Why print designers guess and digital designers know – and why that hurts
In the years between 2006 and 2010 I worked mainly on projects for clients that resulted in physical products at the end—printed catalogues, stationary, books and magazines. The process of developing a printed product was the same as in so many agencies and design studios: researching target groups, markets, and brand values, followed by the typical design process of developing mood boards and grids before directing the production process with shoots, art direction, and finally the print production and shipping of the product.
When I started to work on digital products my world was disrupted. It wasn’t disrupted by the differences between the visual design of printed products against products that are only digital—these are differences every curious designer should be able to deal with after a while. Nor was it the challenges of responsive or adaptive design. What disrupted my world was the fact that I can analyse exactly how people use my product. This might be quite normal for those used to developing digital products; but for someone coming from a world where you have a point in the design process after which you can’t change the product (the moment you go to print), this is a big thing. And this lead to me sitting down and looking at the physical (printed) products I’d worked on in recent years: and I realized that they amounted to, at best, no more than raw guesswork thrown into the market. Don’t get me wrong: in all the teams I worked with, we did our homework with research, market analysis, etc.—but from the moment a product went to print the job was finished in most cases. Printed products often ended in beautiful products with spectacular typography and eccentric printing techniques—printed on fancy heavy paper produced in waterfall developing processes—products that every designer loves to have in his portfolio and that might get awards and the respect of other designers. And products that might work in their market and for their audience. On the other hand, digital products are developed in iterative processes, where every layout, every typeface, and every color can give you direct feedback whether it’s working for users. And if you listen to how your users are using your product to solve the problem they have, you might get to a design that you don’t like from an aesthetic point of view, but that works and helps solve a problem.
I think that at the moment graphic/visual design is deeply divided into two worlds, and each day the worlds are drifting away from one another. On the one hand you still have a lot of designers who value design—how it’s looking and not how it is working for a certain group of people. They seem to be stuck in their world. Recently a professor of typography mentioned in a conversation that Facebook as a company seemed not to have a single designer, because for him it looked so ugly and “undesigned”. He wasn’t even thinking about how much design has to be done to make a product that works for a billion users. On the other hand, you have a group of software designers doing data-only driven design (like Google some years ago), who might forget about the emotional side of a product and what intelligent, not data-driven, design can add as value to it (like Mailchimp). In a perfect world, those two worlds hopefully will get into a constructive relationship, as they have much to learn from one another.
The question a designer from both worlds has to ask himself today is whether he is able to compromise on his design and if he is willing to accept that the product he is developing is bigger than he is. And that it might hurt to compromise on something he put a lot of energy into, but that compromise will lead down a road where the product might work beautifully and not only look pretty on other designers’ tumblr blogs. And that’s a challenge every day.