Adapting print design skills for the Web

by Joe Gillespie — Aug 1, 2004

If you've learned your design skills in the context of print, as many designers do, and you want to try your hand at some Web design, you have an excellent head start.

This article examines graphic design skills and sifts through them to find out which are most appropriate when it comes to putting Web pages together. Where some of those skills are extremely useful, others have the opposite effect and can actually get in the way.

Sounds strange? Read on.

Layout

Print designers develop a vital appreciation for form and space. This allows them to create balanced or dynamic layouts depending on the mood of the communication. Balance gives a feeling of authority, solidity and permanence where dynamism suggests modernism and progressiveness.

A page layout is very like an abstract painting. It has solid areas, spaces, textures and colours that combine to create these feelings of harmony or tension. Where dynamism is a positive attribute, an untidy or haphazard layout that doesn’t quite hold together can suggest instability. All this happens the instant you look at a page and before you read a word. First impressions… and all that!

Creative page layout is definitely an art.

Color

Then there’s the colour scheme. The use of colour is more than just for superficial, decorative reasons. The tone and juxtaposition of various hues, shades and tints also create evocative undertones that make the viewer more receptive to the message.

Everybody is familiar with the concepts of red = hot and blue = cold. Those are instinctive associations that we adopt at a very early age. The effects of other, more complex color combinations, require a great deal of study. There's no substitute for mixing real paint or inks when exploring the language of colour – more beneficial than dabbling with a graphics program on a computer.

As with layouts, a designer who is in control of color can work wonders. Bad use of colour is like music that’s out of tune – it puts people off even when they are not actually conscious of the fact.

So, you can add a bit of psychology to the ‘art’.

Typography

The ability to present words in ways that enhance and extend their literal meaning is what typography is all about. Promoting or demoting the relative emphasis of hierarchical ordering of thoughts. This requires a solid knowledge of typefaces and a degree of logical thinking.

But logic alone is not enough. Logic is tediously boring because it is so obvious. Finding a new solution that might be quite illogical, but amusing or thought provoking, creates a much more powerful communication that will be remembered long after others have been forgotten.Put all these skills together in a fresh and exciting way and you will not only be in control of your communication, the words and presentation will work together synergistically. These are the essential building blocks that intermix to help get the message across at both basic and more subconscious levels – regardless of the medium.

Lacking the benefits of a good design schooling, many 'Web designers' struggle with colour schemes and put together type as they would with a word processor. Some try to justify their lack of inspiration with phrases like ‘valid markup’ and ‘accessibility’. Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with these concepts, but admirable as they are, the Web page itself not the end result, it’s only the messenger.

Getting Technical

The process of building a Web page is much more akin to that of producing artwork for print. It requires more knowledge of technical issues than creative design ability.

In some graphic design studios, the designers produce their own artwork but it is more usual for the design to be passed on to a production department where specialists will assemble artwork that a printer can use to make plates. Errors in artwork can lead to costly remaking of plates and reproofing – provided they are caught before the final print run. Finding mistakes after the job is printed is a thought too horrific to contemplate – but it does happen!

Graphic designers have to have some appreciation of printing techniques or their 'designs' will be impractical. They will know that you can only make certain colours out of CMYK inks and after that you have to use ‘specials’ or ‘spot’ colours. Sometimes that’s possible, such as in packaging design where spot colors are quite common. In other situations, you have to use what you have and make the best of it.

Where the designer doesn't need to know exactly how to prepare the artwork down to the last detail, they do have to know the restrictions inherent in the process. They will realise that there is a huge differences in designing a magazine spread (probably printed on absorbent paper using photogravure) and designing the packaging for frozen peas (printed on polythene by flexography).

You can't expect a design created with one medium in mind to be easily transferable to another. It will be difficult, if not impossible.

The range of media with which a designer becomes familiar, and comfortable, comes down to the client base. In a small design company with only a few clients, chances are that they will work in fairly restricted areas. In a larger agency with lots of clients, the designer will invariably gain wider experiences.

Designing for the Web

When print designers attempt to transfer their knowledge and skills to Web design, much of what they learned is still perfectly valid and provides an excellent starting point.

On the other hand, the Web is a completely different medium, and if they try to treat a Web page exactly as they would a printed page – and many do – things won't work out as well as they should.

Old habits are hard to break – but it's better to break the habits than the Web pages! Below, I will examine some of the more crucial differences in designing for print and for the Web.

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