform our design decisions and techniques today.

Utilizing digital tools like iPads, we can iterate designs more quickly and plan the carving process before making a single mark on the block. With advances in software, digital designers can also mimic the qualities seen in more manual design work (bottom left). Often a single tool, like the Apple Pencil for iPad, can emulate several tools within an app.

However, it is often very time-consuming to achieve realistic results, and the authentic process and results remain the best (bottom right).

The image is divided into three sections. The top left section shows an abstract design with a figure running against a red and black background. The top right section depicts a printmaking setup with tools and a print of floral artwork. The bottom section shows two participants wearing VR headsets creating virtual art.

Above left: @shabloolim on Instagram, utilizing a digital painting program (Procreate) to mimic relief printing.
Above right: @studioesteldor on Instagram, a Magnolia print hand-carved with traditional tools.
Bottom: Gravity Sketch, available on the Oculus.

With AR and VR growing in popularity, a range of games, experiences, and drawing programs are being developed, too. These allow users to paint and even sculpt in a 3D space. Will we see printmaking in the metaverse? We’d like to think so.


Want to try it yourself?

Starter packs such as this are relatively inexpensive and give you everything you need to get going. We also recommend the book Linocut for Artists and Designers by Nick Morley. It is incredibly comprehensive, covering the entire process and approach to relief printing. This is perfect for novices but can still teach more experienced printmakers a trick or two.

An open book titled "Linocut for Artists & Designers" by Nick Morley lies on a wooden surface. The left side shows the book cover featuring a brayer and colorful paint swatches. The right side reveals pages with text, step-by-step linocut images, and tool illustrations.

Above: Linocut for Artists and Designers by Nick Morley

“There are three responses to a piece of design — yes, no, and WOW! Wow is the one to aim for.”
Milton Glaser
Person wearing ripped blue jeans and white sneakers holding a white canvas tote bag featuring a black floral design. The background is a plain, textured off-white wall, and the focus is on the tote bag and the lower half of the person’s body.

A part of our role as a creative agency is to be tirelessly curious and playful in our work — reaping the benefits of our experimentation and employing techniques, both new and old, to achieve the best results for our clients. We will continue to be advocates of relief printing and other artistic approaches as we venture forth into this digital age. We hope that you, the reader, also see the ongoing value in relief printing and may even be tempted to try it for yourselves