Nigel and Dempsey Ewan make ‘Big Mess’ with Risograph printing

Clatter Press, a sibling duo of CCAD-educated graphic designers, is teaching Central Ohio about the art of Riso printing with new publication 'Big Mess'

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
A smattering of "Big Mess" issues.

A couple of years after graphic designer Nigel Ewan graduated from college, he happened to notice some hot, eye-catching colors on printed materials. Normally, those types of colors indicate a big, expensive press run, but this object was more of an ephemeral, small-run art piece. So how did they do it?  

Ewan’s curiosity led him to Risograph, or “Riso,” printing, which originated in Japan in the 1950s as a duplicator or mimeograph tool for businesses. A Risograph printer, in fact, looks a lot like a big office copy machine. But in the last few years, artists and printers drawn to Riso’s hot colors and affordability in a compact package have begun repurposing the technology to make zines and art prints.  

In the summer of 2018, Ewan and his sister, Dempsey, a fellow graphic designer and CCAD grad, bought their own Riso printer and some inks on eBay and launched Clatter Press, the only (as far as they know) Risograph printing outfit in Central Ohio.

In addition to printing comics, posters and zines for customers, Nigel and Ewan recently launched their own Riso-printed, quarterly publication, Big Mess, which debuted in April 2020. (Annual subscriptions are available for $35 on the Big Mess website.) The sixth and most recent issue, printed in July, features two metal-themed companion publications, one with writer Aaron Beck detailing his formative experiences with heavy metal, and the other featuring metalsmith Christine Hill, with photos by Brian Kaiser.

Dempsey and Nigel Ewan

In one sense, Riso printing is like any other traditional method of printing, as the Ewans explained in a recent interview in Nigel’s Clintonville living room, above the Clatter Press basement print shop. The machine pushes ink through a screen. But that’s about where the similarities end. In this process, the image is punched onto a thin sheet of rice paper (called a master), and the wet, eco-friendly inks are made from rice bran and soy waste. The ink is never heated or cured, so the bright colors are easy to smear and smudge.

“It’s much more messy-looking than digital printing would ever be, and it looks a lot more natural and organic,” Dempsey said. “It falls in this weird category because, visually, it looks so different from other stuff. Everyone reacts to it when they see it.” 

“For good or for ill,” Nigel added. “It's so unfamiliar to people. Even in the art and design world, at least in Columbus, people have maybe heard about it or have a general preconception of how it looks, but they don’t really know. So it's polarizing. … People think of it as being a little cute and a little quirky, a little messy. But it's actually messier than that.” 

That messiness can create challenges when Clatter Press works with new customers who are used to cleaner, crisper styles of printing. "We've had to do an enormous amount of teaching people about what it is. … And we've also had to teach people what to expect,” Nigel said. “It can be hard to argue with customers and say, ‘No, this is actually how it's supposed to be, and if it's too messy for you, then maybe you don't want to do this.’” 

Big Mess, then, is not only a chance for Nigel and Dempsey to take advantage of Riso printing for their own personal project; it’s also an educational tool, a vehicle for showing people what Risograph is and what it isn’t.  

The Ewan siblings serve as creative directors of Big Mess as they collaborate with writers, photographers and graphic designers. The issues range in size and color, and each has its own theme. Issue #5, “Groceries,” took inspiration from friend and writer Jill Moorhead’s love of grocery stores. Issue #2 centers around breakfast, and #3, the smallest one so far, is simply titled “Purple,” and the entire thing uses only purple ink on pink paper.  

“At its best, Big Mess is a perfect mix where we can have control and input into the art direction to help things look the best they can, but also we're not making all the work,” Nigel said. “We're able to get cool stuff from other people so it's more diverse.” 

For Nigel, the messiness of Riso printing isn’t the appeal. (“I would love it if it wasn't messy. I would love it if the ink dried,” he said.) It’s the idea of a private press, and connecting with a tradition of designers who master a means of production for their work. “My design and my printing are all connected in my own personal practice, and I'm getting better at designing for that, and I'm getting better at printing my own stuff. So I see Big Mess as an extension of my own work,” he said. “And I like being self-sufficient. As long as we got ink and paper, I can roll out of bed in the middle of the night and go downstairs and print something.” 

Dempsey, though, has fully embraced the messy, unpredictable nature of the Riso printing process. “There's an element of surprise, a part that you can never control,” she said. “That level of chance and the variables, I think it's really appealing. … If people embrace that, it’s really fun.”