“You web/print guys have it sooooo easy…”

The other day, the creative director at my company who is my counterpart on the print design side overheard a discussion between me and our digital senior art director and blurted out “You web guys have it sooooo easy!”

When we asked him why, he replied “You don’t have to spend so much time dealing with typography, kerning, widows, etc. because that stuff is not possible on the web.” Of course, our digital AD shot back “You print guys have it easier than we do because what ends up on the printed page is the same for everyone whereas we have to deal with varying monitors, fonts, browsers and bandwidth.”

Of course, being the only one of us three who has spent at least 8-9 years in the print world and then also in the interactive world (3 of those years overlapped the two worlds), I can honestly say there are unique challenges that designers in both worlds face. Having said that, I would say designers who design for the digital space have it a bit harder. Here’s why.

Designing for a moving target

Every designer, regardless of which medium they design for, faces their own unique sets of challenges. However interaction designers must also design for a medium in which the technology, expectations and user habits change every six months or so. Just think about some of the assumptions about user behavior from not even 7-8 years ago that were accepted as fact as far as the web is concerned:

  • Users will not put their credit cards into a web browser
  • Web users don’t want to spend much time on web sites, they want to get on and get off very quickly
  • Because of insufficient bandwidth, the web is a poor medium for video
  • There is no real application for television on the internet

There is much we know about how humans interact with the printed word on a page. While habits are shifting, we know a great deal about how humans interact with the medium of television. But just when we think we have human interaction on the internet pegged, a shift occurs. The increase in broadband access has created shifts in human behavior on the web that has turned what was once accepted conventional wisdom on its ear.

5 years ago, who could have predicted the YouTube phenomenon?

Who would have imagined, back in 2000, that Steve Jobs would become a major influence in the music industry?

Who would have imagined that on Friday at lunch hour in cubicles across America, employees would inhale sandwiches at their desks while catching up on “Grey’s Anatomy” on the web — for free?

And yet during this sea of constant change, interactive designers are expected not only to stay one step ahead of the curve but to do great work in the process. Of course, advances in browser technology and the movement of a great many web designers and web developers to adopt web standards has allowed web designers to exert more and more “print-like” features to HTML text than previously imagined, like leading (known as line-spacing), hanging bullets in list items, indented copy and initial caps.

Lovely web page design. Will it look just as good on my Blackberry?

Where this becomes tricky for the web designer is that the web is all about putting the control of the display of content into the hands of the user, rather than the designer. I have to admit, the print designer in me struggled with this for a long time. Print designers get paid to control the final display of printed content. Every copy of every printed material should look alike. The ink coverage, color intensity, registration and trapping on the very first brochure out of the carton had better look the same as the ink coverage, color intensity, registration and trapping on the very last brochure out of the carton or there will be hell to pay.

In the web world, while there needs to be a certain degree of uniformity of colors and layout, the expectation is that depending on which system and browser a user is on, that content will differ. The print designer in me saw this as a huge drawback until I saw the opportunity in it: the ability to deliver unique, interactive content to users on the web! You go from “Sh*t, what he sees on his computer is not exactly the same as what she sees on her computer” to “YES! What he sees on his computer is not exactly the same as what she sees on her computer!”

When I was doing print, how cool would it have been to offer up personalized brochure content for each user who viewed it, depending on their tastes, region or buying history? Better still, how cool would it be to simply and inexpensively tailor this content to be viewable by the visually-impaired? Those on mobile devices?

Today, we do that by lunch time.

Of course, being a print designer is no picnic either. 8 years ago, when I made the move 100% into the interactive world and left the print world behind for good, one of the things I was glad to leave behind was the late night press run. Or the inevitable call you get from a client, 2 months after printing thousands of materials, that a phone number has changed or a team member has left or changed positions and that now we must find a way to reflect these changes without incurring the costs of re-printing everything again.

And it’s not like printing technology has stood still in the last 10 – 15 years either. Digital and database-driven, short run printing has changed the way designers approach projects today as well. And certainly knowing that some things are probably better tackled on the web has changed the rationale for what gets printed and in what quantities.

Be that as it may, as a designer for the web I realize that what I’m really designing is human interaction on the web. And the only thing I know is that in 6 months — and most certainly in 6 years — a lot of what I accept as standard practice today will be changed. And I have to keep up with all of it, or start driving a cab.


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