Designers Moving from Print to Digital

“I’m a ‘traditional’ designer and have been doing design for print and outdoor campaigns for years. I’m really motivated to start doing web design as well. What would you suggest?”

If you have ever muttered or heard this statement or something similar, please read on. I tend to get this question often. While I do not provide training on how to migrate from offline to online design specifically, I do have some thoughts on a feasible approach. However, this transition can be an incredibly difficult one to make. So I also asked a couple friends of mine, an accomplished designer and a world-class developer, about why moving from print to digital is no easy task.

My Thoughts

Consider Usability First
Creating for the web goes beyond appreciation and action. It entails elements of interaction and utility. As much as those involved in producing websites, landing pages, email marketing pieces and other digital experiences would like to be in charge, the truth is the visitor is sitting in the driver’s seat. The more you know and understand how your visitors will interact with your design, the more successful you will be.

by Steve Krug

Here is one book and several online resources you can call on to familiarize yourself with the notion of web usability and the user experience (UX) design practice.

Book: Don’t Make Me Think

UX Booth
Signal vs. Noise
Jakob Nielsen’s Blog
UX Magazine
Adaptive Path Blog

Get to Know the Typical Process
For a good decade or more, developers, project managers, designers and clients have toiled over the best way to create websites. Today, there seems to be a widely adopted process into which every web shop, agency and independent code monkey has injected their own personal flavor. Web design starts with homework and research about the site’s subject and its likely audience. Those involved collaborate to build plans, schematics, blueprints and/or wireframes for the soon-to-be-created experience so that all parties are on board and on the same page. At this point, the designer or design team can take instruction from the previously developed information architecture and begin to create assets that can be provided to a capable developer to construct in the web environment. Sometimes the designer and developer are one in the same. Additionally, the “create” portion of that process can also manifest itself in a design-revise-design-etc kind of cyclical pattern.

Appreciate Great Web Design
Become a student of great web design. For as much as the web opens up a certain realm of possibility and creative license, pretty doesn’t always pay. The best and most successful designs often embrace qualities of simplicity and clarity. Further, designing for the web does have its limitations. Just ask any accomplished designer about typography for the web.

To provide resources and inspiration, here are a number of blogs and sites that are quite popular in the web design community.

Design Reviver
Web Designer Wall
Smashing Magazine
Web Design Ledger
Web Creme

Learn from the Learned
No matter your profession, the quality of your personal network often correlates to the success you all share. Meet and talk with accomplished and experienced designers and developers in the space. Ask their advice and seek their guidance. You may be surprised by how willing people are to help. Once you find these people through your existing network, via local clubs and associations, or from your social media connections, ask important questions about process, tools of the trade and how they they made the leap into web design.

Get to Work
Nothing can bring more value to the learning process than actually getting your hands dirty. Begin to experiment and play with some sample concepts. Learn by doing, and, in the process, get to know your strengths and weaknesses. Seek feedback early and often from your community. Most importantly, prepare for and accept failure as a means to eventual prosperity. Just don’t get comfortable with it.

My Questions

As noted, adding digital design capabilities to one’s wheelhouse can be difficult. To understand this challenge further, I talked to two highly knowledgeable and incredibly skilled people who have enjoyed success in this industry.

April HolleThe Designer – April Holle
April is an extremely talented designer with a great track record for creating clean and exemplary web experiences as well as lending a hand to those in her community. She is as passionate as she is creatively gifted. April owns Made Better Studio and offers training to aspiring designers with a 12-week educational series called Design Made Better.

Here are some questions I asked of April and her responses.

1. Should traditional designers forget everything they know, or are there certain things they can take with them from print to digital?

Absolutely not. Everything designers have learned about design is still RIGHT on. The things that change are mainly medium based paradigm  – what can and cannot be accomplished within time/budget, sizing for usability, etc.

2. How badly can a designer’s love affair with form disrupt the glaring need for function?

Hmm this is an interesting question, because I don’t think designers WANT to disrupt function. Designers – most of them anyways – WANT to do things right. They simply don’t know where to start to know “what’s right”. There really aren’t a lot of great places to figure out real standards of practice. (hence why I started Design Made Better)

Most of the designers I have had the pleasure to work with in the past (minus one who literally was sick of the word usability by the time we were done working together) are really interested in communicating better, that’s why they became a designer. Designers don’t JUST make pretty pictures – they really do provide an essential means of business communications through the layout and compilation of text and images.

I personally believe that if a designer is having a hard time with form meeting with function – it’s simply a matter of miscommunication or lack of functionality requirements and scope. Most of the time a great wireframe or face-to-face project kickstart with all players is super helpful to nip this one in the bud.

3. Do designers try to do too much with digital?  Are they like starved gluttons who finally make it to the buffet line?

Fuck no. 🙂 The web is a BRAND new medium with more interaction points than you can shake a stick at. We’re still evolving how communication takes place online – so I think pushing the envelope is completely the way to define how, why and what we do online.

