4 Things I Didn’t Expect When I Transitioned from Print Design to Digital Design

by M. Saito
Jul 28, 2020

In early 2018, after working as a print designer for a few years, I made the jump to become a UX and UI designer.

I expected some changes—I knew that I’d have a whole new range of colors open to me (goodbye CMYK, hello RGB!) and that I'd be making work that would allow me to reach a much wider range of users.

But there were a few things about digital design work that really surprised me along the way. Read on if you're a print designer thinking about making the switch (or want to understand the digital designers in your life a little better).

1. Digital design is work for team players, not lone wolves: Prepare for inter-dependence.

Print design is a great field for lone wolves, only children, and perfectionists. As a print designer, every square centimeter was mine to micromanage. The process of print design is relatively simple: Create your designs, prepare your files for printing, and work with a printer to choose a paper type and approve proofs. Then you’re done!

But as a digital designer, final designs mean you're just getting started. The next steps are ones that require clear communication, deep collaboration, and trust.

The work of handing off designs to my collaborators on the development team is an invisible step that most outsiders don’t see—but it might be the most crucial part of the whole process.

Designing responsively has forced me to focus on what exactly I want the user to experience.

In print, finished design files are basically a finished product; in digital design, they’re just the blueprint.

I can create the most compelling visual designs in a digital design program. But if I fail to check in or communicate clearly with my dev collaborators, then none of that matters. On the design team, we've worked hard to streamline our collaboration workflow and refine our handoff process—to make sure developers have input every step of the way, and that we’re always communicating clearly around handoff.

Working as a digital designer meant giving up the total control I had over a final product and recognizing my dependence on others.

2. You can’t design for a specific page size...because there is no specific page size.

While I knew that switching to digital design would require designing across different screen sizes, I didn’t realize how that would change how I think about the work of design.

As a print designer, I enjoyed the precision of carefully typesetting a paragraph to make sure its rag looked balanced, and arranging images and columns of text on a page until they were just-so. But as a digital designer, that’s not quite as possible. The challenge is so much more complicated (and more fun). Good digital design has to be flexible, and responsive; it has to look just as good on an iPhone XS as it does on an iMac.

Designing responsively has forced me to focus on what exactly I want the user to experience: What’s the most important thing on this page? And how can I make sure that’s just as clear at smaller text sizes on a tablet or phone as it is on a large desktop?

While columns of text might be the right move for a desktop design, how should they behave if the user switches to a smartphone?

I’ve found digital design be much simpler and more intuitive than a lot of print design programs.

Designing for multiple screen sizes has made me a more flexible thinker. When I was designing for print, it was easy to get lost in the balance of a single page or the layout of a particular paragraph.

3. The tools are much easier to learn than you think.

As a print designer, I spent most of my time in InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop. As a design student, those tools took lots of time to learn, and even after a decade of nearly daily use, I’m still learning things about each of them (I just discovered a whole new panel in Photoshop yesterday, and I’ve considered myself a Photoshop expert for years).

When transitioning to digital design, I wasn’t sure if the new tools I was learning would require the same depth of study and exploration. As it turns out, they don’t! I’ve found digital design tools—Sketch and Figma in particular—to be much simpler and more intuitive than a lot of print design programs.

In the last year, the design team at Maark has transitioned fully to Figma, which is built for digital design and makes design and developer handoff delightfully simple. It’s even allowed for an animation novice like me to prototype some pretty complex interactions with its built-in prototyping tool.

And as an added plus: I don’t know that I’ve ever used InDesign and thought, “nice, this is fun.” But I’ve had that experience quite a few times in Figma.

4. It's deeply satisfying work.

As a graphic design student, I loved the satisfaction of print—seeing a stack of magazines I designed in the dining hall or holding a physical book in my hands at the end of a long project. Digital work felt immaterial by comparison. Though I took some classes in HTML and CSS, I always thought I’d prefer print work to digital design.

But since becoming a digital designer, I’ve found that digital work has moments that are be just as challenging and satisfying as print: The delight of testing out a well-executed interaction built by my dev collaborators for the first time, the pleasure of figuring out an elegant responsive solution for a tricky problem, the puzzle of always-refining communications and strategy of developer handoff.

The tools are always evolving, and there's always more to learn. Because we’re working with other humans, there’s always more work to be done to communicate more clearly. We're always working to refine our processes. There are always brand-new challenges, and new solutions.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

M. Saito is a digital designer who brings the intuitions of a print designer to the work of UX and UI. She has used expertise in UX and UI to design intuitive medical devices, websites, and web apps.

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