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From Pixels to Inches and Back Again

My undergrad degree focused primarily on print design – much like three of the other four designers at Happy Cog. I admit at first, I really struggled to design for the web. After a while I took a step back and stopped limiting myself with the expectations of what it means to design a website, and started to think about how I could apply my print background to interactive design. I considered how interactions and cues on a website relate to opening a package, how publication design is similar to a content-heavy website in terms of type hierarchy, how printing techniques could inform web visuals, and more. This helped get me out of my initial funk.

I wondered if my older design peers at Happy Cog found inspiration in print, too. So, I sat down with designer Amanda Buck, designer Dana Pavlichko, senior designer Aura Seltzer, and design director Michael Johnson to pick their brains about how print design can, does, or should inform how they approach web design.

CS: What print pieces are you drawn to the most?

AB: Publication design because of its inherent complexity—which is also why I am drawn to web design. Publication design presents the challenge of designing for many spreads that should feel cohesive but not monotonous, that should systematically hold together yet provide variety and interest as the reader progresses. It’s hard (and fun!) to do. I am also inspired by the layouts and typography of poster design and the visual metaphors in editorial illustrations.

DP: I am most drawn to magazines because of their seemingly endless possibilities for displaying longform text on a page, especially when magazines customize the design of its articles to its respective topics. I’m always excited when I find a smart editorial illustration (for the illustrator’s ability to connect really abstract concepts).

CS: You three come from print backgrounds. How does it influence your perception of or your work for the web?

AB: I am fascinated by the relationship between and overlap of digital and print design. I especially love to see how digital-first products translate into print products, and vice versa. Broadly speaking, I look to print design to influence layouts, hierarchy, and typographic choices. Being fairly new to web design (and coming from a print and letterpress background), I am eager to see how my own work in digital will continue to be influenced by my understanding and appreciation of the long print tradition.

AS: Having jumped into this industry with a print design background, I still look to print design—specifically publications and posters—for inspiration: a fresh take on color palettes, ideas for dynamic layouts, or type direction. Some print pieces are awesome explorations of form. It’s fun to open my mind to that risk and reconcile how to achieve that gestalt while still considering accessibility, dynamic content, and varying browser width.

MJ: I started out designing fanzines. I guess they’re a gateway drug to design for a lot of people. Unfortunately, there isn’t really a way for this sort of release to happen on the web. Maybe Geocities was the closest we ever got? I don’t know. It’s so cheap and easy now to let a decent-looking template do the work. I don’t like the homogenizing effect of the technocracy. It’s a form of taste control. Utopian. Of course, on the other hand, it’s never been easier for somebody to make a space for themselves. So I’m conflicted.

CS: How do you find print inspiration?

DP: When designing, I’ll usually follow a few conceptual tangents and see where they lead me. When beginning a new project I’ll often search all over for related inspiring bits and pieces. I’ll typically end up with a folder on my desktop full of screenshots of anything that could relate to what I am about to design. Some screenshots could just be a module or even what two colors look like next to each other. I wouldn’t say there is anything scientific about what I end up putting in that folder, since it’s mostly about opening up to a slew of options at that point in the process. I don’t have a lot of specific resources because it tends to be different each time. Print can sometimes influence this process, but I don’t have a particular workflow for it.

AS: I track a few design websites/aggregators online using an RSS reader, and rely on a bookmarking tool called Gimmebar to gather and organize images that strike me. A few of my favorite sites for print pieces are, FPO, and Library of the Printed Web. I realize the irony of finding print inspiration online, but doing so is more friendly to my wallet and easier to keep up than purchasing subscriptions to magazines. I’m usually always searching and saving bits of inspiration, but don’t actively sift through what I’ve saved.

CS: How has print design influenced your past or present web work?

MJ: The first sites I designed I lifted the layouts from magazines. Then when I was designing Flash sites I was trying very hard to mimic David Carson. Say what you want about his work but his layouts were always alive. I drew a lot of inspiration from that. And I pay attention to what’s going on on the web, but most of the inspiration-seeking I do still happens in print. Two books that come to mind are The Modern Magazine and Designing News. Where I draw inspiration is indicative of what I’m designing. Editorial experiences. I look through Fanzines and Culture Identities a lot too, maybe the most of any books I own. I’m fascinated with design by non-designers, people who are untutored and who may or may not have a lick of talent but are possessed to just make stuff. There’s not anything more honest.

DP: Most recently, when I use print as inspiration for aesthetic design, I’m usually drawn to inventive, customized type elements (bullets, pullquotes, numbers, etc.) that have very widely-accepted defaults on the web.

AS: For our work with the Institute for New Economic Thinking, we sought to translate the organization’s scholarly roots and layers of dense, interconnected content to the web. We surveyed publication designs for layout and typographic inspiration—particularly European ones because of the Institute’s global presence. For a recent higher education project, I was inspired by layers of ink in screen prints and how we could create dimension by intersecting type with color fields.

CS: What does print design have that web doesn’t?

AB: There is a finality with print that offers closure to a project in a way that web design doesn’t. With the web, you can tinker and fiddle and optimize forever. (On the other hand, websites don’t last nearly as long as printed artifacts.) Ultimately, the web’s adaptability is a blessing. Tweaks and revisions can continue as the team learns what’s working and what isn’t. Another huge difference is the static canvas of print versus the fluid canvas of the web. Print designers can control the final outcome of a product in a way that web designers can’t. Hopefully as our tools continue to advance, designers will be able to keep refining their practice to take advantage of that new technology.

MJ: The book I mentioned, Culture Identities, it’s a collection of museum and institution collateral, posters and invitations etc. etc. It’s fun, beautiful work. There’s a general disregard for the rules of “good design” in a lot of cases. You see a lot of that in The Modern Magazine too. As designers on the web I think, if I can speak for everyone, we are rightly but preternaturally obsessed with rules, especially at the system-presentation level. Not to say print is wholly without them: the pressman who handled my wedding invitations showed me a saintly patience. And maybe if I knew more than I did I would have designed something more conservative. It can be easy to close your mind off, box yourself in, design only within accordance of what you could say is decorous. A friend told me about some monks who during part of the brewing process open the windows and let whatever’s in the air get mixed up in their beer. So, to an extent, every batch is entirely unique. And it’s like saying, “This is what Right Now tastes like.” Which, going back to Carson, there is an essay in one of his monographs, I think it was Blackwell who wrote it, where one of the two of them laments at the over-intellectualization of design and wishes designers had the guts to just say, It’s what’s in the air right now. So that’s what print, what everything, literature and photography, contemporary whatever, that’s what it is to me. It may not directly apply to what I’m doing, but it’s what’s in the air right now. I keep my windows open.

CS: Realizing how print design influences my fellow designers’ work helps me understand that websites don’t need to — and shouldn’t! — look the same.The technology exists, but all web designers need to look outside the medium to find inspiration and break the boundaries of what is “traditional” web design.

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