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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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2 Responses to Why Bad Websites Happen to Good Companies, Part 9: Having a Print Designer Design Your Website

  1. Ray Gulick says:

    Kim – Thinking outside the box is fine. But you need to understand what’s in the box and why it’s there in order to make design decisions about what you can leave behind and what you can go outside the box to find. Print designers who design an occasional website virtually never have that understanding. A command of basic design principles is necessary for good web design just as it is in good print design, but it’s only one of the puzzle pieces: not enough by itself.

    I can’t comment on how the web people “compromised” your design, because I’ve seen neither your design nor the final site. But the situation you describe should raise a question in your mind about whether or not your static design really translated into a usable user interface. It may be that they butchered your beautiful work, but it may also be that you failed to consider UI issues that required changes to your design to address. Or it may have been a bit of both.

    And why would you not work WITH the web people from the get-go? If you’re unable to do the complete design-build, then you owe it to your client to include the web developers in the design process from the beginning. That probably would have avoided the after-design compromises, and the final result probably would have been one everyone was pleased with, including you.

  2. Kim says:

    Hello Ray. I enjoyed reading your blog about the differences between print and web designers. However I feel you do come off rather strongly about the two skills. I’m a print designer and watercolor artist and I also work on web design as well. The thing that makes me a good designer is the fact that I was trained to learn about solid fundamental design practices in the eighties where we couldn’t depend on a computer to do it all for us. I was taught to think outside the box. It was our generation that developed the web and began to design these pages when the .com experience was beginning. The best web designers in my area are my age and began designing in print, got a four year degree and later learned web. The difference was that they had an integral and intimate knowledge of basic design principles with the benefit of good timing in web as it was appearing. Right now I am designing a large B to C but my design has been placed and broken down quite a bit into a template by a third party web company. The initial design I did as a front end design was professionally researched and marketed and had extremely good results. I feel these web “experts” are steering the design into what they see as a fit, when initial marketing research showed it was my design, and my colors, and my logo, and all of the branding I DID that lured customers to the site. Now as the design stands as a compromise, and my work is pushed aside, I wonder how the numbers will fall? There will be no research to show what customers are not buying, only who are. By the way, I also paint, and illustrate books. I have read that only 20% of designers can draw or paint at all. So what are they then? I suppose they are engineers who like to talk about pantone colors at starbucks. So please lets not ignore the minority report.