Print helps transform Hull into bubbling cultural hub

By Max Goldbart, Monday 21 August 2017

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When culture comes to mind, residents of or visitors to the UK wouldn’t necessarily earmark the East Yorkshire city of Hull as a bubbling beacon. Swap the city’s only vowel from a ‘u’ to an ‘e’, and you wind up in hell, a verbal switch that many have found to be to their amusement.


But walk beside its sunny marina, glancing all the while at a plethora of independent coffee shops, bars and galleries, and it’s clear that hell is a long way from Hull in all other respects. The city is even the location for what has been described as the world’s first ‘submarium’. 

In 2013, as the Northern Irish city of Derry was named the inaugural UK City of Culture (CoC), Hull was being named as the second. Bestowed upon it was the need to demonstrate the “belief in the transformational power of culture”, and an opportunity to rid itself of certain stereotypes. 

Events have come in droves throughout 2017 and many are still in the pipeline. The arts and cultural programme has celebrated Hull’s unique character and the celebrations have been split into four seasons: Made in Hull, Roots and Routes, Freedom, and Tell the World. As the old cliché goes, there really has been something for everyone. 

So for a city that regularly frequents the various ‘UK’s worst cities’ lists, no one would argue that Hull hasn’t accepted the CoC challenge head-on, and, as ever, print has played a major part in bringing mass celebrations to life.

“Years and years ago Hull was the epicentre for print, the city with the largest amount of printers anywhere,” says Ron Fothergill, managing director of local commercial printer and approved Hull CoC supplier Ditto 4 Design. 

“The ones left are still feeling that the industry has changed so much but this has sparked somewhat of a revival for print.” 

Getting it right 

As director of public engagement and legacy for the Hull CoC, Phil Batty knows more than most about how to use print to best effect. Given the amount of time Hull has had to prepare and the sheer scale of the events planned, his role as looking after print procurement has been a bit of a colossus. 

“The CoC is an arts and cultural festival and arts and culture by their very nature are tactile,” says Batty.

“Great print is having something in your hands that is visually stimulating, which feels interesting and exciting. We have always felt that print has been a fundamental part of the way we promote the year and at the same time have invested quite heavily in digital.”

Batty explains that targeted print has been an important factor in drumming up support for certain campaigns. For areas in the city of low cultural engagement he would attempt to source a simpler, more easily produced piece of print, while a Richard III play in a cultural hub would utilise targeted direct mail campaigns, for instance. 

“It’s a versatile tool and we have a different way of looking at print from how other events may use it,” he adds. 

The engagement team compiled a list of 10 mostly local approved suppliers for a wide variety of print, which first went to tender in June 2016, but in a bid to share the load Batty and his team also appointed Melton-based print marketer Bluestorm to broker and deliver print management services for the CoC. 

“We saw that each printer had individual strengths that others may not have depending on the size of job, and that’s how we choose which printer we use,” says Michael Domney, one of Bluestorm’s production staff. 

“Winning work is tough now, budgets have been cut, a lot of it goes online instead of actually being printed. So those printers we do use, we do have good rapports with, we give them consistent work so they don’t like to turn it down.”

Bluestorm has not employed much of a criterion when searching for suitable CoC printers, but Domney says that for ease-of-turnaround and quality purposes, LED-curing and the ability to print on uncoated stocks has been preferential.

Season one’s first major event was an important starting block, a seven-day sprawling set of outdoor installations to promote Hull’s inclusive approach. To mark the vision behind the installation, a printed invitation was posted through the door of every single Hull household. 

“Nine out of 10 had been to one thing in the first three months and that piece of print was the realisation of that vision and ethos,” says Batty.

Ditto 4 Design’s Fothergill, who hit the PrintWeek headlines last year when Ditto became what he believed to be the first UK print company to obtain a licence to operate a drone, extols the benefits of the CoC. 

Although not finding much use for the aforementioned drone, Fothergill and two other staff have been printing flyers, brochures and even some signage for a range of events since last June, mainly using a Ricoh Pro C7110, and he has been informed the work could extend beyond the year. 

“We’ve had some deadlines dropped on us for huge things,” he says.

“We did 28 roll-up banners in just under three days, we were chuffed with that. Although it can put you under pressure it’s a nice position to be in, this was a factor in us winning the contract.”

Pam Wainman, managing director of fellow approved supplier Jadan Press, concurs with Fothergill on the speed of turnarounds, although downplays the effect the work has had on the 20-staff outfit’s production schedule. Jadan has mainly utilised its two Speedmasters for the printing of brochures, books and business cards. 

“When we initially got the tender through we thought this could be quite massive, but I think the way it’s been spread out it’s not had a massive impact on the business, it’s just been about taking orders and processing them in the normal way,” she says.

“They’ve done some great work. A lot of areas have been revamped and it’s got a really good buzz. I’ve been in Paphos [Cyprus], which is this year’s European City of Culture, but you wouldn’t know it, it’s got nothing on Hull.” 

