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I started my design career as a print designer. At that time, there was no Internet, and no such thing as a website. In fact, computers were not something designers used, or thought they ever would use. About a decade later, Macintosh, Aldus Pagemaker, and Photoshop changed all that, and print design, or at least print production, became something we did onscreen. Frankly, I was glad to not to risk my fingers to X-acto knives any more.

A few years later, in the early ’90s, websites appeared. Most designers, myself included, did not immediately grasp the differences between print design and web design (my first homepage layout was vertical, with a huge image). After all, we’d been doing print onscreen, so what was the big deal?

Eventually, those of us who had gravitated toward web design began to understand there are fundamental differences, some of which are so profound that trying to do both print and web design can leave a designer feeling schizophrenic jumping back and forth. It’s not just a matter of using different tools, or the same tools in different ways, or even understanding the specific technical requirements differently (e.g., color, font-sizing, etc.): the mindsets of successful print and web designers are very different. As a result, only a small percentage of designers are truly competent in both disciplines, and even fewer are brilliant in both.

Here are some of the major differences:

Control vs. Lack of Control Over the End Result

Print designers who do not obsess over every minor detail of a print job aren’t doing their job. Font selection, color selection, paper color and weight, color separations, press checks, etc.: it’s all about controlling what the end user sees or holds in their hand. Web designers, on the other hand, know they have much less control over what the end user sees. Differences in browsers, platforms, monitors, and even user-defined style sheets limit web designer control. It used to be considered OK for a web designer to use image-based typography and tables for more print design-like control, until it was commonly understood that accessibility was critical for users with disabilities. Good web designers accept that they have, at best, “conditional” control of what the end user sees, and focus on website design that is both accessible to users with disabilities, and looks good to visitors using common browsers. When the print design obsession for control is brought to web design, usually accessibility is the first casualty.

Orderly vs. Random Access to Information

When a print designer creates a product brochure, they have a reasonable expectation that people will start on the front cover and proceed through it from front to back, or maybe flip directly from the front to the back to find product specs or contact information. But they’re going to start on page one most of the time, and if there is a message there, they will at least make note of it. And if for some reason, they pick up an already opened brochure, they can see clearly they’re in the middle of the publication, and decide where to turn from there. Thanks to search engines and links from other websites, visitors can arrive directly on any page on a website. Web designers cannot assume that someone will arrive on a page having already seen another page (aside from checkout processes and similar cases). Visitors often don’t even view the homepage, because they know that it’s usually not full of particularly useful information. Information design and navigation design (not just how they look, but how they function in helping people find information) become critical in creating a usable, well-designed website. The print design mindset is still in evidence on the majority of corporate and business websites in the “front cover” approach to the homepage.

Project Completed vs. Project Never Completed

Print designers complete a project, then they take it to the printer, and it’s done. Yes, they might make changes and reprint it, but there is a definite point at which they can say, “I’m done with that project!” Web designers rarely get that warm, fuzzy, self-congratulatory moment. Unless we get fired or fire a client, we’re never done with a website. It’s like birthing a baby: you can’t just bring it to life and ignore it. Sooner or later it will spit up or need a diaper change, and it will always be hungry for content. Even if a website includes a content management system so clients can add and update their own content, there are always things that need to be added, changed, or reorganized in ways that are beyond the technical skills of our clients, or beyond the capabilities of the CMS. And that’s a good thing! The worst thing that can happen is that a client thinks of their website as an online brochure, and it becomes a set-it-and-forget-it site.


13 Responses to Web Design is Not Just Graphic Design for the Web

  1. CraigAtlanta says:

    This article speaks the truth. Corporate America has decided that print and web should be combined into a single person. It’s crazy. I went into design because I love ink on paper. Being forced to create HTML emails and update websites has really bugged me. I am not drawn to it, and it has led me to leave design altogether after 20 years. It’s not that I don’t like to learn new things. I expanded my knowledge when it was necessary. I learned Flash. I can edit video in Final Cut Pro. I can operate a photography studio. But I can’t get excited when someone wants me to do web tasks. It is a different mindset altogether.

    So now I’m a photographer. I took a heck of a pay cut, but I’d rather be doing something I love than something I dread everyday.

  2. Jeff Peterson says:

    I can agree that designers don’t start out knowing everything there is to know in either discipline. And if we are good at which one we choose, we never stop learning.

