How Web Design Has Changed Print

Not only do web designers learn from their print peers, but print design has evolved a great deal thanks to web design.
How Web Design Has Changed Print

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Print design – from newspapers to magazines to ads to books – and web design are often linked because of their differences. The two often come up in conversation at the same time as opposites.

But there is more to the story.

Print and web design are more alike than ever before. The lines are fading and the concepts that dictate good design are becoming more universal every day. Designs in the two mediums also look more similar than ever before and more designers are working in both digital and print.

And it is not just because web designers are learning more about design theory from the world of print. More and more print projects (and designers) are learning from the web. Some of this is because many designers work in environments where both skill sets are necessary but moreover more print designers are looking for inspiration and learn from their digital-publication peers.

New Shapes and Bolder Look

There was a time when almost every layout in a print publication came in the shape of a rectangle. Most were designed horizontally, some vertically and occasionally you would find a square in the mix. Colors were limited in most print design – it has only been in the last decade that many newspapers have began using full-color presses that allow for more than just black and white outside a handful of pages.

No more.

Welcome to the world of new shapes. Many metro newspapers are experimenting with an upside down L-shaped layout that breaks the box mold. Others are using circular shapes for text on feature pages and using more color for an increased “wow” factor. Look at the baubles coming out of the block on the Oliver Russell site; this style of design is where the trend started.

The brighter, bolder color schemes are a direct take-away from web design. While many digital designers have scaled back on the use of animation and bright flashing colors to grab your attention, print designers have evolved with the trend. More ads appear in full color (and bright color), newspaper pages are built using color navigation tools (similar to those on websites) and sport brighter color palettes than in the past.

New navigational tools are also borrowed from web design. Print design has long used forms of indexing but simple navigational keywords (sometimes matched to specific colors) really gained popularity and functionality on the web.

New Details

Rounded corners, more transparent shadows, cutout images and even streamlined typography are just a few of the common web techniques that are becoming more prevalent in print design.

The rigid rectangular form that was used to outline individual stories was also used for all elements in print design. Each photo had corners that came together at 90-degree angles. There were no soft shadows to help “lift” elements off the printed page. These effects, which have been prominent features on websites for a while, can be found in almost any book, magazine or newspaper you pick up now.

Print designers can also thank their web counterparts for eliminating the font mess. There are few restrictions to the number of and type of fonts you can use in print work; this is not the case on the web. The limited font selections used by web designers for years, has helped print designers reign in their desire to use a plethora of typefaces.

The more minimal font palette makes for a cleaner, more streamlined project.

Better Writing

Yes, search engine optimization techniques have helped people working in the print realm write better, sharper, more focused copy.

It has happened over time because most of us publish some form of our print work on the web where keywords of search are key. Rather than rewriting every bit of copy (double the work), designers and writers are using words that provide more information and more description for all of their projects.

Gone are the days of what newspaper editors called the “label headline,” a two- to-three word punch for each story. Now headlines have to sell you each bit of content and filling them with action verbs and impactful keywords are the new norm.

The Lingo

Print designers are learning a whole new set of words that describe things they have been doing for years. Some of the terminology is also changing to reflect the increasingly mainstream web variations as well.

Print designers have always worked in kerning and leading. (Kerning is the space between letters and leading is the space between lines of type). But these terms are becoming replaced with letter-spacing and line-height.

Not only do the web terms sound less jargon-y, they are more easily understandable. There could even come to be a time where letter-spacing and line-height are the common design terms for print and web designers while the terms kerning and leading disappear from the vocabulary.

Software and Technology

Not only are print designers learning more (and emulating) more web design because they are looking at it, they are also using many of the same tools.

Because of products such as the Adobe Creative Suite, which contains software for print and web and tablet design, designers from both disciplines are able to easily learn software that might have otherwise seemed intimidating. Having a set of tools with a uniform look and feel helps encourage designers to cross those borders and work across platforms.

Designers of all kinds must to work harder all the time to stay up-to-date with all the changes in technology. This affects print designers just as much as those working on the web because of cross-platform software. Each update a print designer gets all the same new tools and options that web designers have come to rely on; all designers would be wise to learn and find ways to benefit from those feature updates.

Further, the web world has helped print become more efficient when it comes to file sizes, saving and compression. Working with images that are sized to fit and load quickly is a key part of any web designer’s job – a site that won’t load (or loads slowly) will lose hits. Print designers, too, are learning to better size, scale and package files.

Personal Experience

I spent the first part of my career only designing for print. I have learned firsthand how the design industry as a whole has changed and continues to evolve.

At one point, I thought I would be left behind because I was not labeled as a web developer. But what has become increasingly clear is that design skills are design skills. If you have the eye, and a willingness to learn how to work across multiple platforms, you can create beautiful things.

They may have different names, but the concepts are all the same. It’s just the paper, or screen, that’s different.

Credits: featured image background by Anatoli Nicolae

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Carrie Cousins

Carrie Cousins has more than 10 years experience in the media industry, including writing for print and online publications, and design and editing. Carrie is also a sports fanatic and spends way too much time planning football and basketball trips and obsessing over stats.

