Answering a Designer’s Question: Should I Choose Web or Print?

Posted in Web Design • Posted on 9 Comments

Print and web are both huge areas of design and mean a lot in today’s world. Print has been with us for more than 100 years and we know pretty much everything about it, while web is a new area of design that became mainstream about 10 years ago. Before this, web design was totally unknown and only experts and developers knew its potential and helped it grow to how we know it today. Both areas of design have advanced so much in the past 10-15 years that they started to cross each others paths and while this can be beneficial, it can also create problems. We will talk about the advantages and disadvantages in this article and also about how the two areas of design differ from a designer’s perspective.

Main difference

The biggest and easiest difference to spot is the experience you get from them, which are quite different from each other. Reading a newspaper is totally different than browsing a website. Even reading a book is different than reading an ebook, although the process is the same.

While web design is usually made to be displayed on a screen, which can vary in size, print designs can be huge such as posters or ads. And while the user interacts with a website, it is impossible to interact with a newspaper or a poster. While web design creates an experience based on the user movements (clicks and scrolls) and can’t exist without user interaction, print design creates the experience through readers’ eyes moving around and searching for information.

Image by josephbradleycooper.

Canvas versus screen

Both mediums take into account the demographics of the audience, as they are very important while designing, creating, advertising and selling content. A detail worth mentioning is that designers use the same elements and concepts in both mediums: fonts and colors are the best example. While it is easier to play with them on a computer, therefore easier to use in web design, don’t forget that newspapers are also created on computers before being printed out. This means that pretty much everything you can do on a computer can also be done in a newspaper. Yes, to some extent.

  • Monitors come in different sizes, therefore designs have to look good on all of them, or at least on most of them.
  • Moreover, there are even more browsers and operating systems, all with their own rules which influence the way the code is interpreted.

While those issues exist and don’t seem like they’re about to disappear anytime soon, all web designers learn to work around them and just move on. Being able to provide cross-browser websites is actually an asset for a web designer today.

There are, indeed, some restrictions on the web due to technologies such as HTML5, CSS3 or JavaScript, but great design is created within restrictions given by a client or by the medium. And there are constraints in print as well, such as the size of any given newspaper, book or canvas. You can’t scroll on it. While the print uses a lot of paper for only a newspaper, the online magazines use bandwidth, a host and a domain which need to be renewed periodically. Both have advantages and disadvantages, but since the web went mainstream, less and less people became fond of print.

Regarding the things that need to be learned, both industries have their own standards. I would however say that it is much more demanding to be a web designer than a print designer. While typography, colors and concepts such as negative space are as important in web as in print, the second one doesn’t have technologies like HTML, CSS, PHP, ASP.Net and so on. Sure, there is some Quark, InDesign or Photoshop to learn, but the technical part is more demanding for web designers. This is probably the reason behind graphic designers who work on web not knowing how to code: it is not possible for everybody to know that much stuff without a hell of a lot of work. Being a complete designer is not an easy task.

When a print designer transitions to web he has some tough challenges to encounter.

  • The first one is, as said before, learning to code.
  • But wait, there are more. The canvas is fixed in print – each newspaper or publication has its own standards.
  • It is quite different from the web, where experts debate for a long time what should the right width of a website be?
  • Making things appear on a website like they did in Photoshop can also be a challenge.
  • Doing this in InDesign is easy – you just move elements around with mouse.
  • Web design doesn’t work the same way, so knowing code is crucial, as WYSIWYG editors usually add lots of junk and unnecessary code to your files.

Image by bcmng.

Moving the other way around might also be a challenge.

