10 Key Differences in Designing for Print Vs Digital Media

10 Key Differences in Designing for Print Vs Digital Media

You invest a lot of time, effort, and resources in getting your designs right. Your graphic designers work hard to execute branding strategies and make marketing campaigns and other promotional materials a success—whether online or offline. Graphic design in any form—whether print or digital—is about communication. The goal of any type of graphic design is to use visual graphics to convey a message to an audience. The basic principles of graphic designing hold true for both print and digital mediums. While both forms of graphic design are similar in many ways, there are some key differences to consider when designing for digital vs. print platforms. Graphic design for print, and graphic design for digital, each has its unique challenges and nuances.

Before we look at how creating print designs differs from digital designs, we’ll start with a brief about each type of design.

What is Print Design?

Print design is a form of graphic design that communicates information through intentional aesthetic design, printed on a tangible surface like paper, cardboard, metal, plastic, etc. Graphic print designers need to work with narrow parameters, within specific bounds, ensuring the final product is absolutely pixel perfect. Since there is a limit to the size of a business card or poster banner or to the number of characters that will fit on a magazine spread, print designers should be experts at working within specific limitations.

Print design includes, but isn’t limited to: business cards, brochures, billboards, posters, flyers, label and packaging, shopping bags, book covers, T-shirts, and many more. Print design helps with brand awareness and marketing.

What is Digital Design?

While most of the print design work is created using digital software, digital design refers to the design created solely for digital platforms, including websites or apps. Any graphic design or presentation that you can see and interact with on a screen, such as a smartphone, desktop, or any non-physical media is a form of digital design. The good thing about digital design is that any mistakes and errors can be easily fixed with minimal correction costs.

There’s always something to learn in digital graphic design. The train is always moving; you have to jump on it to keep moving. While the digital design will continue to evolve and expand, there’ll always be a place for print design in the graphic industry.

Key Differences Between Print Design and Digital Design

Here are some of the main differences between print and digital design along with considerations graphic designers need to make.

1. User’s Approach and View

How and where people view your designs mark one of the biggest differences between print and web designs. Holding something physically in your hand (such as a folding brochure, a book, or a business card) is a totally different experience than viewing something digitally on a screen. For instance, you can fold up and put away a printed brochure but you can’t do the same when reading an article in a digital magazine.

When your graphic designers know how an audience will approach and view the two mediums, they can create better designs for you.

2. User Engagement

The way users engage with design is of paramount consideration and dramatically differs from digital to print. In print, it is easier to predict how users will engage with the info as the designer manages to control how the users do so. How the print will engage the user’s senses will also depend on how and where the viewer will encounter the work. Is it something viewers will hold in their hands or would simply see while crossing by? On the other hand, in the context of digital design, it is more about creating an experience for the user. Designers prioritize providing an interactive experience to engage the users by creating designs that are easy to comprehend, make navigation simpler for website visitors, and provide a clear brand message.

3. Dynamic and Static Designs

This is one of the most commonly known differences in designing for digital vs. print. The print design is static and nothing can change once the job heads to the printer. Also, it would make it invariably expensive to print test batches (or redesign and reprint) to check on the final outcome. Proofing a design before print therefore should be incredibly thorough in this case.

With web design, it is easier to tweak, change or completely redesign the design at any time. It becomes all the more important when working with websites (e.g. news websites) that frequently changing content like new images and new text updated every day. Unlike print designers, web designers are constantly involved in the ongoing functionality of a project and can add (or remove) interactive features like buttons, videos, links, etc. at any time using the graphic design software to enhance user experience.

4. Usability and Navigation

Since print designs are physical, the user’s actions are usually limited to flipping or unfolding a page. The same goes for navigation. For example, brochures are flipped through, books are opened and paged through, and so on.

When it comes to web design, things are not so straightforward. Users interact with different layouts to find and reach the content they are looking for. Menus are the key to easy navigation here and must be placed in a location that’s easy to find for visitors.