That being said – I also think that being open and honest about what DOES and DOESN’T work for users is really important. I think design and feature envy often get the best of businesses/startups/etc (whom designers kinda just take direction from). These people simply don’t sit down and take a REAL hard look at what their user base needs and then KEEP up with what they really want. Instead they see what product A does and try to duplicate instead of actually listening to why people like product A but wish it could be better (that’s the real juice to squeeze there).

4. Where would you rank “willingness to collaborate” on the scale of things designers must learn or accept in this space?

I think overall designers are very interested in collaborating with the teams they’re involved in. Great things happen during collaborative meetings where the CLIENT, PROJECT MANAGER, DEVELOPER and DESIGNER are all in the room really focusing at the task in hand and working as a team instead of trying to play politics or sizing each other up. I think it’s best for the overall success of the project for these kinds of “meetings of the minds” to take place. I think designers are IDEAL for this kind of fun, forward-thinking, collaborative environment – I just don’t think the places they work for are ready to unleash that kind of creative, interesting, innovative power.

5. How much of the difficulty in this transition can be attributed to the creative mind/ego?

Hmm. Honestly the creative mind isn’t a big issue – I think it really helps the designer be inquisitive, curious and open to the transition. As far as ego – that’s up to the designer personally. It takes a lot courage in the workplace for people to come out and say “I don’t know how to do this, teach/train me”. I think too many businesses, agencies and the designers themselves put too much pressure on themselves to know how to do everything all the time. The web is constantly changing and evolving – if you can’t allow yourself to screw up or try something new – it’s understandable why you feel like you can’t evolve into it.

Once the designer really embraces the fact that not only will they fuck up – but that there’s an undo button. That’s when the real freedom to play begins. But you can’t do any of that fun stuff without admitting a) I have no clue what I’m doing and b) that’s ok.

The Developer – Joseph Jaramillo
Joseph is a terrifically bright and experienced Ruby developer. He is the Senior Technologist at Off Madison Ave here in Phoenix but works remotely in beautiful Portland, Oregon. I learn something new every time I talk with Joseph, and I’ve always garnered a great deal of insight from his presentations about the development process. Joseph is witty, dedicated to his craft and painfully intelligent.

Same questions for Joseph. The answers are just as interesting…

1. Should traditional designers forget everything they know, or are there certain things they can take with them from print to digital?

Good design is something that transcends any particular medium. Traditional designers who are willing to embrace something new actually have a bit of an edge on many of their counterparts who lack some of that experience. History provides a designer with a larger pool from which to draw. Some of the best design happens when something old is given a fresh perspective; these are also some of the hardest problems to solve. We see that on iPad today. Magazines are trying to figure out what to do with print that’s no longer stationary. Experience in branding, relationship management, etc. Most of it carries over.

2. How badly can a designer’s love affair with form disrupt the glaring need for function?

The real question is whether or not to look at form and function as two distinct concepts. For the past hundred years they’ve been separate, but today, the trend is in the other direction.

Cars provide a great example of this. When Bugatti released the initial Veyron, the engineers were tasked with building a car with > 1000 HP with the form of a modern supercar that didn’t look like the child of a stealth fighter — an impossible task, by most measures. The engineers rose to the occasion. When Bugatti went back to make the original car even faster, the engineers went to the designers to tell them what they needed, and the designers worked with them to adjust the form to follow the function. The first car was good for 253MPH, a world record. The second was good for 268, a record Bugatti still holds.

3. Do designers try to do too much with digital?  Are they like starved gluttons who finally make it to the buffet line?

I think the biggest mistake traditional designers make when going digital is looking at a screen as a canvas to make pretty. Digital design has to start with the action we want the user to take. With traditional advertising, immediate feedback isn’t as important. The viewer has to pick up the phone or go to a store or do any other thing that takes time, so a distinct visual impression is important so that it sticks in a person’s memory long enough for there to be a return on investment. With digital, the end user most likely has an opportunity to take action immediately upon seeing your work. The goal here is first to get the user to take that action, with the secondary purpose of a lasting mental imprint. Of course, if the action your user must take is wait until your product is available, by all means have a second serving.

4. Where would you rank “willingness to collaborate” on the scale of things designers must learn or accept in this space?

I’m generally of the opinion that the work speaks for itself. In my experience, a designer’s willingness to collaborate directly affects the quality of the product.

5. How much of the difficulty in this transition can be attributed to the creative mind/ego?

That’s a good question. Ego certainly plays a part. Being good at the old way of doing things doesn’t necessarily mean success in the future. That can be legitimately scary, and no one should be ashamed to admit that. At the same time, those who think time on the clock guarantees future success often hold back the progress of their colleagues. They’re the ones who think being senior means having having the earliest hire date, even if that work is irrelevant in today’s market.

Are you a web designer or developer? What further insights can you share?

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