Digital Design & The Digital Canvas

Creative Web
by Matt Griffin, Front End Developer/Digital Designer at The Agency

Digital Design encompasses many disciplines, including information architecture design, content strategy, interface design, User Experience design (UX design), graphic design, accessibility design, animation and programming. Anywhere there is digital content or functionality, being engaged with by people, there is a need for Digital Design.

Most of us experience Digital Design on the web in the form of websites and web apps and for the most part when referring to the visual of Digital Design we often call this “web design” but whatever nomenclature you use, as designers, the key to being success is in understanding the medium with which we are designing and even though this medium can seem simple to a consumer, for practitioners of digital design, as well as those of us who commission it, we cannot ignore the complexities and nuances of that medium and, when we engage in design work, we must ensure that we are actually designing for the “Digital Canvas” and not merely engaging in out of date design practices, designing to the legacy of print design.

What is the Digital Canvas?

The digital canvas can be both static and mobile. It can sit in your hand, on your TV, on your desktop or on the face of an Apple Watch. The same design displays itself to your consumers in innumerable locations and on a multitude of devices. In every case your design can look different and in each location your design and your project can fail.

This is because, today the platforms on which you are engaging with digital consumers is fragmented and people are engaging with digital content in much more diverse ways than they used to. On desktops, on laptops, on games consoles, on tablets, on e-readers, on mobiles and even aurally through screen readers. The Digital Canvas, in this respect, sits in thousands of different places at once. Yet we must still make our design work in all of the places that matter.

Where is the Digital Canvas?

The Digital Canvas, for the most part, is experienced on the web, inside a browser but the vestiges of digital design, through interface design, UX design, Content Strategy and Information Architecture are universal throughout digital products.

For this reason, many companies are rationalising their digital offering and consolidating their focus on the web. See, for example recently at BBC News. Companies are starting to focus more on responsive design for the web and less on native apps, to get across their message. Because the truth is that, if you want your message to be seen by the most people, you choose the web. The web is universal, while native apps are inherently constrained within their own eco-system. As such, Digital Design is on the web and in the cloud, on the internet and on almost all of our digital devices.

How Do We Design For The Digital Canvas?

If we want success in our digital projects, we need to accept and understand that the old design principles of print design, not only are not useful but they actually constrain digital design and in fact simply do not “cut it” any more. If your digital project is being designed without, digital expertise then you project will never be anywhere near as effective or valuable as it could be.

A designer must understand her canvas and a digital designer must understand the Digital Canvas. The digital canvas includes; information architecture design, content strategy, interface design, UX design, graphic design, accessibility design, animation and programming. Information Architecture design is the design and building of how your content and copy is best structured, based on your users goals and rationalised by your business objectives.

Content Strategy design is the planning development and management of your active content and how your are engaging with your users and optimising your site for search.

Interface design, UX design, graphic design and animation design constitute, for the most part, the visual aspects of Digital Design. Interface and UX focusing on the user’s interaction, while graphic and animation design, in addition to covering interaction, focus on the subjective general aesthetic, as well.

Accessible design is a design process in which the needs of people with disabilities are specifically considered. At first hand this might seem irrelevant to many who commission work but since 2010 many digital projects are now covered by a legal duty to make “reasonable adjustments” to enable disabled persons to access their services, under new government legislation. Even if a website is merely delivering information or entertainment to the public, there may be a duty to make “reasonable adjustments”.

All of these disciplines are executed and facilitated through the programming work of developers, the sturdy trunk of the Digital Design tree. It can be easy, when looking at a digital project as a whole, to relegate developers to the role of facilitators, as the implementers and “the hands” of the project. But their expertise need to be engaged with and used at every step within Digital Design. Because it is the developers that will create and manipulate the Digital Canvas on which your project is created. Every discipline within Digital Design is key and must be engaged with, to some extent, but of all of Digital Design’s practitioners, developers have the deepest understanding of the Digital Canvas’ nuances and pitfalls.

In all, digital design is undeniably complex and so is the Digital Canvas. As practitioners and commissioners of digital design we need to understand these complexities, we need to stop being constrained by the legacy of print design and we need to tackle the Digital Canvas head on.