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Major Differences Between Print Design and Web Design

Major Differences Between Print Design and Web Design

Dimensionality: Print Design vs. Web DesignPrint Design vs Web Design

Print design is a 2-dimensional, with much attention paid to layout. It is obviously possible for the reader to turn the page, but substantial interplay between different spreads are rare. Typically, each view is a design unit created for a fixed size canvas – often a big canvas when designing newspapers or posters. IN contrast, Web design is simultaneously 1-Dimensionals and N-Dimensional. A web page is fundamentally a scrolling experience for the user as opposed to a canvas experience. A small amount of 2-dimensional layout is possible, but not to the extent of creating a pre-planned experience with a fixed spatial relationship between elements. Users often begin scrolling before all elements have been rendered, and different users will scroll the page in different ways throughout their reading experience. Precise placement of elements on a web page goes against the nature of HTML and can only be achieved to an approximation for pages that are able to adjust to different window sizes. Thus, 2-dimensional relationships between page elements are less important than 1-dimensional relationships (what the page is early on; what’s later on the page).


The N-dimensional aspect of web design follows from the hypertext navigation that is the essence of the web. Moving around is what the web is all about. When analyzing the “look-and-feel” of a website, the feel completely dominates the user experience. After all, doing is more memorable and makes a stronger emotional impact than seeing. In print, navigation mainly consists of page turning: an ultra-simple user interface which is one of the printed medium’s great benefits. Because page turning is so limited, it is often not even thought of as a design element. In contrast, hypertext navigation is a major component of web design, requiring decisions like:

  • Appearance of links
  • How to explain where users can go and where each link will lead
  • Visualization of the user’s current location
  • Information architecture

Response Time, Resolution, and Canvas Size

Print is immensely superior to the Web in terms of speed, type and image quality, and the size of the visible space. These differences are not fundamental. We will eventually get:

  • Bandwidth fast enough to download a Web page as fast as one can turn the page in a newspaper
  • Screen resolution sharp enough to render type so crisply that reading speed from screens reaches that of paper
  • Huge screens the size of a newspaper spread – in fact, I think that newspaper sized screens are about the limit where it may not make sense to make screens any larger

For the next ten years or so, the differences will remain and will dictate restrictions on web design: less graphics, smaller graphics, shorter text (since it is unpleasant to read online), less fancy typography (since you don’t know what fonts the user has installed), and less ambitious layouts. Even when we get perfect hardware in ten years, it will continue to be necessary to limit the word count since users are more impatient online and are motivated to move on. IT will also be necessary to design web information for small-canvas layouts since portable devices will retain small screens even as we get huge screens in the office. I predict that new, non-window-based screen management techniques will appear that will allow more interesting utilization of the future huge displays. A bigger display doesn’t simply imply larger windows, even though some systems currently promote the notion of “maximization” as the ultimate user goal.

Multimedia, Interactivity, and Overlays

Print can stun the reader with high-impact visualization, but the online medium ultimately wins because of the user engagement that is made possible by non-static design elements. The Web can show moving images under user control and it can allow the user to manipulate interactive widgets. IN the future, it will also be possible to use alpha-channel blending and overlay multiple layers of information. Basic web technology easily allows an interactive map of Chile, where the user can click on a city or region to go to a specialized page with more in-depth information. An even greater amount of engagement follows from a more closely integrated interactive visualization where pointing to objects results in explanations or expansions in context, possibly using pop-ups, overlays, or voice-over. Such highly interactive information graphics require the use of non-standard technology and are therefore not currently recommended on mainstream web pages, but they can be used in specialized services and will hopefully become a common part of the Web’s future.

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