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«Return to Blog List Web Design is Not Just Graphic Design for the Web

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.

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