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Aspiration Avenue

The Pop-up Book

Taking a fond trip down memory lane, Joseph Harvey takes a look at the creativity behind one of the most entertaining traditional print mediums with an interactive twist—pop-up books

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Robert Sabuda created a pop-up book focusing on dinosaurs, filled with facts, humour, and 3D T-rex’s to Velociraptors

Print with added pop

There is something distinctly nostalgic, alluring, and educational that surrounds interactive children’s books. They boast moving parts, diagrams, characters, cross-sections or any other creative employment authors envisage, projected onto the three-dimensional pop-out elements that offer something additional, secondary.

There is something distinctly nostalgic, alluring, and educational that surrounds interactive books



The distinctly naive fascination is one we all remember as the 3D elements seemingly jumped off the page as we scroll the well-crafted, engineered pages and sections. It is something that communicates, visually, an extra dynamic to the printed material, emulating the relationship and difference between a 2D and 3D TV.

And importantly, 3D books provide a distinctly educational tool. They are revered and distinctly memorable due to their form, movements, and innovative pop-out shapes. Still some of the most memorable books that I studied, and ones that instantly sprung to mind, yet were unable to find online, were pop-up books. They detailed the intersection of a pyramid, or great machines like ships and aeroplanes, the structures of which still fascinate every inquisitive young mind today. 

Paper engineers

But what of the print processes that go into printing, finishing, cutting, and assembling the books that have been so memorable for young minds? Historically you can see how laborious this process is likely to have been. Typically pop-up books must have a heavy gauge paper for elements that would move within the books, heavy board, and glue for the attachment of various elements.

In times past, even soy-based inks were used, as well as oil-based inks, and latex inks we see today. Finishing techniques—present on many pop-up books—are oil-based varnishes that render a shiny surface on the page. Or sometimes water-based varnishes are employed, however other pop-up books will use a plastic film as a laminate. 

Historically, producing such educational, pleasurable, and complex tools of learning and engagement included an author taking ideas to paper engineers. What a niche! What an art, paper engineering is a skilled virtuosity, and one that many practise today.

Matthew Van Fleet has become famous for his innovative children’s books today; he uses a combination of print techniques and finishing as part of the storytelling process itself. Far removed from digital media, these techniques are inherently intertwined with the printed medium, the touchable tangible nature of print—that is an ethos and ideological pillar within Aspiration Avenue—is never more clearly demonstrated than it is with Van Fleets books. His works invite children to touch, pull, and twist elements that have been carefully crafted by this famed book producer. These books really do stay with children, but what of other authors engaged in this creative practice today?

The author of over 20 pop-up books, including The Little Mermaid, shed light in an article in The Guardian about his ‘top ten pop-up books’ with an enlightening effect. His introduction is reminiscent, poetic, and speaks of a great importance he attaches to books. He is Robert Sabuda, and some of his favourite titles include greats such as The Haunted House by Jan Pienkowski or ABC 3D by Marion Bataille. He is a lover of both pop-up books and the proliferation of education as well as an established paper engineer.


The Little Mermaid by Robert Sabuda puts an interactive twist on a classic story to engage children even further



The print process

For Aspiration Avenue readers who know we cover all creative things in print this will be a welcomed addition as we explore some of the gatekeepers of this art, here in the UK. It is undeniably amazing the laboriousness of this task. The process from conception to finished product, like with anything artistic, takes time and considerable effort. However, with pop-up books, this human time and effort goes on to be read countless times, and be remembered by other people, which transcends anything else. Education is after all the most valuable outcome you could hope for from any medium you wish to refine and succeed. In light of this, the process of pop-up print making is outlined by how products are made:

  • The author and editor of the book take ideas about moving elements to the paper engineer.
  • A white dummy is produced, highlighting elements of how the book will work, providing a valuable mock-up for the paper engineer who will decide how the elements will fit.
  • A digital file is produced that will allow the printer to create dies in order to produce the moving paper elements, nesting the moving pieces so they will all fit onto the size sheet that will run through the press.
  • The editor and graphic designer will work with the illustrator and paper engineer to lay out each page, element by element. A highly collaborative process.
  • Once the flat layout is agreed by all, the illustrators creates the flat art in full colour. When the art work is complete, the illustrations are sent back to the graphic designer.
  • The designer takes the art work and creates a mechanical, which is an electronic file that shows the printer where the art work, is inserted into the page, and then sent to the printer.
  • The digital file of the art work and text for each page is output to a film. An offset printing method is used to apply each colour film plate to transfer colour onto the page.
  • The printed pages are proofed, approved by the editor, and await the attachment of the movable parts.
  • Meanwhile the movable elements are created. The dies are used to cut the movable parts using a hydraulic press.
  • However in sophisticated over-sea production houses like those in China, the dies are often made by hand using complex machinery.
  • The movable parts are often cut by hand and folded, glued, and applied in the same way.
  • The cover is glued or sewn.
  • Book is packaged and distributed to the distributor.


The process from conception to finished product, like with anything artistic, takes time and considerable effort


The process as you can see is one that has great artistic, design, engineering, and manufacturing sensibilities. A hugely collaborative effort that takes inspiration from all creative elements of the party. However, it touches on an interesting point. Much of the modern production of pop-up books on a mass scale is sent to China for production. A given in most industries today.

These manufacturers are rare if all but absent from the contemporary UK market today. One resilient group of creatives still run David Hawcock books in Bath. According to Hawcock Books, they are: “A skilled company devoted to the conception, design and production of highly-creative and original pop-up art and three-dimensional paper-engineered products. With a wealth of experience in conceiving, developing, printing, and manufacturing pop-up books and novelty items for the publishing industry, we also undertake demanding commissions from the advertising world, such as model-making, point-of-sale, and all printed three-dimensional aspects of major campaigns.”


Before the finished product, such as this 3D book by Robert Sabuda, a ‘white dummy’ or mock-up is produced to see how the book will work



Not only are Hawcock Books dedicated to paper engineering and the production of this art form, they also understand how to adapt to the market. Their ‘Innovation and the Internet’ section shows how their pop-up animations and film set ideas are continuing to push the innovation surrounding their products. Unfortunately, these books are produced with a ‘close relationship with far eastern partners’ and a production process that is very much gone from the UK.

Other companies like PaperSmyths, a great looking company, cements the idea that this manufacturing is far gone from the UK. AA readers, correct me if I am factually incorrect, but the ambiguousness of where these books are produced on the ‘how we make pop-ups’ section serves as yet another reminder that these processes have left the UK.

One thing is understandable, printers and print houses want to retain profitability. And being such a highly collaborative process, it is unsurprising that in today’s economy it is not outsourced in some way.


Joseph Harvey writes on behalf of Instant Print W1. For more information visit www.ipw1.co.uk



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