Great Print Design is Likely to be Lousy Web Design

7/23/2010  By David

I wish I had come up with that title on my own. But its something Jakob Nielsen said back in 1999. More than 10 years later, it couldn't be more true. Print designers are generally not very good at web design. But that really shouldn't offend anyone.  After all, its like saying fashion designers are generally not very good at web design.  Print and web design are just two different things.

While its hard to see how someone could confuse fashion and web design, its easy to understand how many don't see the difference between print and web.  Both appear to be a simple 2 dimensional page.  Both use color, graphics, typography and layout to express an idea, convey information, or entice someone into action.  And besides, you can print a web page, right?

There are a few similarities, but the differences abound.


Print is 2 dimensional. Web is beyond dimensional. A web page can have multiple layers where some are only revealed after some event (click of a button). Multi-dimensionality has a huge impact on design - understanding layered space, flow and page inter-relationship (linking) isn't required in print design.  Yet is it a key component of the power of web design.

Print design also has fixed canvas dimensions. There is a height and width. These are known and they do not change for a given printed item. But on the web, there is no such thing as a consistent canvas. There are all kinds of differnt monitor sizes, running all kinds of different resolutions. Regardless of monitors and resolution, not everyone browses the web at full screen.  So even for the same person on the same computer, your website canvas may be different each time they visit. In web design, the canvas is fluid, which simply means print design will not work on the web.

It is true you can design a fixed width web page, or even a fixed height. But that doesn't change the USER's canvas on their monitor. The height and width you force a website into doesn't matter. What matters is what is going to work with the canvas size the end-user has to view your website.


In some print design you may find the most basic of navigation. For example, the table of contents for a newspaper or a printed quarterly report. But this is type of navigation is merely a map; it doesn't actually take you there. Navigation on the web takes you directly to the pace you want to go.  Sometimes that's not just to the page, but right to the paragraph. Web navigation also has to consider multiple routes; provide multiple avenues for getting to the same place (i.e. a Contact Us link in the header and in the footer).

Part of web design includes navigation flow, methods of cueing links - making sure the user is able to find everything they want in as few clicks as possible. 


People don't interact with print design beyond reading. Within web design, there is the entire field of user interface design. Part of web design is to ensure that the user's interation with the website is as simple and efficient as possible for accomplishing their goals.  In print, the only goal is reading or gaining information. That same goal exists for theweb, but so does searching, communicating, purchasing and much more.

Greater visual interactivity is possible on the web through video and motion graphics. These can enhance the user exerience - or simply be a distraction if not designed properly. For example, look at Google Maps and compare that to it's print design equivalent, an atlas. Clearly, desiging Google Maps and the way you interact with it took a different skillset than the atlas. And I'm not talking about the programming code that makes it all work.  I'm talking about the design - the look and feel, how someone is able to accomplish their goal of getting from point A to point B.

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