    I still don’t believe that print designer are arrogant about designing for the web, but I will have to say that we can learn to be great designers for the web and transfer that over much easier than the reverse. Just look at many of the sites out there. Don’t think those are print designers creating those sites. Sorry.
    It does seem that you have a bia against print designers for some reason?

    It is still about composition. Print designers are trained for that, web developers are not. How many of them study in a formal setting about art in general. Not at the school I recently went to trying to get foot hold into web design.

    You said in the article above
    “As a result, only a small percentage of designers are truly competent in both disciplines, and even fewer are brilliant in both.”
    I totally agree with this.

    It is my concern that the industry is seeking for what is not really out there. And both disciplines suffer.

    In the end we seem to agree on that point.

    The point of this that needs to be made is, the industry expects us to be great at both. It seems to be awhile before that is the truth?

    So you seem to be are saying in your last sentence
    “it takes experience and/or training which print designers typically do not have, and don’t need to be great print designers.” Did you mean web designers don’t need to be great print designers?

    That is just flat false if that is what you are inferring!

  3. Ray Gulick says:

    If you had read my last comment closely, Jeff, you would have understood that I said that print designers do not need experience or training in design for an interactive environment in order to be great print designers.

    And, sorry, but its not ALL about composition on the web. That’s only the beginning in an environment in which you are attempting to help people efficiently negotiate an interactive environment. Without meaning any disrespect (but you illustrate my point perfectly and I have to point this out), only a print designer would make such a statement. It’s akin to a web designer’s ignorance of dot gain on a printing press.

    My point is not about whether or not print or web designers are “better” than the other. It’s about how completely different the disciplines are from one another, and how expertise as a designer in one field do not qualify people to perform well in the other. And quite often, even designers do not recognize this.

  4. Ray Gulick says:

    In my experience, Jeff, print designers completely understand that they don’t know about the “coding” part. But virtually all of them that I have worked with believe themselves fully capable of doing the “design” part. They have little or no understanding of how to design in an interactive environment. No one starts out knowing that: it takes experience and/or training which print designers typically do not have, and don’t need to be great print designers.

  5. Jeff Peterson says:

    At least where I am from we do, that is why many are struggling with moving towards that side of things. We also no, just having taken classed is not enough.

    Many print designers in the LinkedIn groups I belong to also recognize the difference and repeat the struggle for the industry to understand that there is a difference and that is takes years to work those skills into a viable talent.

    I would have not made the statement if I had not be ready and hearing this for the last 9 months or longer.

    Guess I have to disagree with you as well. Thanks

  6. Ray Gulick says:

    Jeff – Sorry, but I disagree that most print designers recognize the difference between print design and web design. In my experience, most of them do not.

  7. Jeff Peterson says:

    This is great information. It helps to see that this a broad issue across the entire country. Not sure about the world? With that said.

    The problem with this is, it is being preached to the choir. Any of us that are print designer have been aware of this for sometime. Especially if we have or are taking classes to move into web design.

    There is this assumption in the industry and by others not in the industry, that one makes the other. That then begs the question, are we stuck with an environment or can the world outside of our circle be educated about this, until that gap is closed some?

    What has complicated this even more is the fact that, more and more non coding programs are being created which allows the same, “I now have a PC with Word/ Publisher and am designer” issue to raise it’s head in web design.

    Above the this box to type in, it says Spill it here. I just did thanks!

  8. It’s amazing how many designers and clients in general still do not understand this. Thanks for making these very valid and valuable points.

  9. Jon Pianki says:

    Great article. Well put.


  10. Ray Gulick says:

    Thanks, William. Good to hear from you.

  11. William says:

    “It’s like birthing a baby: you can’t just bring it to life and ignore it. Sooner or later it will spit up or need a diaper change, and it will always be hungry for content.”

    Simply stated, and brilliantly so.

  12. Ray Gulick says:

    Thanks, Poonam. My point, however, was not that web design is difficult. It’s no more difficult than print design: it’s just different, and it requires a different mindset, knowledge, and skills. I want to give print designers their due. Their job requires a lot of them. But experience as a print designer no more qualifies them to design websites than experience as a web designer qualifies someone to design annual reports.

  13. Poonam says:

    I agree with your views.
    Website designing is not a simple and easy task. With the new technologies showing up it is becoming a very challenging task day by day. It is very important to design a website which is interactive and allows users to stay on the website for long and return back sooner. Designing interactive web pages is becoming critically important.