I began my graphic design career in print, creating brochures, newspaper and magazine ads, stationery, book covers, signs, and more. I later switched to web design and eventually decided I was happiest doing both. After 20 years as a print and web designer, I’ve learned a lot about their differences.
In theory, print design and web design are similar. In both cases, designers use elements such as line, shape, color, space, texture and typography to convey an idea or share information. But a piece of paper and an electronic device are vastly different mediums, each with unique strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, web design and print design must be approached differently.
Three factors to consider when designing for print and web:
1. Control vs. Customization
With print, a designer creates a piece, hires a printer and (assuming the printer does a good job) voila – it looks perfect! Everyone who holds the printed piece in their hand sees the same thing. The client, graphic designer and printer have complete control over the finished product. That certainly has its advantages.
Conversely, the web offers precious little control over the finished product. There are a myriad of variables which can affect how a website looks to each viewer. A designer starts the process and then hands the reins to the user to view it as they choose. Variables like screen size can be predicted to an extent. Other variables, like users changing the browser’s font size settings or even installing a “userscript” — a script that allows users to alter the appearance of a website to suit their preferences — can radically change the look of a website. While some designers cringe at this thought, customization is a huge advantage for users (especially those with disabilities), so it’s important to anticipate and embrace it.
2. Fixed vs. Fluid
Printed pieces have a fixed amount of real estate — a brochure or magazine ad can only hold so much. That might be viewed as a downside, but sometimes less is more. While it’s unlikely that anyone would read every word of text on a massive website, a short, well-written and relevant message in print might catch a person’s attention and make a real impression. Printing costs can be an obstacle, however, and the fixed or unchangeable nature of printed pieces means that changes are time-consuming and expensive.
Websites are fluid in the sense that they offer virtually limitless space for content and can be updated easily, quickly and inexpensively. As long as the content is well-organized and people can find what they’re looking for, this is a huge plus. However, relying on electronics for longer content has a downside for the user. Staring at screens too much can cause an eye condition called Computer Vision Syndrome. And some research suggests that people are able to concentrate and retain information better when reading from paper. For long, text-based content such as white papers, articles or reports, it may work better to limit your website text to a description of the document with a link to a printable PDF.
3. Multimedia vs. Tactile
Websites are perfectly suited for multimedia elements like audio, video and animation. This technology can be used to interact with users or just add pizzazz. Multimedia, when done well, can be a fun and useful part of web design, and it’s something that print pieces typically cannot offer.
Printed pieces, on the other hand, have an advantage that some may consider less flashy while others might find even more satisfying than multimedia — the tactile and olfactory properties of paper and ink. Interesting paper textures and unique printing methods like embossing, foil or spot varnish can really grab a person’s attention and invite them to stop and absorb a message.
As we navigate the sometimes-murky waters between print and web design, our goal is simply to take advantage of each tool’s strengths while working around their limitations.