  • There are no pixels anymore; print designers work in inches or centimeters, depending on the region or country standards. A new concept is introduced to them as well: bleed and margins, things that do not exist in web. Printing is also a challenge of its own and a job that needs to be mastered.
  • Navigation is also a new concept for print designers, as flipping through a magazine doesn’t need such a concept. In web design it is totally different. Not having navigation is confusing and makes a website useless. And just having navigation is not enough. Designers need to make it stand out, while making sure the content is still more visible and important in hierarchy. The general web architecture is different than the one in print, therefore a print designer would need time to learn and adapt if switching careers from print to web.
  • Typography is also huge in both disciplines. However, in print it has always been important, but it has been ignored in web design until five years ago. When typographers had a boost of inspiration and showed the whole web industry how well used type can change a website, then many web designers started to experiment and play with fonts.
  • In print it is quite different. Once a publication sets some standard fonts, they are pretty much used all over the place and in each issue. Changing them doesn’t happen too often in print; it does, however, happen on the web. Since the introduction of Typekit, a web font service, and Google Fonts, the restriction to the fonts on the computers stopped.
  • Although not difficult to get used to, size is also different in web and print. While a type of 10 or 11 is suitable for print, the web demands larger sizes such as 12 or even 14. But with so many designers out there, there is not really a standardized font size for the web. If the font looks good, the size doesn’t matter. The style is also important, as in print serif fonts are suitable for blocks of text, while sans-serifs are suitable for text on web.
  • Images are an important part of design too. But there are some differences between how we handle images on the web and how we do it in print. The first difference is the color format. CMYK (for print) and RGB (for web)  are the standards. CMKY stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (which is usually black) while RGB stands for Red, Green and Blue, which every monitor, TV or digital equipment uses to create color.
  • Images need to be formatted and exported in CMYK if they will be printed out, otherwise the colors will not be shown exactly as on the computer screen. While this is not a difficult process, when moving from a domain to another it might take some time to get used to.
  • Image compression is also something worth mentioning. There is no need to have an image with more than 72dpi (doth per inch) on web, with level 8 or 9 (which equals “high”) JPEG files or PNG. In print it is good to have images of up to 300dpi in order for them to look good and have high-quality.

Image by birdfarm.

Another disadvantage of the print industry is the lack of interactivity. The content on web is not only readable, but also interactive, which makes the experience better. While newspapers do not have any interaction at all, this can also be their advantage. Interactive elements are often not usable in all browsers; there is no such problem in print, where things are kept simple.

If something is clearly similar between the two industries, then the grid system is it. Now I know not all web designers use it, but it is something which is becoming more and more popular on today’s web. While in web design it is still not a standard, a grid system is crucial in print.

Mastering both

People usually throw the same question out there: is it possible to master both print and web? Well yes, I think it is. If you understand that both industries have their own standards and are quite different, then mastering both of them is definitely possible. However, mastering only one of them might be enough for a career as well, so if you are interested in both of them, go for it. Otherwise it will not be a big issue. The fact that you don’t know how the print industry works will not be an issue if you deliver your work for the web in time and your employer is happy with you.

Bottom line

Designing for print and web are two different things, although they are bound by the same concepts. If your background lies in one of them, I am sure you will have no problem in switching to the other one if needed. You just have to keep in mind that while the print industry stalls (or at least drives forward very slowly), the web develops itself a lot year by year and this will only make the whole industry more challenging. Both domains have their own advantages and limitations and understanding them will only make you a better designer.

Until next time… how do you see the web and the print industry? Do you see yourself working in both at some point in time, or one of them is just not for you? Why do you think that?

69 Written ArticlesWebsite

Christian Vasile is an enthuziastic Romanian web designer currently living in Denmark. He is passionate for the industry and writes about design, usability, coding and freelancing and is a regular publisher here at 1WD. You can follow him on Twitter at @christianvasile or visit his web portfolio by clicking on the link above.

9 Comments Best Comments First
  • Maria Wendt

    Saturday, March 31st, 2012 13:51

    1

    Hey, Christian, thanks for this great, very detailed/informative article. I have one question, though. Do you think that print will eventually just die out and people will only read on the web/computer screen/kindle/etc? Thanks for your thoughts on this! Hope your weekend is going well!

    0
    • Tim

      Monday, April 2nd, 2012 12:36

      7

      Not until long after we are dead.

      0
    • Christian Vasile

      Monday, April 2nd, 2012 02:29

      6

      Hi Maria, thanks for the comment!

