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The difference between web and print for design approach

Author: Simon Jackson

Here at Bluelinemedia, we work closely with a lot of designers who arrive from a print background. As a result we have a fairly good idea of the challenges designers face when translating their print experience to an online project. What follows is intended as a primer to help avoid the usual pitfalls.

Information Architecture

Before planning the design it is always worthwhile thinking about how the site will hold together structurally. Unlike a brochure or flyer, people will navigate through a website in a multitude of ways. They can arrive at different pages from search engines, jump around the site using an internal site search and even try to guess at pages that they think should exist. An obvious effect of this is that every page needs to be consistent in its presentation of both the brand and the user's location within the site. Regardless of whether the user has been on the site for 5 minutes or returned to a specific page using a bookmark, they need to be able to instantly see where they are and what they can do.

The content of websites is also slightly different to standard print work. The accepted wisdom is essentially the adoption of a drill down style. Users are presented with more and more detail as they choose to follow links into their chosen area. Again, this means that the content and structure of the site needs to be planned at the outset to allow the design to reflect its requirements.

Finally, visitors to any site bring with them years of expectations built up through the use of other websites. Whether you choose to break or toy with these expectations is up to you, but it should at least be a consideration.

Specific Design Considerations

Print designers are used to perfection - once a brochure is printed it is a fixed medium, everyone sees the same result. Unfortunately, web design doesn't work that way and as a designer you can't control how people want to view your finished product. The first step of moving to online design is to accept the imperfections and then to let these imperfections inform your design.

When print designers try to re-create print perfection online, the outcome is nearly always negative for the visitor. A classic example is a fixed height layout where a designer tries to shoehorn a site into a fixed height design regardless of the information that needs to be displayed. Whilst the fixed height design may work on the designer's browser, in the real world with different font settings and different screen sizes the results will vary. Vertical scrolling is an accepted norm for most website visitors and there is no point compromising the quality of the content purely to fit into an inflexible design. Ultimately, content is king online and it should not be sacrificed for design.

Restricted font choices and inconsistent colour presentation across different screens are other issues keenly felt by print designers. It is worth considering if specific fonts are really required before creating lots of images (and therefore adding a lot of download weight to your website) to convey the design ideal.

Graceful degradation

Another important consideration is the fact that visitors will be using a variety of devices to view your content ranging from mobile phones to desktop pc's to televisions. It is important not to alienate chunks of your potential audience by adding functionality that will break the site on older or less powerful devices. Graceful degradation is a whole other blog item, but in essence, technologies that may or may not be enabled on an individual browser (such as Flash, ActiveX, JavaScript) should only be used to enhance the site, not as a core component of it.


The future development of a site should also be considered. New print material normally replaces old material en masse. Online the boundaries between versions of a site are more blurred. Content management systems allow users to extend content hour by hour. Good web design will cater for the growth and evolution of a site allowing menus to grow, new pages to be added, content to be updated/extended. Again, the flexibility of the initial design is crucial.


Print designers often find web design frustrating because of its perceived restrictions. However, in essence designing for the web is a regression to the fundamentals of design. It is about the basics of presenting information in an easily consumable manner.