Print design principles in a digital world

March 4, 2024 in Product design

You might not believe this, but my career didn't actually start in digital design. It actually began in the world of print advertising. Well, that may not be entirely accurate either. My first real job was with an advertising agency that specialized in print, but my role was all about crafting websites. Reflecting on it, that environment was pivotal in shaping my design philosophy. Learning about colors, typography, and design principles from veterans who had honed their craft over decades in a field centered around catching the eye of consumers was invaluable. In the digital realm, it's pretty rare to find someone whose career spans more than three decades like these professionals who helped me in the beginning of my journey.

Print is ‘final’

Despite my preference for digital, I occasionally dive back into print design - especially for startups. It seems flyers are making a comeback! Digital design certainly offers the luxury of iteration. After all, a design can always be tweaked and improved. In contrast, print design is final. Any mistakes are permanent and any unexpected color shifts remain exactly as they are, unless there's the rare opportunity for an expensive reprint.

At first glance, digital might seem the clear winner due to its flexibility. However, the very nature of this flexibility often leads designers, myself included, to postpone perfection. Margins might be off, typos tend to linger, and the copy might not even be final. Despite the implementation of strict design systems, inconsistencies persist. Often the competitive startup environment rewards speed over accuracy and the mentality of "we can fix it later" prevails.

While there is some truth to Meta’s (Facebook) famous slogan “Done is better than perfect”, we’ve slowly begun to believe that ‘done equals perfect’ or at least, perfect enough. Sure, shipping early may be necessary to live up to customer expectations and needs, but it’s not sustainable in the long run. When Meta shipped Threads, their Twitter clone, it wasn’t perfect but the bar was set pretty high. It may have lacked functionality but it didn’t lack great, clear design, or even nice animations - things usually “added or fixed later”.

Templates and systems

But here's a thought—while we tirelessly refine our designs for the ultimate user experience, how much better could that experience be if our designs were meticulously templated and systematized from the start?

There are certain foundational design principles that will never change. They are the source material for anything you create — no matter if you’re working on a website, a mobile app, an ATM machine, a virtual reality experience, a poster, a TV application, a digital kiosk.

Start here: visual hierarchy, information architecture, balance, alignment, composition, proximity, continuation, repetition, framing, mimicry, readability, contrast, consistency, affordances, feedback, orientation, similarity, closure, horror vacui, symmetry, inputs, navigation.

These should give you enough to focus on for the first 10 years of your career. Master these. Really master these. Strive for perfection. Improve your skills. Rinse, repeat. You can never un-learn such principles. Technology will always change; these won’t.

Designers: the only certainty is change

One reason we’ve ended up in this “ship faster” mindset is actually from how software is being sold today. In the past, software used to be much like printed things. You paid for it, you downloaded it (or got a bag of floppy disks in the mail), and then you owned it. Sure you got updates, but they were once a year (at best), not like Arc that, as much as I love the browser, has a new update out every time I launch it.

Jason Fried of 37Signals is onto something similar with their new plan, ‘Once’:

You used to pay for it once, install it, and run it. Whether on someone’s computer, or a server for everyone, it felt like you owned it. And you did.
Today, most software is a service. Not owned, but rented. Buying it enters you into a perpetual landlord–tenant agreement. Every month you pay for essentially the same thing you had last month. And if you stop paying, the software stops working. Boom, you’re evicted.

Once

Just imagine if movies or music were sold in the same way we release some of our digital services. “This first month we’re releasing the first verse and you’ll get the chorus as an update in the coming weeks!” Hard pass.

Again, there’s a point to releasing iteratively, but rather than releasing the top layer of the cake, we need to get better releasing the cake a slice at a time. “But you can’t release a slice of the cake without producing the full cake”. I can see that point, but if we’re really here to serve our customers, we need to get them the experience they deserve. They deserve a design that’s graphically sound, that uses (equal) margins, a grid system, a cohesive typographic scale, and colors that are accessible. If they don’t, they might just ‘hard pass’ too.

It’s honest, authentic, and accessible.

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