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«Return to Blog List Why Bad Websites Happen to Good Companies, Part 9: Having a Print Designer Design Your Website

It’s amazing to me that this still happens with a fair degree of regularity. It would seem obvious that print and the web are two distinct mediums requiring different expertise. But unfortunately, it’s not uncommon. Design-is-design-is-design to many people, and many of them continue to think of web design as “on-screen graphic design.” I’ve discussed this before. It has nothing to do with whether or not print design or web design is “harder” or “better,” but how they are “different.” Asking a print designer to design a website is much like asking an interior designer to redo your landscaping: different expertise and understanding is required. It’s also not the best idea to ask a web designer to design your annual report.

Before I go further, let me say I have worked (and continue to work) with some print designers who understand there are differences and do their best to approach web design differently and accommodate the needs of website visitors. They generally have accepted the fact that web pages must accommodate many different browsers and system settings, and that their work will not display uniformly to everyone who sees it. They recognize that on the web, information is more important than packaging if it comes down to a choice between the two, and they try to avoid ”designing in“ accessibility or usability issues. They take advice about aspects of their design that are problematic from a usability or information architecture perspective. I like working with those designers and in fact, they often push me to do things outside my “comfort zone,” which often leads to me learning something new.

What’s more important: design or information?

Many print designers see the web as a hostile environment for their visual “designs,” which they hold as the most important aspect of web design. It bothers these folks mightily that they cannot absolutely control how their design is rendered in visitors’ browsers. They have little or no understanding of how (or why) to provide for these differences, and often as not, cause usability or accessibility problems trying to control the “user experience,” by which they mean “visual experience.” There are still print designers (in 2010!) who set paragraph or headline text in photoshop and display text as images on their website (how else to make sure that everyone sees your carefully kerned 11.5 point Museo Sans on 18 point leading?).

But while visual design is important (I’m a designer too, and I believe in the power of design to influence thinking and behavior), it’s pointless if the ability for visitors to find, access, or utilize the information is compromised. The fundamental idea of the web is the ability to search and find relevant information. Design that interferes with that is not only a waste of time, but destructive to the purpose of your website. Good web designers understand that and learn techniques and design approaches that preserve and even enhance usability and accessibility.

Should an interior designer design your landscaping?

Even if you really like and trust your interior designer and you love what they can do to a room with color and fabric, do you really think he or she has an understanding of plants, soil, drainage, etc., that will result in a satisfactory landscape? They may love a nice landscape, and relish the challenge of working in a new medium, but the most likely reality is that there are big gaps in their landscape design expertise that you will have to live with in the finished landscape.

As with the example above, rarely do websites designed by print designers live up to expectations of usability, interactivity, search engine-friendliness, or information architecture, regardless of how nice they might look. The understanding of the web and expertise to leverage its ability to communicate, inform, and persuade is simply not present. Good web designers offer these things along with beautiful and functional design.

The above image represents my primary point that, while there is some overlap in knowledge and skills between print and web design, there are large amounts of knowledge and skill required for each discipline that are not common. There are, no doubt, some designers who have mastered both areas, but they are unusual and rare. While I started my design career in print, after focusing on web design for at least a decade, it’s difficult for me to change my perspective back to that required for really good print design; my design mindset no longer supports that perspective. I know from working with print designers that they have similar problems adjusting to a web perspective.

Bottom line: find a good web designer and put them in charge of your website design or redesign. And if your favorite designer is a print designer and you really want him/her to design your website, insist that they find a good web front-end developer to team with. You’ll get better results in how the site serves your visitors, which means your website goals are much more likely to be realized.

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