Before I joined Maark, I spent five years as the only web designer at a studio known mainly for its print and exhibition design. Every day, I got to observe and learn from designers who were working on posters, billboards, and other print media, and I saw how — though we all shared the same foundations and principles of design — our thinking and processes were very different.
When asking a print designer to help on a web project (or vice versa), I often saw that applying the methods and mindset that worked for the one medium didn't always work for the other.
So, over years of watching these other designers craft ideas and develop solutions for a wide scope of projects, I made a mental list of the differences between the print and digital work processes, and now, for the first time, I'm writing them out — not on paper, but on screen.
In my view, the biggest difference between print and digital design is physical materialization — or lack of it.
Print designers work with and for a clear physical space. They utilize the richness of materials and the sensation of touch. They choose the texture and thickness of paper from paper catalogs; they select colors from swatches and color guides. They must be mindful of how their audience will interact with their design: how will the text on this billboard look to someone who is fifty feet away? How will this poster appear to a child who is shorter than the average adult? How will this book cover look on the shelf, sitting next to others from the same collection?
Web designers work inside the space of a screen. We cannot rely on the richness of texture or the surrounding environment to aid us in our craft. Instead, we use interaction, motion, and sound to create an engaging experience. A successful website is always a dialogue between a product and its user. Since it's not possible to know what type of device will be used for this dialogue or who the user will be on the other side of the screen, web designers have to plan for as many of them as possible. There are accessibility issues we must account for — which means we need to make sure a website is usable on any kind of device by every kind of person. For instance, we use strong color contrasts to make web content more visible, we allow users to toggle web audio on and off, and we consider users who will access the site through screen readers or without a mouse or trackpad.
We can't design one single ideal experience. Instead, we must aim to design an ideal experience for many different kinds of users.
Designing for print usually means you're designing for a clearly defined and limited space, whether it's a page, a poster, or a billboard. This means designers are mostly focused on making the content look the best for that space. They spend hours shaping and adjusting the text along column edges or creating justified text blocks with no rivers or holes in order to improve readability and control content hierarchy.
A web design should have the ability to adapt and grow to answer users' evolving needs.
Web design, on the other hand, is a dynamic medium. The elasticity and flexibility — i.e., responsiveness — of screens means that designers don't have such detailed control over the look of the text shape. Often, we don’t even know what the text will be because the information will be delivered dynamically by an API or added later by an author. This means web designers need to have a more flexible mindset — we must accept our lack of control — and instead, focus on creating a responsive design that looks and feels the way we want, even with different content on different screens over time.
In print, designers plan for a lifespan. Some print campaigns are meant to be brief: a flyer might only need to be relevant for a week, and won't demand the same effort or budget as, say, a book cover that is meant to last a lifetime. Lifespan determines a lot of design choices, and this becomes especially visible in exhibition design: the richness and durability of materials are selected based on the lifespan of the exhibition.
In addition, once a design is printed, it can't be changed, so designers need to ensure everything is perfect and finished before sending it to production.
In contrast, good web design is never finished. A web design should have the ability to adapt and grow to answer users' evolving needs. Web design is never complete because, ideally, the process is iterative: each iteration is a chance to learn from users and bring the site closer to an optimal solution. Since there will always be new user needs, new devices, and new insights, a web design can always continue to evolve.
Designers are problem-solvers, and many of the problems we solve will always be the same: we will always be concerned with communication effectiveness, readability, color, and shape. But the solutions we come up with, and how we prioritize them, will always depend on our medium — and as new media continue to emerge, the focus of design will keep changing, too.