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The relationship between digital and print

From Jonny Ive to Jay Z: How print and digital design coexist in 2015

This week The New Yorker magazine ran an in-depth profile of Apple design guru Jonny Ive. Actually “in-depth” is something of an understatement – it ran to a staggering 17,000 words – and was best approached in chunks, working through the single-scroll page at various intervals throughout the day. Leaving aside the content, the actual experience of reading through it brought to mind an excellent talk by Jason Santa Maria to Interaction Design Students at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Called The Influence of Print Design, Jason spoke well about where digital design was failing to match its print counterpart. While magazines were adept at setting the tone “right from the get go,” reading the very same article online left him wondering: ‘Where did all that beautiful visual design go?”

The interesting thing is that Jason’s talk was five years ago and yet some of the points he makes still resonate today. He spoke about how some of the best entrenched graphic design principles, such as the “rule of thirds” and the golden ratio, are rendered so much more problematic when we move from the fixed dimensions of the printed page to the fluid, flexible digital page, which alters from device to device. The web, he said back in 2010, is “a completely malleable medium” – a statement more true today than ever.

Jason is now design director at Vox Media and following up with him this week, we asked how he views this translation of design values from print to digital in its current state. “My talk wasn’t so much how design translates from print to the web,” he said, “but more that the web as a medium has unique qualities and we can’t look at it through the same lens as print. We need to think natively about our medium.”

This view is echoed by Daniel Howells, a digital designer and curator of the well-respected web design showcase Site Inspire. “I’ve only come to this realisation recently, but I think today designing for print and digital is as different as designing for print versus television or print versus industrial design. While they share common rules around typography, space, and colour, what makes a website or piece of print design successful are the attributes specific to the medium.

“With print, you’re playing with a fixed, immutable space, and delight through stock, textures, and even smell. You have unlimited, precise control over type and positioning. For digital, you have to make a lay-out work well on a multitude of platforms and screen sizes, and make navigation a pleasure through transitions and clarity of architecture, often taking a blind eye to the quirks digital design offers – the type kerning might never be quite right, or images might end up a few pixels off the right position. I feel unlike with print, with digital you often have to embrace imprecision and go with the flow.”

With this in mind, Dan says he can spot web design that has been done by someone with a strong print background. But he points out, this can have both advantages and disadvantages. “If a site follows a strict, rigid grid and isn’t responsive in any way I usually assume it’s come from a classic print designer, and there can sometimes be elements that crop up that simply don’t work in a digital context; for example long two-column blocks whose text flows from one to the other. Yet at the same time I assume that bold designs that use type confidently and have clearly stressed over the details come from someone who’s studied the fundamentals.”

And as someone who sees a lot of digital design, Dan has a good handle on who out there combines the best characteristics of print design into digital work. “Both Area17 and Code and Theory would be my go-to agencies for editorial design since they successfully translate the feel of a print publication to digital, and She Was Only and Sons & Co. are both astounding in their gorgeous print-inspired layouts and attention to typography.”

Another name he mentions is Eric Hu, the New York-based designer and founder of Nothing In Common we profiled elsewhere in this project. Eric talks as well as anyone about marrying print and digital in his design work. His site for the Avery Review – a journal of architectural essays from Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation – is a fantastic example of this marriage, reimagining print’s popular characteristics in a digital context rather than clumsily recreating them.

“We love the qualities that paper affords, but not paper itself,” he says. “We loved the experience of turning a page, but not the act itself. There shouldn't necessarily be an equivalent action of turning a page on a website, but the sequential nature and the anticipation it brings is something to think about.

“People often complain that the physical and tactile qualities seen in print are often absent on the web. Coming from a print design background, this gap was always something of interest. We believe the web has the potential ability to be "physical" and feel real, but not in any skeuomorphic sense. We have no interest in making a website feel like a book, but we have interest in making a web experience feel precious and real, by paying attention to typographic detail, animation, pacing, storytelling.”

Like Eric, Wade Jeffree works across both print and digital. Formerly at Sagmeister & Walsh and now at Mother Design, Wade enjoys working equally in both contexts. “I love the opportunities within both fields,” he says. “I really love the way that long form reading has been progressing online as well as the considerations which have become associated with that. There are so many points of interaction with the web that, to some extent, there are more things to consider. A book is a tactile object that you hold – sometime you can hold it differently – but ultimately it is a singular form, whereas the platforms in which we can read on the web vary in scale and aesthetic as their forms alter.”

There’s another big difference too – print deadlines are by their nature more finite. Is it very tempting to keep tinkering with an app or a website? “I think it is always good to know that you need to step away because we can always keep improving something. Working with digital platforms allows small changes to be made after launching, but ultimately they should be small changes. I always want to be on the front foot, so my ethos is always wanting to be 'onto the next one’, Jay Z style…”