Andrew Duck

Everyday your organisation uses design as an essential tool for communicating and presenting ideas and information. For the past hundred years, this has been predominantly through printed media and although new mediums such as television have captivated audiences, their design requirements have remained relatively unchanged.

Celebrated this year its 20th birthday, the World Wide Web has changed the way businesses and consumers interact. It is within this digital space that we find the rules of print design turned on their head.

Digital media has become an important component in the marketing mix, a way to communicate, engage and interact with consumers and for some businesses their only place of trade. This makes it increasingly important that designers and their organisations understand the medium in which they are working and appropriately design and develop campaigns that will work.

Design control

Historically we have defined good design as solutions that also tell good stories, for it is through narrative that we engage consumers to relate with our brand. In this context, control of the narrative becomes the most important tool; we can choose precisely how people will interact with our design. A measure of this control is lost in the digital space.

During the past 20 years as organisations move toward the digital space, an expectation has grown for these traditional print designers to develop increasingly complex online experiences. While it is nice to think we can reutilise the same staff to deliver on more work, the sad truth is that these staff require retraining or at least time to properly understand the medium in which they are working.

Historically, a majority of print designers have flocked toward Adobe Flash, because it is the closest approximation of print design work. This is very much a reflexive approach based on not understanding the medium in which they are working. Unfortunately this also leads to an assumption that authorial control can be exerted online, which simply isn’t true.

Khoi Vinh, Design Director of the New York Times, once said, “Looking for opportunities to execute the sort of improvisational and dramatic creative visions that we see in printed periodicals, for instance, is likely to become an exercise in disappointment.” The truth is that the Web really wasn’t designed, and isn’t effective, for highly displaying highly effective visual skills.

In order to correctly design for the Web, you must first understand the medium, its nuances and restrictions.

User control

Browser innovation and open standards have meant that the Web is available to all instead of being tied to a specific vendor or proprietary standards. This has led to users having choice, actually a lot of choices. Users can choose which Web browser and which operating system they want to use on their computer. They may also choose to browse the Web without JavaScript and cookies enabled, or perhaps with images and styles turned off.

Perhaps the users will opt to receive breaking news via RSS or email notifications. The most important thing to recognise is that users in the end have choice and that previous attempts to lock users to proprietary applications or standards have in the end failed. This should have a big influence on how you choose to approach design for the Web.

Within the Web, content is separate from design. We can publish and repurpose content multiple times, each with a different style applied. Designers initially see this as a loss of control; it is no longer possible to exert control over interaction with their design. This is in part true, but not the end of the world, as most people would have you believe.

If users have so much control over how they now choose to consume content, this means for designers they now have a multiplicity of states to design for. Content may appear different, depending on where it is published or on which device it is accessed, so designers need to cater for each of those possibilities. In doing so, they also need to consider accessibility requirements while still tying in narrative and behavioural approaches to user-centred design to ensure they capture the desired attention.


If control were the most important tool for building narratives in the print world, then behaviour would be its equivalent in the digital world. While designers feel they have lost control over vital aspects of their domain, in actual fact, designing for this content just requires more discipline.

Designing for behaviours becomes an extension of what most designers would term user-centred design. Rather than simply focusing on a user experience, it is necessary to look at ways in which we can influence and shape behaviours and interactions of our consumers to trend them toward preferred organisational preferences. From the outset this sounds evil, most notions of control and influence do, but it is in no way different from any other narrative or approach taken in other mediums.

In a medium where traditional control is lacking, you need to understand user behaviour to best guide and influence user interaction with your content. Designers now more than ever need to understand their audiences and shape their approaches to guide the user interactions their organisations seek.

Give up control to get it back

It is not surprising on the Web then, that you need to change your approach. Your organisation can turn a loss of visual control into a beneficial interaction with your consumers.

The first step is acknowledging that in digital media the rules are different; the medium is different. Once you accept this you can start to formulate a new approach and develop strategies to better engage and interact with consumers on their terms. This will eventually lead to less control over how your message is viewed, but not less control over the message itself.

Understand the constraints of the medium, embrace them as benefits of the medium and continue to develop immersive interactions that engage and generate attention.

Experiment to success

After 20 years of the World Wide Web, the truth is that we still don’t have the answers. The rate of innovation and change within this space coupled with organisations’ unwillingness to accept change has left us in a mess.

There are a lot of successful organisations using the Web to their advantage, but a vast majority of the most successful cases are from those who chose to throw away the print rulebook. For these organisations, they truly embrace the Web for what it is, rather than trying to treat it as print in disguise.

To achieve success online, experiment, give up control and design immersive interactions that captivate your consumers in a way you do with narratives in the print world.

Andrew Duck is the Executive Director of Quiqcorp, a digital media agency focused content management and solutions for news and media organisations.

Find this content useful? Share it with your friends!