      Yes I do think indeed that print will disappear at some point in time. I believe, however, that the time is not approaching too fast, as people from all over the world (think mainly of Asia and Africa) are not familiarized with technology as we are; yet! And there are still people who buy newspapers and books. When they will stop doing it and printing such huge loads of paper will not be profitable anymore, the print will disappear. It’s basically resuming to money making and profitable industries.

      0
  • Katiero Porto

    Sunday, April 1st, 2012 20:12

    4

    Please, correct me if I’m wrong:

    Graphic designer = print = vector = CMYK = 300 dpi or more
    Web designer = web = bitmap = RGB = 72 dpi (our eyes can’t see the difference if we use more – monitors only)
    I think that we are talking about two different professions, and we don’t need to know everything.
    It is up to the designer to decide what to do.
    Actually I believe that it is easier and more useful for a web designer study and learn programming in order to be a developer too, than to try master both functions. I’m telling this because that was exactly what I did.
    I am a web designer, coder and developer, and I’m not good with graphic design (Corel, Illustrator, vectors, etc.).

    The question is: What I said make sense or not?

    Thanks and congrats for the amazing blog.

    0
    • Christian Vasile

      Monday, April 2nd, 2012 02:12

      5

      Hi Katiero!

      Not everything in print is vector graphics. Have you seen Coca Cola’s large advertising banners? Or the banners in H&M for example. Those are simply raster, but they are in 300dpi because otherwise the quality for such a big picture would not be proper.

      There are more reasons behind us using only 72dpi on the web, mainly because 300dpi files are still way too large to load with the current internet speed we have. Therefore we go for a lower dots per inch settings which works just fine for the screen we use today.

      0
  • Webjsubash

    Saturday, March 31st, 2012 21:26

    3

    I am a web designer personally and I know doing in photoshop is 10 times easier than doing in dreamweaver and the evil ie. Isn’t it.

    0
  • Tim

    Saturday, March 31st, 2012 16:48

    2

    Nice article. I started out in print and taught myself web about 14 years ago not long after I got out of college. I much prefer designing for print. It’s A LOT more fun than web design. I don’t think most people would agree nowadays. While I am a web designer at my full time job, I still love working with paper. Print will never die and I’ll tell you why. People love holding something tangible in their hands (that isn’t an iPad or e-book reader). The feel of paper is nice. The look of metallic inks is just plain cool. That is something that will never be replicated on screen.
    You also cannot make pop-up books on screen – only cheap 3d virtual imitations of them. Not nearly as cool.
    When I was a kid I used to take my popup books apart to see how they worked and then I’d glue them back together again. My parents didn’t know I did this. I probably would have been yelled at for destroying a book they just bought me lol.
    One thing both do have in common is color problems. Colors will never look the same on your computer as they do in print or even on someone else’s computer. You can use Pantone colors or any other combination and try to calibrate your screen for a week, but it will never match what is printed. There are too many variables: type of paper, air temperature, how good the printer is, how fresh the ink is, etc. You can only hope for the closest match. Same thing with the web and viewing on different computers.

    Anyway, I think both have their place and it will be great if we don’t destroy as many trees because digital devices are replacing much of the paper use. But I don’t think print will ever die.

    0
  • Anita

    Saturday, June 16th, 2012 21:39

    8

    Nice article Christian, but I desagree that “print industry is the lack of interactivity” and “newspapers do not have any interaction at all”. Really? I think print publications are very interactive. What do you mean by saing interaction? Print won’t dissapear!

    0
    • Dainis Graveris

      Sunday, June 17th, 2012 04:22

      9

      Interaction can be understood as using site against using printed design – it has it’s big differences, generally less surprises there! Of course Print will never disappear – experience by having something real is invaluable.

      0
  • Anita

    Saturday, June 16th, 2012 21:39

    8

    Nice article Christian, but I desagree that “print industry is the lack of interactivity” and “newspapers do not have any interaction at all”. Really? I think print publications are very interactive. What do you mean by saing interaction? Print won’t dissapear!