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  1. I agree with most of the criticisms levied against the author of this article.

    The article begins with a vague notion which is never really supported with arguments and facts — just more notions.

  2. If I hear a print designer use the phrase letter spacing when they mean kerning it indicates to me that they don’t really know what they’re talking about. Kerning is when you’re making adjustments to the spacing between individual letter pairs. Letter spacing (or tracking) is a more global adjustment. You can do kerning in print design apps like InDesign but there’s no real support for kerning in the CSS spec. I did hear about a jQuery plugin that would apply kerning automatically to you page but to me that misses the point.

  3. The funny thing is… web design probably has influenced print (as well as broadcast) media. It’s a shame that this author doesn’t have the experience or insight to give REAL examples to back up the claim.

  4. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I was reading this article and thinking – who is this person and where did they get their information. Are they referencing printing practices from more than 20 years ago when most stuff was set by hand and limited to the font choices on hand? I have been in the industry for more than 15 years and I have had the pleasure of watching our profession grow to incorporate BOTH web and print applications. But to be honest I have been applying soft drop shadows and line art silhouettes for years and to say that print was limited by font use and colour is complete crap (sorry to be so harsh). In the past before digital print became so widely used most design was kept simple (i.e. 1-3 colour choices) not always because the designer didn’t know how to design with multiple colours it was mainly because it wasn’t always cost effective for the client or the actual design benefited from the limited colour options because it is what got the message across. Just because you have access to millions of colours doesn’t mean you have to use millions of colours – that is what makes what we do art. Not to mention full colour printing in the past was very expensive but since digital printing has become so readily available and main stream print designers have finally been able to let their imaginations fly with how ever many colours we wish to use. But again digital print has its limitations, like offset print does, and like web design does but as designers we design around those limitations that technology presents. What I didn’t appreciate about this article is that it felt like it was saying web design is more cutting edge an innovative than print – when I think the reverse is truer. Web design allows for so many colours because computer monitors evolved to include millions of colours (remember the days of 256 colour monitors) and allowed our clients to used a rainbow of colours without any extra cost. The only reason web design has been able to incorporate the same level of font usage print has been using for many, many years is because the software they use has allowed for it (remember when everything was set to the 8 primary fonts). So in my opinion I would equate the fact that print designers are using more colour in their pieces to the fact that the actual print industry and techniques have been changing not because web design thought if it first. I can’t tell you how many times I have designed something only to be told that the presses themselves or the prepress software couldn’t print or output what I wanted – it wasn’t because I couldn’t think of the idea on my own. As printing has evolved from film-to-plate > direct-to-plate > digital printing as well as prepress software finally catching up to the design software and the ability to convert type to curves/outlines font problems and limitations have rarely been an issue. In my experience with web design I have found more font and typography limitations than with print. Yes the web may have colour, video and animated interactions, but print is just as artistic from the choice of inks, varnishes, papers, textures, overall finished sizes, and bindery choices. In the end remember design can be trendy and people like to reference design and styles from the past (before the electronic age) and make them modern again and since print was around before web so I would say print has had more influence to web design overall. I will not say that there are not great web designs/designers because there are but please give credit where credit is due since there are some great print designs and fantastic print designers out there and have been doing what they do much longer than web design was even a glimmer of an “influence”. We are coming to a time where we influence each other not because one is web and one is print or that one or the other doesn’t know specific techniques in regards to print or web – we influence each other because we are exposed to great design… period.

  5. Carrie, to put it bluntly; look into a History of Graphic Design class, or pick up a handful of books on the history of graphic design.

    Bright color pallets, drop shadows, typefaces, and clipped images have been used in great print designs for years. Web design wasn’t always so glamourous as it is today. I can agree that both mediums are progressing together and learning from each other more everyday. Web design has and will continue to expand beyond print due to the limits and cost of printing pieces these days; and print designers will continue to push new ideas especially in advertising and packaged goods. Print and Web Designers have also been using the same tools (ie: Illustrator and Photoshop) for years. We can all thank Adobe for giving us the Creative Suite, its made creating easier for all creatives in general, but I do not see how this applies to web influencing print specifically. Its new features influencing ALL designers across the board. A great designer is eager to learn all the new functions in general.

    To say that web design brought the use of all these graphic elements to the table, is an oversight of an entire history of the creative industry.

  6. I would have to agree with Keith Draws. I find this article expressing a very naive viewpoint. I’ve been a designer for over 30 years, mostly
    in print and now in increasing web work. Great design for print and web must come from a combination of natural creative gifts combined with high quality education in graphic design, the art of designing with type, negative space, color, photography and illustration built around a great conceptual idea. This author seems completely oblivious to the history of outstanding design for the last 30 years. Geez!—pick up some copies of Communication Arts Design Annuals and Print Design Annuals since the 1980’s and get an eye-full of the evolving trends in great design. Many of this author’s observations about changes between the two mediums are basically laughable—has she been living on some isolated island without media?

