Paper vs. Pixels - Part 4

by Joe Gillespie — Nov 1, 2004

This is the fourth, and final, article in the series.

For someone used to designing for print, dealing with Web pages can a be a frustrating and hair-pulling experience – if you let it.If, instead of fighting the medium, you work with it, and go with the flow, you will live longer and happier. 'Nuff said.

Artwork/ProductionGetting technical

Another huge difference between print and Web design is in what you might call 'programming', although the more accurate term is 'scripting'. Print designers don't generally get involved in anything remotely like this. Many Web designers don't get too involved in it either, preferring to rely on 'actions' built into their Web page editing software. At best, they will hunt down 'off-the-shelf' scripts that they can copy and paste and maybe hack a little to suit their own needs.

In print, technical stuff like this is usually handled by people at the production end. Knowing exactly how to trap certain color areas or what dot gain and undercolour removal settings are required are tasks considered to be too technical for the average 'designer' – although he or she will probably be familiar with the terms.

It is asking a lot for any individual to know everything about everything. In a small company, you might have to know more than a designer working in a larger company with more resources to draw upon. A word of warning – 'Technicalities' can't just be ignored just because you don't understand them. The problems won't solve themselves.

The first step is in recognising that there is a problem. Without that recognition, you are really flying blind and sure to end up with a disaster on your hands. At best, it will be an embarrassment but it could just as easily cost you money or your job.

Having identified a problem, the second step is to find someone who can solve it – someone who can advise you, if it is a relatively simple matter, or to whom you can sub-contract the part of the work that needs done. Now, it might well be that what you are trying to do is totally impractical, or there might be a better way to do it that will cause less problems. 'Expert' advice does not come cheap. When you are estimating a job, it's up to you to build in a contingency for outside help if it is not available in-house.

Relying on software programs to get things right is a BIG mistake. Even the best WYSIWYG editors are flawed. The only 'perfect' Web page software is a text editor used by someone who knows what he or she is doing. A WYSIWYG editor can save time and provide valuable shortcuts but it's like any other tool, only as good as the person using it.


Internet bandwidth doesn't really have a counterpart in the world of print – unless you try to fit a whole book into four pages.

A printed page filled with fifty words costs the same (in effort and ink) as one with two thousand words. If you have to fit a lot of words on a page, you can make the type smaller. Printed type remains readable down to four points or less. On the Web, more words means more bandwidth and the smallest type you can get off with is nine pixels high.

Although it is less of a problem now than it used to be, everybody still doesn't have high speed broadband access to the net. For small Web pages, there is very little difference in page load times between a modem and broadband. Under ideal conditions, a page of 32k will take six seconds to download with a modem and one second with broadband. At 64k, the modem will take twelve seconds but broadband only about two. 64k is a substantial amount of text, about ten thousand words. A typical full browser page size JPEG image (760 x 420 pixels) will take about the same length of time.

So, text isn't generally a problem. Large image areas and Flash animations are.

For general audiences, with a higher proportion of dial-up users, smaller pages are obviously better. Allowing for a maximum download wait of ten seconds, a page 'weight' of 50k is a good upper limit to aim for. That includes text, images, scripts, style sheets and anything else. For more sophisticated audiences with a higher proportion of broadband users, this figure can edge up. The danger, as always, is judging page load times purely on your own computer or internal network. Even with broadband, there can be bottlenecks that slow down traffic at peak times or in remote locations.


To sum up, the main difference between designing for print and for the Web is in your mind. If you have worked in print, it's very difficult to let go of old habits, in fact, it's probably easier for someone who has had no print experience to design a 'good' web page from functional and semantic points of view – they won't be hampered by the 'baggage'. On the other hand, they might have terrible colour sense, not know how to crop a picture and they certainly won't understand the dynamics of design or the principles of subliminal communication.

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