When print and digital collide

As a designer who trained in print nearly 10 years ago, and who now spends 95% of my time on web work, I’m noticing an ever-increasing gulf opening up between the two sides of the design trade.

Let me explain.

Back in the mid-late 90s, the web looked pretty ugly. With few exceptions (remember Deepend’s hoover production?) sites were ‘designed’ by developers with an HCI bent and often employed overly complex, fiddly, untidy graphics and brand application was inconsistent at best.

Along came a breed of designers like myself who ‘wanted to do web’. We used our classical design education to apply some logic and reasoning to the sites we designed. The ‘pages’ of a site were treated like a paper canvas just viewed on screen. We struggled trying to control the layout too much with things like horizontal alignment and constrained font sizes and spacings but soon began to understand the limitations, and benefits of the medium. Pretty quickly things started to look a little more intuitive, controlled and approachable. All very well and good.

Fast forward 10 years. The web has moved on. The capabilities of the browser, the speed of our connections, the average user’s increased familiarity with the interactive metaphors employed to gather data and navigate through systems are all light-years ahead.

What doesn’t seem to have changed, however, is some designer’s approach to designing the web. I’m constantly astounded by some of the work that I see from other design agencies and brand consultancies.

Flat, static pages designed for a single state with no thought to dynamic content or exceptional cases. I’ve been sent PSD page flats to build a site where pages exist with no discernible way to reach them and vital functionality missing – think ‘forgotten password’ and ‘log out’ buttons!

Some of the worst cases have come out of branding agencies. Not mentioning names but you would definitely know them if I did. The types of consultancies which will roll into an organisation, strip then of multiple hundreds of thousands of pounds and provide them with an identity system that is fully worked out for some nice outdoor ad placements and a corporate report but extends to one measly sample screen shot for digital.

Often what they design is flat and uninspired – rather like the web 10 years ago. Basic, static, ‘printed’ pages displayed at 72dpi in RGB.

Where’s the experience? What about the interaction? What happens when the user submits a form?

Then there’s the other extreme. The consultancy that provides a 120 page document outlining exactly how many pixels space should exist between the final element in a form and the ‘submit’ button. These are more build guides for a developer to create pages. They’re not brand guidelines. Where do they talk about interaction design and developing logical, intuitive systems for navigating tiers of content? They completely overlook the bit about giving the designer a framework into which they can design their new functionality or whatever. I’m not saying consistency of build across pages isn’t important. It is. Vitally. But that is only part of the equation.

All too often I’ve had to define standards that have been missed by the consultancy employed to outline them. I’ve had to rework designs to add navigation items and functionality so that the finished site will actually work for the user.

Why is this happening? Is it ignorance? Is it laziness? It may be a print designer trying to exert too much control much as I may have done 10 years ago. They always seem to design for the ‘perfect state’ and never take into consideration the alternate or empty states. Their design often seems focussed on perfect symmetrical beauty and forget the vital features if it makes the layout look ‘busy’. It’s probably also a lack of knowledge of what’s achievable in the medium which creates a design that is flat and print-like.

What I do know is that there’s humdrum digital design being produced by ‘top’ consultancies. Those with the loudest voices and biggest boots are selling work to clients that is not fit for purpose and it’s people like me picking up the pieces.

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2 Responses to When print and digital collide

  1. James Higgs says:

    Spot on. 37signals are very good on what they call the ‘blank slate’ – I’ve rarely seen a designer think about what a page will look like with no data in it, and yet that’s often the first experience a user has.

    I think the industry went through a period of pragmatism inspired by the utilitarianism of Google’s homepage and the great accessibility panic, which Google themselves blew apart with Google Maps – the first widely used AJAX app, before they drove the final nail in with GMail. Now it’s all (whisper it) DHTML again.

    The overwhelming majority of sites I visit are both unimaginative and not very webby. There are reasons for hope, though. Rails encourages you to do things the way the web intends, and there are signs that even Microsoft is getting that message too.

    Ultimately, in my experience though, it boils down to designers not having enough humility to spend time learning the medium. HTML and CSS are really pretty easy to grasp at a basic level, and many more designers should take the time to do so.

    (Mind you, the reverse is also true: developers could learn an awful lot from designers if they could get off their high horses too.)

  2. Pingback: Trust me. I’m a designer. « Type Cast

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