From print to digital design

Communication platforms evolution

Two years ago, Mark Porter’s talk at CIDAG conference added some interesting insights to the on going print-digital media debate. In particular, Porter (2010) pointed out four key technological milestones in the communication media industry: print, Internet, mobile and tablet devices. Overall, his talk described the characteristics of each medium and functions, and it made evident that their products would not necessarily ‘eradicate’ those of the others. This post focuses on editorial products from print, Internet and digital platforms, highlighting points that should be considered to successfully meet the requirements of each of them.

Print design
Gutenberg’s printing system (1452) was a turning point in the development of print design. In print design, form is fundamental; size, format, tactile qualities and high-resolution images are part of its essence. Content is outdated and static as it is an offline medium. Porter (2010) stresses the combination of  ‘type and image to tell stories’ as one of the key characteristics of print design. Since web design started to emerge as a way of communication in the late 80s, print design has been challenged, editorial design in particular. As an example, designers and readers started questioning the need for print magazines and newspapers. Consequently, many designers felt the need to evolve and learn all about webdesign, leaving aside print design concerns.

Web design
In the early stages of web design, form seemed to have been pushed to a second place until specialised software and tools were created. As this is a connected (online) medium, content is live and changes constantly; high quality images are replaced for low-resolution imagery. Porter (2010) described three phases since the invention of the WWW, starting from limited resolutions, colours and sizes. Then fonts started to be specifically designed to fit web requirements and colours, visual language and design became more flexibile. A difference from print design, web design create an ‘illusory connection with text and image’, creating ‘rich interactive experiences for audiences’ (Porter, 2010). With the invention of the first interactive digital devices, such as smart phones and tablets, web design was described as ‘dead’ and in decline. Once again designers started looking for new sets of skills and ways to deal with the emerging current challenges.

Digital design
Tablets are pretty new born devices, which, to some extent, share print and web design qualities. On the one hand, they are sometimes connected, and thus, content can be sometimes live. On the other hand, form has relevance and presence, and they use medium/high-image resolutions. Moreover, Porter (2010) highlights that ‘touch interaction makes [tablets] a closer experience to print than any other digital device’.

Editorial design in the digital age
With the new digital devices, editorial design is re-emerging and exploring new horizons. Although, iPad editorial design enables ‘all those things we love about print’ (Porter, 2010), it responds to different requirements than that of print. Consequently, print editorial design principles cannot be literally applied or simply adapted, because even thought iPad magazines may look like print ones, they don’t behave like that. They need to be thought and designed specifically for digital requirements and usability. Traditional books reading experiences don’t work when we jump from page to page, having these devices an unnatural reading mode. Interactivity has to be thought properly and be used purposely and with functionality, instead of adding animations arbitrary. In addition, pages can be designed to fit both screen orientations (portrait and horizontal).

In opposition to many predictions, the digital age hasn’t replaced the print (Klein, 2009; Quittner, 2010) or the web industries. Those industries are not dying; instead they are changing and adapting to the new demands. According to the Magazine Publishers’ Association, the increasing numbers in the paid-subscription magazines over the years, from 174.5 million subscribers in 1970 to 324.8 million in 2008, exemplified the current situation of print editorial design (Quittner, 2010). The key point to emphasise is that web, digital and print industries have different purposes and uses. ‘The web is for scanning [and searching], not deep reading’ (Quittner, 2010); while digital devices are for getting information (Anderson and Wolff, 2010).

The role of the designers
At the beginning of the 2000s, experienced designers faced a strong pressure to specialise in or move into web design. Then, a couple of years ago, a similar wave hit the design community, pushing designers to learn new technologies, software and digital languages. New terms such as ‘html5’, ‘CSS’, ‘SVG’ and ‘xhtml’, among others, became commonplace and mandatory requirements for successfully applying to job offers.

Nevertheless, paradoxically, basic print design technical knowledge—e.g. differences between and uses of RGB and CMYK colour modes, resolutions and qualities (when to use 300dpi, why it is better to resize images from the source rather than in indesign or illustrator), composition (text-image relationship), typographic sizes and families (e.g. when/why it is more appropriate the use of sans serif rather than serif, and vice versa)—does not seem to have the same emphasis than before or to be an indispensable requirement for getting a design role. Moreover, novice designers do not appear to learn those skills during university courses because they seem to have become obsolete for the digital age or too obvious. However, examples in which basic print design knowledge is not applied successfully abound. Nigel Holmes emphasised this point in his talk at Malofiej, in which he showed daily examples from wine labels and magazine layouts that didn’t communicate or inform with efficacy. It is important to remember that web and digital design are built on print design principles.

In short, progress development and technological improvement don’t have to be denied, but extra attention should be paid to minimise the number of ill-defined designs in which basic design principles are not applied properly. This evidences that designers are still struggling with fundamental aspects of the design process, such as text-image relationship.

– Anderson, C. & Wolff, M., 2010. The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet [Online]. Wired Magazine.
– Quittner, J., 2010. The future of reading. Fortune Magazine, 161(3), pp.62-67.
– Klein, D., 2009. Good newspapers can survive if they break their old culture. Advertising Age, 80(30), p.36.
– Porter, M., 2010. Why do publishing companies need design now, more than ever. In: Higher Institute for Education and Science and Polytechnic Institute of Tomar, 1st International Conference on Design and Graphic Printing (CIDAG). Lisbon, Portugal 27-29 October 2010.

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