    0
    • Dainis Graveris

      Sunday, June 17th, 2012 04:22

      9

      Interaction can be understood as using site against using printed design – it has it’s big differences, generally less surprises there! Of course Print will never disappear – experience by having something real is invaluable.

      0
  • Katiero Porto

    Sunday, April 1st, 2012 20:12

    4

    Please, correct me if I’m wrong:

    Graphic designer = print = vector = CMYK = 300 dpi or more
    Web designer = web = bitmap = RGB = 72 dpi (our eyes can’t see the difference if we use more – monitors only)
    I think that we are talking about two different professions, and we don’t need to know everything.
    It is up to the designer to decide what to do.
    Actually I believe that it is easier and more useful for a web designer study and learn programming in order to be a developer too, than to try master both functions. I’m telling this because that was exactly what I did.
    I am a web designer, coder and developer, and I’m not good with graphic design (Corel, Illustrator, vectors, etc.).

    The question is: What I said make sense or not?

    Thanks and congrats for the amazing blog.

    0
    • Christian Vasile

      Monday, April 2nd, 2012 02:12

      5

      Hi Katiero!

      Not everything in print is vector graphics. Have you seen Coca Cola’s large advertising banners? Or the banners in H&M for example. Those are simply raster, but they are in 300dpi because otherwise the quality for such a big picture would not be proper.

      There are more reasons behind us using only 72dpi on the web, mainly because 300dpi files are still way too large to load with the current internet speed we have. Therefore we go for a lower dots per inch settings which works just fine for the screen we use today.

      0
  • Webjsubash

    Saturday, March 31st, 2012 21:26

    3

    I am a web designer personally and I know doing in photoshop is 10 times easier than doing in dreamweaver and the evil ie. Isn’t it.

    0
  • Tim

    Saturday, March 31st, 2012 16:48

    2

    Nice article. I started out in print and taught myself web about 14 years ago not long after I got out of college. I much prefer designing for print. It’s A LOT more fun than web design. I don’t think most people would agree nowadays. While I am a web designer at my full time job, I still love working with paper. Print will never die and I’ll tell you why. People love holding something tangible in their hands (that isn’t an iPad or e-book reader). The feel of paper is nice. The look of metallic inks is just plain cool. That is something that will never be replicated on screen.
    You also cannot make pop-up books on screen – only cheap 3d virtual imitations of them. Not nearly as cool.
    When I was a kid I used to take my popup books apart to see how they worked and then I’d glue them back together again. My parents didn’t know I did this. I probably would have been yelled at for destroying a book they just bought me lol.
    One thing both do have in common is color problems. Colors will never look the same on your computer as they do in print or even on someone else’s computer. You can use Pantone colors or any other combination and try to calibrate your screen for a week, but it will never match what is printed. There are too many variables: type of paper, air temperature, how good the printer is, how fresh the ink is, etc. You can only hope for the closest match. Same thing with the web and viewing on different computers.

    Anyway, I think both have their place and it will be great if we don’t destroy as many trees because digital devices are replacing much of the paper use. But I don’t think print will ever die.

    0
  • Maria Wendt

    Saturday, March 31st, 2012 13:51

    1

    Hey, Christian, thanks for this great, very detailed/informative article. I have one question, though. Do you think that print will eventually just die out and people will only read on the web/computer screen/kindle/etc? Thanks for your thoughts on this! Hope your weekend is going well!

    0
    • Christian Vasile

      Monday, April 2nd, 2012 02:29

      6

      Hi Maria, thanks for the comment!

      Yes I do think indeed that print will disappear at some point in time. I believe, however, that the time is not approaching too fast, as people from all over the world (think mainly of Asia and Africa) are not familiarized with technology as we are; yet! And there are still people who buy newspapers and books. When they will stop doing it and printing such huge loads of paper will not be profitable anymore, the print will disappear. It’s basically resuming to money making and profitable industries.

      0
    • Tim

      Monday, April 2nd, 2012 12:36

      7

      Not until long after we are dead.

      0

Comments are closed.

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