On Riso Printing & Prototyping

My reflections on generalizable prototyping principles that can be distilled from Riso printing

My final Riso print from prototyping workshop

I finally got around to taking a Risograph printing class, and my mind is still whirring reflecting on what makes Riso so good for quick, iterative prototyping.

I’ve been familiar with the aesthetic of Riso for some time, with its identifiably saturated colors and halftone textures often incorporating overlapping colors and gradients.

But I only recently learned about the Riso printing process after checking out the New York Tech Zine Fair last winter — zines are often printed with Riso since it’s an economical for high volumes (and they looks cool). I had been itching to take a class ever since.

Characteristic Riso print dot pattern

This weekend, I took a single 5-hour-long workshop at The Arm in Williamsburg. The first part of the workshop gave a short overview of the printers, which look like large photocopiers. They’re capable of printing two colors at a time using stencils created from whatever artwork is placed on the scanner bed, or through digital files sent to the printer. The entire process of creating the stencils is automated, so the work is all in creating the design files, choosing ink colors, and aligning the stencils so the colors are properly registered — that’s where most of the time (about 3 hours of the workshop) was spent.

Tracing the full illustration to produce two different layers

It was super liberating to use traditional, non-digital media. My own process was to take Sharpies, put together a quick sketch, and then continue to iterate on the sketch using tracing paper.

Because the printer generates stencils for each color separately, it forces you to think through how you want to mask or combine the colors. I started with a sketch of the full composition, then traced over and filled the parts of the sketch I wanted to be in each color. For sections that should combine both colors (an overprint), I filled them in on both tracing sheets.

Two tracing sheets — one for each color

After producing one sheet for each color, I scanned the individual sheets with the Riso printer to create their respective masters (or stencils) that are attached to the ink drum. Then you can run paper through the printer to print your design, while tweaking the output by adjusting the density of each color (how light or dark), the dot pattern size, and the vertical and horizontal centers to ensure alignment of the colors. The entire process of generating the masters is surprisingly fast (on the order of a few minutes), and once you’ve made adjustments to your liking, you can print out copies rapid fire (think a photocopier on steroids).

Some earlier prototypes testing out overprints and colors

My goal for the workshop was less about having artwork to take home and more about learning a new way of prototyping. I’m really blown away by the Riso printing process for many reasons, ranging from the individual way in which you can choose to generate your design, to the technology itself which facilitates extremely fast iterations.

Here are some general principles I noted about the Riso printing process, and some resulting questions I’ve been thinking about as it relates to other prototyping (namely hardware / software prototyping).

Input Agnostic

  • The Riso printer expects a visual input by which it can generate a stencil, and it doesn’t really matter which way you go about preparing your design. In other words, you could choose any method of generating a 2D image that can be subsequently scanned. I chose to sketch with Sharpies, but others in my workshop combined photographs and text through collage, or painted patterns using a brush. And you could also prepare your files digitally if you preferred.

How can prototyping systems be more input-agnostic? How can they support people drawing from their own unique skillsets?

Imperfections as Inspiration

  • The scanning modes of the Riso printer are slightly different from one another, and each have their own unique visual artifacts. The printing is also not super-precise — you often have to run a print several times before the ink fully appears, and sometimes tire marks appear on sheets due to the way the paper is fed into the machine. These imperfections give each print a unique charm and can also help spark new ideas, as you don’t quite know what you’re going to get.

How can you incorporate surprise and imperfections into the design process — both to facilitate idea generation, but also to make the design output feel unique and unexpected?

Inexpensive and Reusable Material

  • Paper as a medium is fairly inexpensive, so I didn’t feel any print was precious – I didn’t feel bad making marks on prints and often used the underside of scrap prints to test a new one.

How can we make a design feel less permanent in a way that encourage further refinement? Can the material used for early prototypes be reused?

Extremely Fast Turnaround

  • At least for the rough prototyping I was doing, setting up a job took several minutes, and you immediately got a printed piece of paper you could evaluate and compare with your earlier prints.

How can we reduce the time it takes to create your prototype, so you have more time for iterating?

Tracing as Remixing

  • The tool I used the most throughout this process was tracing paper. I was constantly retracing my design over a lightbox as I determined the final composition and color combinations I wanted to have. The tracing paper acted as an intermediary between the original prototype and the final design, ultimately being a disposable part of the design process, but one that could be continually built upon.

What are the “tracing papers” of design systems – intermediaries that let you pick and choose the best parts of earlier prototypes? What are the “light boxes” of design systems that illuminate layers of earlier work in a way that facilitates comparison?

These are just a few of my initial thoughts. I’m looking forward to practicing Riso printing and seeing how it can better inform my own design practices as well as how I think about creating design tools.

designing tools for making.

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