Away from the supplier list, others have still seen an upsurge in work, as they take jobs on from local print management companies and feel the general benefits of improved local industry. 

Commercial printer Abbotsgate used its Xerox Versant 80 digital press to print the programme for Hull Choral Union’s flagship April event, while trade printer RMC, which usually prints for companies outside of Yorkshire, was commissioned for some exhibition and museum work. 

“Hull has been voted one of the worst places to live once again but where else have you got this going on on your doorstep, probably nowhere else in the country at the moment,” says RMC operations director Nicole Spencer. 

It’s not all been sunshine and smiles for local businesses however. While one complaint bubbling under the surface has been that too much of the print has been sent outside of East Yorkshire, some on the approved supplier list have not been given the work they anticipated. 

One managing director of a Hull-based print company told PrintWeek that he had spent three weeks completing the tender last year but is yet to be called upon for a job. 

“I have queried on a number of occasions but we keep just getting answers back saying that we’re still on the list. It’s a bit disappointing when you see the amount of work that is getting done,” he said. 

For others, like Bankside-based Designs Signage Solutions, the work was simply not the correct fit, and having printed a number of banners for Hull train station, its client relations team leader Antonio Tombanane tells PrintWeek that it chose to “pull out of the deal”.

A city transformed 

Away from the mountain of leaflets, brochures and posters resplendent throughout the city and in its homes, the engagement team has equally been focused on wide-format and display, and the name that keeps cropping up when on the lookout for printers that have contributed to this mountain of display work is the irrepressible John E Wright, which, unlike Designs Signage, has been thrilled with how the CoC has benefitted the business. 

In July, John E Wright became the first UK printer to take EFI’s Pro 16h production-level wide-format printer, an investment driven by a £24,000 grant from the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership programme. Four of its apprentices have been taken on full-time this year as the work has continued to flood in. 

“We won a tender against some stiff opposition in November last year,” says managing director Tony Barnett, who presides over the 117-year-old group.

“We’ve had lots of work, but probably the most prestigious was the New Year’s Eve launch; we did huge amounts of display for that. If you check it out on YouTube, everything you see that could be printed was printed by us.”

Highlights of John E Wright’s mega print contribution include a 400x2m welcome banner and the aforementioned graphics for the opening NYE launch event, along with displays for the train station. It has also printed a number of works for what Batty describes as “guerrilla takeovers” of empty shop fronts, sprucing up long-abandoned buildings with large vinyl prints of Hull landmarks. 

Barnett adds that he wants to create a single graphics company “to do Hull proud” and compete with the big names in Leeds and Bradford. 

The creative buzz 

According to its joint managing director John Haslam, paper merchant GF Smith, which was founded in Hull in 1885, is one of the city’s biggest employers, so it comes as no surprise that it has been one of the leading lights in a range of print-related events that have been put on throughout the year. 

GF even hosted its own celebration of craftsmanship and colour, Paper City, a set of paper-based installations compiled by eight leading creatives to challenge perceptions of Hull. More than 30,000 visited over a two-week period in the summer.

Each artist used GF Smith’s flagship Colorplan range to create something original, and the merchant also used the opportunity to announce the winner of its World’s Favourite Colour competition, the newly dubbed Marrs Green, displayed at a victory ceremony on Humber Street by an installation from design consultancy Made Thought. 

“The artists all came up with something unique and really fresh, getting people thinking differently about paper,” says Haslam. 

“It’s been phenomenal. It’s just got people talking positively about the city, which is great. It’s also made the people of Hull realise what they’ve got. Look by Humber Street and the marina, you’ve got independent shops, coffee shops, even a gin distillery has popped up.”

Creative print has been the focus of a number of events and some have been inspired to get back to school and learn new techniques. 

The Hull Print Collective meets once a week at Hull College for 30 weeks of the year under the watchful eye of retired art teacher Lynne Bennett; 12 students of all ages connected by their passion for printmaking.

The collective exhibited work at Burton Constable Hall, a local country house, from mid-July until mid-August, including that of teacher Jean Edwards, whose interest lies in screen printing. Like Fothergill, Edwards believes the CoC has initiated a bit of a print revival, and now that the Burton exhibition has ended, a much larger print exhibition, the InPrint Biennale, is set to kick off next month, curated by the former Dean of Hull School of Art and Design Rob Moore. It promises to be a fine showcase. 

Hull is an example of a city in flux, an old-fashioned industrial port city that now finds itself crawling with gin bars and art galleries. While this maybe doesn’t sound like the greatest of print breeding grounds, the CoC has backed up the modern adage that print is not dead, it is just changing, and it will hopefully take a print burst such as this one to keep the industry strong in East Yorkshire. Hull CoC’s Batty believes this is just the beginning. 

“2017 is the catalyst year, there’s only so much you can do in 365 days,” he adds.

“But the three years that follow are where we really focus on solidifying this, making sure that it is embedded and the sector can grow. Whoever is the next CoC can come to Hull and meet the printers and designers, get that feedback and learn from it.” 

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