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5 Key Differences in Designing for Print vs Digital Media

Although most design projects today are created using a digital toolkit, the workflow and design-thinking behind these projects are highly variable according to the medium.

These differences are incredibly important to creating a beautiful finished product, but many are misunderstood.

Indeed, a good eye for form and function transcends the medium.

Although some design principles are timeless, the fact remains that someone who is used to designing for one medium will probably have to adjust their thinking to a certain extent before diving into a project for a different medium.

This may be entirely intuitive for some, but also frustrating for others.

Here are five areas where designing for digital and print diverge.

1 — Changeability and Lifecycle

Designing for print is a static process relative to designing for the web, and so the proofing workflow and lifecycle of conception are unique.

With a print design project, budget restrictions make it prohibitively expensive to print off a fresh batch with every minor tweak.

When designing for the web, however, changes can be previewed and tested at every turn.

The kind of flexibility that comes with creating digitally offers considerable perks when it comes to meeting deadlines; though of course, you will ideally launch a perfect product, you do have the opportunity to make changes after it goes live.

This also gives you the opportunity to intentionally test variations before finally settling on the more practical design.

With printed mediums, it would be a nightmare to reprint the project should you find a mistake later down the line.

This means that the process of proofing a design before print should be incredibly thorough so as to avoid having to throw out an entire batch.

However, that does not mean that printed mediums necessarily preclude designers from testing variations of their work, at least as far as distributed media goes.

It just requires a bit more planning; perhaps releasing limited quantities before settling on a final design.

2 — Engagement

The way viewers interact with your design is dramatically different from the screen to print, and creating an efficient design for one medium comes with a different crop of questions than for the other.

For digital mediums, you want to ensure that your design is navigable, intuitive, and clear.

In internet spaces especially, you should keep in mind that you are probably competing with any number of things for your viewer’s attention.

Furthermore, many users arrive in a digital space with a particularly informative goal in mind.

When designing for these users, your work should function to facilitate their goal in browsing so that they do not bounce from the space immediately after entry.

Related Article: Print & Design Events 2014

In the digital world, there is actual data that can show how effective your design is.

For this reason, there is often a statistical element at work alongside the creative design process.

In printed mediums, however, the environmental conditions of how a viewer will happen across your work are very much dependent on location and function.

Is the design something to that will be held in the hands?

Is it seen in passing?

For permanent decoration?

The question of engagement in printed design is oriented mostly around how and where a viewer will encounter the work.

3 — Senses

Printed mediums give you the opportunity to engage viewers on a physical level.

Beyond imagery of what you design, you should also consider many of the physical aspects of the printing process.

If the design is meant to be handled, the texture and weight of the paper, foam core or canvas print material should be considered.

Embossed lettering and design is another way to evoke both visual complexity and the sense of touch.

How the design appears is just one consideration, but a holistic approach to designing for print can reach viewers on multiple sensory levels as well.

Although our thumbs do a lot of work scrolling, the digital design does not have the capability of engaging our sense of touch.

Visuals are far and away the most important element of design for digital spaces, and so sensory design-thinking can more or less focus exclusively on the looks of things.

There are opportunities, however, to use video and music so as to appeal to more than just your viewers’ visual fancy.

Interactive elements can also work to simulate an immersive experience with your design.

4 — Space and Layout

Printed mediums present you as a designer with a finite amount of space in which to bring your design to life.

Best practices of composition apply and can be followed to create an orderly (or intentionally disorderly) design with visual flow.

Issues of sizing should also be considered so that everything is legible once printed.

Designing for the web is typically free from spatial constraints like these.

To be sure, the concept of scale and sizing exists in digital design but is far more abstract on the web than it is in print.

Digital designers can more or less filter, organise, and scale everything as they like and don’t encounter the issue of lacking space.

However, this freedom from spatial constraints does come with some extra considerations.

Screen sizes and browsers differ hugely, and it cannot be guaranteed that your design will look and flow the same from device to device.

Digital designers often need to be familiar with the responsive design and be prepared to test across a variety of operating systems to ensure universal attractiveness and functionality of their design.

Related Article: Material Design vs Flat Design UI

5 — Colour and Resolution

Designing for print and the web is most concretely different in that they use various value systems for colour and resolution.

For digital design, PPI and RGB determine image quality. In printing, DPI and CMYK are the measurements.

PPI stands for pixels per inch, and pixels are the solid coloured blocks that compose an image.

Designating the PPI of an image determines the complexity of its composition and therefore how large an image can be displayed.

When displayed at larger dimensions than its PPI, an image will appear pixelated and blurry.

Designers for the web should strike a balance between using a high enough PPI that images are clear and high quality, but also small enough that image files are not so tremendous that they slow the page load speed.

Page load times are another one of those functional considerations that digital designers need to be aware of as they work.

Where PPI refers to the actual size of an image, DPI has nothing to do with size.

DPI refers instead to the density of pigment spacing in a printed image. DPI stands for dots per inch, or in other words, how tightly the ink dots are concentrated on a print.

DPI is determined by the quality and settings of the printing equipment rather than any file settings on the image itself.

A higher DPI printer will produce clearer, more attractive prints than a low DPI printer.

RGB stands for red, green, and blue, the three colours of light that a digital screen project in varying combinations.

Six digit codes called hex codes define the spectrum of every possible permutation of these three colours.

However, although the hex code may be consistent anywhere where HTML or CSS is used, not every display screen is calibrated the same, so colours are not always perceived consistently from device to device.

Designers tend to be good about calibrating their displays so that they always see the best representation of colour, but the same can’t be said for your casual internet user.

This is, of course, something to keep in mind if your digital design includes subtle colour differentiations.

The colour spectrum used in printing projects is CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black), which refer to the different shades of pigment that printers use.

A colour’s unique value is determined by combined percentage of these four pigments, which is a smaller quantity of permutations than what is possible with an RGB spectrum.

However, designers who are used to working exclusively in digital mediums should be aware that colours do not always transfer from the screen the print the same.

Again, since monitors are calibrated differently, it is imperative that published projects be proofed to make sure the colours look as intended.

Related Article: 8 Website Design Elements to Build Customer Relationships

External elements like the quality of the printing inks or the base colour of the print material can also influence the vibrancy of design.

Understanding these different terminologies and systems will help prevent confusion and keep your images looking their best.


Design talent can transcend the medium, but not all design practices translate well from one medium to another.

If you are used to working exclusively with print or purely digital, it may take a bit of time before you can reframe your thinking to work within the confines of a new medium and play to its strengths.

The good news is that this kind of creative change of pace may just produce some great work.

Author Bio — Joe Robison is the Marketing Director of Coastal Creative, a San Diego reprographics company that specialises in large format printing and wrapping projects. You can read his thoughts about SEO and Digital Marketing on his blog.

If you wish to discuss how we can develop your brand or provide graphic design for your product or business, email us at:

Inkbot Design is a Creative Branding Agency that is passionate about effective Graphic Design, Brand Identity, Logos and Web Design.

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Inkbot Design

Inkbot Design

Inkbot Design is a Branding Agency & Graphic Design Studio. We Help Businesses Grow with Professional Logo Design, Brand Identity, Web Development & Marketing.