    The late 80’s and early 90’s had gorgeous graphic design when professional typesetters were still the Gold Standard for setting type and photographers and illustrators created amazing imagery, all without computers, the mid- to late 90’s saw an explosion of collage designs on steroids when designers went overboard with Photo Shop. Desktop computers had a downside, people with zero training in typography were creating published work with egregious typographic errors, not just typos but glaring errors in just setting type correctly. I have seen these errors pop up in professional work from creative firms—their design staff too poorly trained to spot them.
    Some designers trained after the mid-90’s would likely be lacking in training in what great typography should be, due to the time involved in learning creative softwares and technical knowledge for print and web. Typography education has suffered due to lack of time in design courses of study, and young designer’s teaching classes who never had proper training in typography to begin with.

    I cringe when I read recent articles which now list graphic design as a good career for high school graduates who don’t want to go to college, but can get the “technical training” in a 2-year program and then learn “how to be creative” when you go to work for someone.
    This is incredibly bad advice and produces untalented drones operating computers and design softwares with low quality outcomes.

    Buying a stethoscope, a blood pressure cuff and a white coat doesn’t make you a doctor anymore than buying a Mac computer and Adobe Creative Suite makes you a graphic designer. Unfortunately, there are too many “weak designers” which are devaluing the professional practice of graphic design.

    • With two-year technical degrees relacing four year art school degrees, it’s no wonder that designers possess little to no art training. Without a doubt, Carrie has touched a nerve, but the real problem lies with using graphic design as a buzz word just to fill seats in poorly structured associate degree programs. Certainly as designers, with years of training,in art school and experience,in the field,to see what is becoming of the industry must be concerning. To Carrie’s credit, she has made observations that differences do exist between print and web design. However the particular examples weaken her position. Whatever the reason, print design has always reflected a limited use of type and color, irregardless of web design. Art school drilled that into our heads. Line, shape, space, color, texture, limit your palette, avoid dead space, integrate the elements to create a unified piece, direct the eye with the composition-Let’s give credit for what web design taught us: to manipulate software and to make the files smaller.

  7. Carrie,

    Thank you for taking the time and presenting your article. I know it’s tough to present ideas to a potentially huge audience in a format that allows them to respond so publicly.

    In the end, I feel very strongly about the mis-perceptions presented in your article. You make the same mistakes that so many blog writers make in that you present an opinion piece as an authoritative one. Some of your summations are just flat out wrong and there’s no verifiable data backing up any of your claims.

    If you are aiming for an authoritative approach for your articles, I’d suggest research more deeply, know your topic better, validate your sources, and know your audience. Refrain what stating the obvious whenever possible too.

    As a general statement, people need to remember that the web is a newer medium when compared to print and even multi-media design, but there isn’t anything revolutionary about web design that hasn’t already been established in print or multi-media.
    On a positive note though, your article has brought this site to my attention and I plan to give it a once over to see if I can leverage the resources provided.

    I look forward to more articles.

  8. Shades of that large subclass of bad coders that think they are design gurus, yet feel the need blog about designers being nothing but plagiarizers and propeller-heads. The last 10 years I’ve searched in vain for a good coder I can partner with! I look forward to the likes of Adobe Muse forcing them out of business and encouraging good coders and good designers to work together, ignoring this imaginary wall created between web and print.

    Why do these ‘us and them’ articles need to be written? Judging from the response it seems to fuel a war that shouldn’t be!

  9. I have been a designer for 40 years. I started in print, of course, and embraced the Web in 1994. I got my first Mac in 1987. My first Adobe product: Illustrator 88. I have taught Photoshop and beta tested for Adobe on several occasions. I have seen the industry change and, although it is true that Web has influenced Print in a few ways, almost all Web design is based on design concepts used in print for many years. I was doing shadows for print in Photoshop, with channels, for a long time before they included the shadow filters and shadows went viral. The Web is lacking quite a bit from print that it could benefit from, such as, the ability to work with text the way you can in print. We are getting closer everyday with cascading styles, and Web fonts, but we are still not anywhere near where design needs to be on the Web. Don’t get me wrong, there are wonderful designs, beautiful pages on the Web where I find a lot of inspiration, but most of them are still done with graphics and not real content. (Very sad about FLASH too, there were some amazing things done with that.) Unfortunately, the majority of the content online has been done by lay people with no knowledge of any design principles and are just plain awful. And now with all the WordPress and Joomla templates–and add your text here–the Web is starting to become very homogenized…everything looks the same. You can recognize the templates that everyone is using. This is also transferring to print and people are “designing” their own ads, business cards, etc… Yikes!

  10. yea…correction, i’m sure that print and web both influence each other today in plenty of ways but things like navigational tools and bold color schemes like you mentioned have been explored beautifully long before anything digital came into existence through out major art movements in history. I thought this was more or less common sense…

  11. Tisk tisk Damien. I believe Tony is simply saying that the implication of “Print design has evolved a great deal thanks to web design” is totally absurd. I agree. If a web designer doesn’t draw upon the visual guidelines established by decades of print communication, they cannot be considered a competent web designer. Is a web page not a page with text and imagery like a printed page? Of course it is. The only difference is one is reflective and one is transmissive. You need more education boy! 😛