With so many different types of web-enabled gadgets and devices, web designers must take care of how websites display on different screen sizes and devices. The web design must focus on a responsive design that adapts to different viewing methods to create a good user experience.

5. Compatibility

Print designers need not worry much about the ‘compatibility’ aspect of their design. Web designers, on the other hand, must test and ensure that their designs display and operate correctly in virtual space. Designs for emails, websites, or newsletters must be perfectly readable and look attractive running on different web browsers and operating systems. Since every platform has its limitations, things can be a little complicated at times. For example, web designers must keep in mind that iOS doesn’t support Flash-based designs or that IE browser (version 8 or below) can’t display SVGs (scalable vector graphics).

6. Layout and Space

There are several elements common in both print and digital design, such as shapes, graphics, color, typography, lines, etc. So, the best practices apply to both mediums. However, these elements are approached differently in print and web designs.

For print, all the relevant and vital information must be presented within the constraints of the finite amount of printing surface. This is seldom a problem in web design. Web designers can resize and move the content freely for a great visual flow.

Also, print designs must take care of parameters like margins and bleeds. Web designs should maintain a consistent experience among various viewing methods, such as mobile and web.

7. Color Scheme: RGB and CMYK

Color displays vary between screens and printed media. It is because it includes different color schemes: CMYK for print designs and RGB for web designs. Designers must understand the differences to ensure colors are consistent between the two mediums.

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black — the four ink colors used by all printers. Print designers identify individual colors they want to use and input the code into their design software to form the exact shade of a particular color in the form of a percentage of each ink type. For example, “Twitter Blue” is 70/10/0/0 — that’s 70% cyan ink, 10% magenta ink, and no yellow or black ink.

When using CMYK color space, note that the screen colors don’t accurately represent how the colors will look when printed, thus necessitating a proofing process.

RGB stands for red, green, and blue, which combine to create visible colors on your TV or computer screen. Since display capabilities vary from monitor to monitor and based on the color settings, achieving consistent color on the web can be tricky.

RGB uses three sets of numbers (ranging between 0 and 255). For example, “Twitter Blue” is 85/172/238, wherein 238 represents the blue light, being predominant.

8. Image Resolution (DPI and PPI)

You don’t want your designs to look distorted and visually displeasing, that is why it is important to understand the basics of resolution for both print and web designers.

There are two important terms here: DPI (dots per inch) and PPI (pixels per inch).

In a printed design process, we would want a higher DPI to produce a higher quality image. DPI is independent of the size of a print or capabilities of the printing equipment used and is irrelevant for web design.

More PPI means a higher quality image. Insufficient PPI leads to distortion, blurriness, or loss of quality. On the web, images with a PPI of 72 to 120 usually look good.

9. Typography

Using the right font for your design impacts readability. In print design, designers have more control over how the typography looks. The only limitations are the boundaries of standard typographical practices. For instance, you want to give adequate space between lines and letters and avoid using clashing styles. Serif fonts are considered most suitable for print media.

For the web, there is greater stress on fonts that display cleanly and are easier to read. Since web designers can’t control how users will see the fonts they use, enhancing readability is crucial.

  • File Types

Graphics designers should have a good idea about the various file types used in both print and web designs, so they can choose the right file format according to the situation.

For both print & web: JPG (or JPEG), PDF, EPS, and PNG

For print only: TIFF

For web only: GIF and SVG

Software-specific: PSD (for Photoshop) and AI (for Adobe Illustrator)

Final Thoughts

Print vs digital design? Doesn’t matter. What’s important is to acknowledge that the application of both digital and print design is different; solving different purposes. Only when you understand the difference between print design and digital design, you will be able to create strong and effective graphic designs for each medium. With so many distinctions between the two mediums, it is crucial to select different design approaches to utilize the strong points of each medium and minimize the weaknesses.

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A design or idea that works well for print media might not translate well on a digital platform. This article will discuss the key differences in print design and digital design and how to approach each of these mediums for the best results.


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