How Nat Sweeney Made the Switch from Print to Web Design

Nat Sweeney studied design at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago before moving back to Connecticut in 1996. He worked on print exclusively for the first six years of his career, creating promotions for the likes of Heineken, Amstel Light, Murphy’s Irish Stout and Timberland Boots. In the late ’90s, he began to work on interactive CD-ROMs (remember those?) for the Heineken sales force. Those discs made him excited about interactive design, and today he’s interactive creative director at Colangelo in Darien, CT.

Were you intimidated when you first started to learn about web design?

Yes, designing for interaction is very different than designing something that is static. I also didn’t understand HTML when I began. I would design things, and developers would freak out on me or, worse, change what I had done. I think once I learned HTML I was less intimidated and became a better web designer.

What resources were most helpful as you added interactive skills to your arsenal?

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Current web design courses include PSD to HTML, Advanced WordPress and Principles of Information Architecture.

The resources have changed over the years. Today I would suggest a couple of sites: Treehouse, Smashing Magazine, Lynda.com and Twitter. Find people you respect in the industry and follow them on Twitter.

How long did it take before you felt comfortable working in web design?

When I really decided it was what I wanted to do, I got a job at a very small dot com. Eighty percent of my job was designing websites, so I had to learn fast. The real question is, do you ever feel comfortable? Technology is always changing, and designers and developers are always coming up with new ways to display web content. I have never felt like, “Ah, now I get it.” I am constantly studying and learning what’s new. I don’t think I will ever be comfortable, and I believe that’s a good thing. Better to always be reaching, then sitting back and admiring.

What’s your job like now? What kind of interactive projects do you work on?

Currently I run an interactive design team at an agency in CT. All of the designers that work for me know how to code, HTML and ActionScript. We work on everything from banner ads to full site builds.

What do you think is the hardest thing for long-time print designers to grasp about interactive design?

Making your designs about your user. Creating interfaces that need to be intuitive and helpful. You are creating a living thing, something people use, not just read or admire. It is all of those things and more.

On the flip side, what do print designers know that’s an advantage in the interactive space?

Typography. Being able to really control type is relatively new to web design. I find designers that started right into the digital world can learn a thing or two from print designers on the notion of kerning and leading.

When it comes to print vs. web, do you think designers need to focus on one or the other?

It is possible to do both, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. I believe there is too much to know in each discipline. If you try to do it all, I believe you can’t be an expert in anything. I think you should pick a focus and learn everything you can.

Any advice for print designers who want to make the switch?

I would suggest learning to code, nothing major, but learn the basics. I believe you will give yourself an advantage designing. To break rules and be progressive you need to understand the rules. It also helps when you are talking to your developers. Ultimately, you have to rely on them to bring your designs to life. It helps to speak the same language.

Sweeney and the team at Colangelo completed this redesign and re-architecture of the Filippo Berio website. The new site changed the focus from Italy and brand history to food and education.

This site for the Prince “Who’s Next” campaign highlights sponsored junior players on trading cards. Sweeney and the team at Colangelo created a design that allows users to click, drag and move the cards around to discover each player.

For this Facebook app for Holistic Select pet food, Sweeney and the Colangelo team allowed people to create ads (mimicking a recent campaign) featuring their own pets. The promotion tripled the brand’s Facebook fans.

We want to see your best web design work! Enter HOW’s Interactive Design Competition to show the world what you’re made of — deadline: July 30, 2012

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