Don’t print this – unless you want to understand it

I regularly receive emails that admonish me to ‘think about the environment, don’t print this email unless you really need to’. I sometimes wonder if, without this reminder, people would really print out reams of back-and-forth email threads with perhaps two new sentences in each round, or print all their junk email to glance at before throwing it away. Don’t we all just read off the screen now?

Lately, however, there seems to be growing evidence to support the idea that reading from screens isn’t the same as reading from paper. Academic studies suggest that we don’t get the same level of understanding, engagement or retention from reading on-screen, even on dedicated e-reader devices. Commercial market research continues to solidly support the idea that transactional and marketing documents are far more effective when paper is involved; printed catalogues are making a comeback because the paper-and-online combination delivers the biggest return.

It’s not just pre-internet fossils that have a preference for print when understanding and engagement matter, either. Naomi S. Baron’s recently-published book ‘Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World’ reports that university students prefer hardcopy books, even when a free digital alternative is available. The reasons given in this and other studies are that as well as engaging more of the senses than screens do, paper wins because it lacks the distractions of the electronic environment such as links, flashing ads and pinging email and social media update alerts.

Paper cuts through the digital clutter. As digital marketing has become the norm for many businesses, direct mail has decreased, so there’s less competition there. Print reaches everybody, not just those with computers, smartphones and i-Things. Print production values provide tactile support for quality and reliability claims (whether merited or not), through the simple physical presence and permanence of paper.

Paper also gives a physical context to the content. You might remember that an appealing offer was on a left hand page, a useful diagram was about a quarter of the way into a book, or an interesting leaflet had a tri-fold shape. These locators don’t have much meaning in on-screen alternatives where text and layout scroll endlessly or are reformatted by every device which shows them.

For quick notifications and confirming plans, email and other electronic media are ideal because of their speed and reach. But if you’re trying to convey a message that takes more than a second or two to absorb and act upon, perhaps you should think about putting it on paper.

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