Print vs. Online – A matter of preference

September 24, 2008


For many of us who grew up in the ‘printed word’ generation before the PC became an indispensable part of our lives, I daresay that the majority have adjusted very successfully to embrace the digital lifestyle that we are now in.  We are quite at home flipping through the pages of our newspapers over a cup of coffee or getting the latest breaking news from around the world online from one of the many news websites.

Therefore, designing effective, good-looking communication be it in print or online is key to ensure that the message gets across to the reader and the desired reaction is performed.  This can be a print advertisement for a product that requires you to present a cutting to get a discount when you buy or an online opinion article seeking your comments on a hot topic of the day. Parker (1990 p. 9) states that good design provides a road map guiding readers from point to point.

As traditional print media embrace the online channel, we are seeing a mirroring of print documents online in a different form to appeal to a new genre of audience.  In creating documents, it is important to think about the experience of your audience, which differs greatly between print and web design. It is therefore vital to know that print and online design operate with its own set of rules and I will touch on three key points.

Content Readability

According to Parker (2003, p. 207) reading online is far more difficult than reading from paper because the screen projects light and this foreground/background contrast increases eye fatigue making it unadvisable for readers to stare at the screen for long periods of time. 

Reading onscreen also reduces the page visibility as readers only get a partial page view and they would need to constantly scroll up or down making “a big picture” view of the article difficult to grasp.  Personally, if I find an online article interesting, I would copy and print it for easier reading and digestion.


A great tip from Parker (2003, p. 273) on document design is to create layouts that can be comfortably read onscreen which means it will be even easier to read when printed!

How?  In a nutshell:

  1. Avoid multicolumn layouts for onscreen documents
  2. Reduce line length by building white space to add contrast to a page
  3. Adjust line spacing to adapt to easy reading
  4. Create more white space between paragraphs for onscreen documents to make easier reading
  5. Use subheadings to add visual interest and “advertise” the text that follows
  6. Add text hyperlinks for onscreen documents to aid readers to jump to a topic of interest
  7. Use color with restraint to enhance, not detract


At its most basic, the web is interactive whereas print pieces are usually not.  Web designing has to take

into consideration the media consumer’s overall user experience by engaging them actively through audio, video and images.  As Kress (1997, p. 55-56) shares, the visual state is a vastly more efficient mode for carrying and ‘processing’ great amounts of information. Professor John Seely Brown said that media firms that can tailor their offerings to fit their different audiences will reign in the interactive, collaborative next-generation online world. 

This was reported by Chua Hian Hou in The Straits Tmes (24 September 2008, p. B6) when Prof Brown conducted his lecture titled Redefining Media in the 21st Century in Singapore.  He cited the example of Amazon Kindle an e-book reader that offers its users access to its library of 180,000 books and newspapers, allowing them to also share their experiences with other Kindle users. To sum it all up, whether it is for web or print, the design must fit the medium it is intended for to meet the needs of the media consumer it is targetted at.


Image Source: PC Magazine Online, PC Magazine, Amazon Kindle

References: Kindle: Amazon’s Wireless Reading Device viewed 24 September 2008,

Kress, G 1997, ‘Visual and verbal modes of representation in electronically mediated communication: the potentials of new forms of text’ in Snyder, Ilana (ed.) 1997, Page to screen: taking literacy into the electronic era, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, Chapter 3, p. 53-79

Parker, RC 2003, ‘Designing documents for web distribution’, Looking good in print, 5th edn, Paraglyph Press, Scottsdale AZ, Chapter 14, p. 269-293

Chua, HH 2008, ‘Context is king on new Web, says expert’ The Straits Times 24 September 2008, p. B6


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