Repeat after me: DIGITAL IS NOT PRINT

Digital is not print. Well, of course it isn’t. But why? Digital media is interpreted by the device it’s displayed on. Variables include: desktop computer versus mobile device, operating system (Mac OS/PC), operating system version (Windows 7? Windows 8?), web browser (IE/Firefox/Chrome/Safari/Opera/etc), the tons of different kinds of smartphones, iPad vs iPad mini vs tablet PC, etc etc etc. Then there are things like monitor resolution (is the user looking at a tiny laptop or a huge Mac monitor at home?), and even preferences that the user has set, like settings to block javascript. Heck, is the browser maximized or floating? Has the user installed a ton of ugly toolbars that eat into our content area? All of these things affect how our art and content are displayed on screen for each user.

We design digital media visually first (i.e. art and copy), and then developers write code to display that digital media on these extremely varied screens in these extremely varied situations. We use best practices to get the art and copy to display as similarly as possible across all of these platforms, but we can never get it 100% identical across all of these platforms. No one can. A lot of compromises are involved. This is a fact of life in the world of digital media.

Font sizes will vary slightly across different browsers, and will often be much larger on mobile devices. Leading will vary. Line breaks and text wrapping will vary. Widows will occur on some platforms, and in many cases there is nothing we can do about this.

For responsive sites, text will wrap one way when viewed on a desktop and completely differently when viewed on a phone. There is no way to get it perfect on every screen size.

All of this is simply the nature of digital media. We waste a lot of time fighting against it. We need to embrace it and accept it.

In print, we have control of every fine detail of spacing, font size, text wrapping, etc. There are no variables, other than maybe how bright the light is in the room where the consumer is viewing the print piece. In digital media, we have nowhere near this level of control. Some digital platforms offer more control than others.

In iPad apps, we have a pretty decent level of control, because we’re shooting for one screen size, and the software rendering our code is the same (or at least very similar) for the entire audience (i.e. people using iPads). But even different versions of the iPad can cause differences in how our digital projects are displayed.

In websites we have much less control, especially when we’re creating websites to be responsive. In html emails we have VERY little control over things like spacing and text size. (In the glory days of Flash, we had an amazing amount of control, but those days are long gone.) Every version of every browser in every operating system is different and will render our content a little differently. If we spend extra development time tweaking the spacing of elements on a page to be perfect in the browser you’re currently looking at, we’ve wasted our time, because that spacing will be different in another browser. We need to build websites from the perspective of creating a rigid template (with clearly defined font sizes, margins, etc) and sticking to that for the whole website, every page, every element of content. Otherwise we’re wasting our time and setting ourselves up for failure.

In a digital agency, we have to let go of the concept of keeping all of our line breaks and text wrapping pretty. That’s a print thing, not digital. In a digital agency, we have to let go of the idea of “above the fold.” That’s a print thing, not digital. In a digital agency, we have to let go of the idea of providing the exact same experience to all users. That’s a print thing, not digital.

In a digital agency, we have to be aligned in creating digital media that offers the absolute best experience and best compromise to all users, regardless of their OS/device/browser/version/screen size/etc.

Something I stress all the time is that each user will only have the experience that they have. They won’t be comparing what’s on their screen to the beautiful final art that was created by our agency. Whatever limitations are inherent in their platform, they’re experiencing those limitations on every piece of digital media they view. Sure IE6 does horrendous things to our websites, but to the IE6 audience, all websites look like that.

We need to keep designing beautiful work, and then work with the technology that’s available to offer the best possible interpretation of that beautiful work to each user. That’s the best anybody can do. Learning to accept the limitations that come with digital media and work with those limitations is what sets us apart as people who truly “get” digital.

20 Responses to “Repeat after me: DIGITAL IS NOT PRINT”

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