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Rise of the Risograph, Part One

Once marketed to schools as a cheap copier, the Risograph has become a fave of graphic designers, artists, zine publishers, and arts institutions. Part one: Rise of the Machine.

Article By Matt Putrino, February 14, 2013

Part one: Rise of the Machine

A machine made for blasting out copies for churches and schools is fast becoming a favorite with creatives: artists, designers, and small institutions—in short, those who need to print inexpensively and on the fly. The Risograph has lowered the cost of high-quality duplication for independent publishers. So what is it, how does it work, and how is it being used? Today, we'll talk about the machine itself.

The Risograph at Ditto Studios, London

By all accounts the Risograph is a strange machine. It appears as plain as a common photocopier. The history of the machine is an underdog story. In 1946, emulsion ink was only available in Japan through an expensive importing process. In a move of post-World War II national pride, not to mention incredible business savvy, Noboru Hayama famously hung a small sign reading "Riso" outside of his home in Japan signifying the foundation of a new ink company. In the mid-1980s, the Riso Kaagaku company ("Riso" for short) released its first fully automatic duplicator, dubbed the Risograph. The original marketing plan revolved around new, affordable emulsion ink. The company set its sights on getting a Risograph into every school and church with a simple pitch: if you needed more than 50 copies, but less than 10,000, it was cheaper to duplicate using a Riso. As long as one was working within that range, the Risograph saved money in three ways. First, the ink was less expensive and easier to use than toner. Second, the machine didn’t require the high heats of photocopiers, so it used less electricity. Third, and finally, it required less maintenance.

The machine's printing process is actually quite simple. (Download RISOTTO Studio's 'How the Risograph Works.') The Risograph creates a temporary stencil of the image you are duplicating on a thin sheet called a master. The master is then attached to a cylindrical drum of ink and, as a piece of paper is drawn through the machine, ink is pressed from the drum, through the master stencil, and onto the piece of paper. It's remarkably fast.  

The Risograph at Ditto Studios, London

The Riso's speed has a lot to do with the ink. Gabriella DiTano, who runs the RISOTTO Studio in Glasgow explains, "The Riso uses soy-based inks, and prints very similar results to that of screen printing." Which means that once the ink is applied to paper no additional heat is necessary to set the color. She also explains that the ink has other attractive qualities to a designer: "Its texture and appearance can vary depending on the paper it's printed on. There is a transparency to the inks, which allows for overprinting colors to extend what might appear to be a restrictive color palette. The Riso can also print fluorescent inks, and colors that cannot be replicated on screen or digitally printed."

Image from Black Light by Roisin Dunne, Ditto Press

Although the Riso Kagaku company wasn't able to replace the ubiquitous photocopier, a generation of graphic designers and fine artists were drawn to the machine because of the high-quality color printing and the low price-per-print that made short-run independent publications possible. Artists and designers loved the texture of the ink on paper. The colors were deep, the overprinting looked great, and because the machine automated almost the entire printing process, the small amount of spoilage made much more sense for printing books and large-run posters than silkscreening. Even the printing imperfections of the machine began to have a certain appeal, not unlike the aesthetic of old wood type. As with most printmaking, registration is tricky but not impossible.

Riso image by Francis Upritchard

In the last decade, designers and artists started snapping up used models from secondary markets on the Internet, namely Craigslist and eBay. DiTano calls the appeal to a designer "the 'speed-quality-affordable' triangle." But creatives aren't just drawn to the efficiency of the Riso. She adds, "Personally, I'd say it's the unpredictability/happy accidents thing that it does so well."

Next week: The Risograph in action