Matthew Richmond on Why Print Designers Have an Advantage

Matthew Richmond’s interactive design firm, The Chopping Block, turns out a broad array of work, from information design to interactive design to their own merchandise. And Matthew was part of the advisory group that helped create the vision for HOW’s Interactive Design Conference. I recently traded e-mails with Matthew to catch up, and he shared his thoughts about Big-D Design (and why print designers have an edge).

What’s keeping you busy these days?

The Block has done a ton of work in the past few months. We completed a handful of information architecture and design jobs for various TIME Inc. interactive projects (TIME For Kids, Real Simple and Health). Before that we worked with Adobe to build out a few sections of, working with the Photoshop and Mobile product teams as well as the XD group to deliver product and resource pages that inspire creative pros. Currently we are working closely with Scholastic to design interactive educational software for kids.

I get to split my time pretty evenly between figuring stuff out (UX and wireframing), designing and building. These days we’re focusing most of our attention on HTML & JavaScript-based projects, we still do a fair amount of Adobe Flash-based projects.

We are also running Chop Shop,  making the world better by designing nerdy design Ts and posters. I teach a few graduate interactive design/illustration classes every semester at School of Visual Arts here in NYC. And I am a dad to two boys, ages 1 and 4—they keep me pretty busy.

Your firm, The Chopping Block, has a really broad array of work in its portfolio, from Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Toolbox site to the Dilbert identity to infographics about climate change. How does your team manage that mix of print, identity and web projects?

We started the studio under the pretense that “Good design spans all mediums,” and we have never labeled ourselves as anything other than graphic designers. We’ve done a mountain of projects over the last 14 years, most of which we have really enjoyed. The more projects we complete, the better we understand what we prefer to do. We like making things look (and work better), we love telling stories, we like to turn insanely complex things into easily understandable experiences, and we like funny. You fill the studio with smart talented design conscious people and the medium (or project type) doesn’t really matter.

Are there universal Big-D Design principles that apply across the board, regardless of medium? What are some of those principles?

All design principles exist outside of any medium. Unity, emphasis, balance, proportion, space and rhythm still apply. As Milton Glaser likes to say: “Design is the act of moving things from an existing condition to a preferred one.” I think of that often when questions about medium come up.

Unfortunately it seems that mediums and tools tend to often complicate how designers are taught. The interactive medium has historically had limited typographic options and evolving layout constraints. Anybody focused on learning web design before learning the fundamentals of design can easily miss out on the importance of typographic skills and grid systems. This is where traditional (or “print”) designers have an advantage.

At the conference, you’ll be speaking about JavaScript, Flash and CSS3. Clearly, those technologies have evolved greatly over the past couple of years, and continue to do so. What can designers do with these tools now that they couldn’t do two years ago?

HTML5, CSS3 and, more specifically, modern browsers (which is where the JavaScript part comes in) have completely shifted the landscape of interactive design. Yes, you can use that typeface, and here is how you can transition (move, fade, bounce, etc.) that image into position.

It’s never really been about what can we do now that we couldn’t do two years ago. There has most often always been a way to do that thing—it’s just been really expensive and insanely time-consuming. The current state of Flash, JavaScript and CSS3 empowers designers to do 90% of what they want to do—faster and easier than ever before.

Historically (and we’re talking very recent history here), designers and technologists have had very distinct roles in a web project, with the tech people working with Flash and CSS. What do designers need to know about those tools?

A print designer with no understanding of how additive color or a printing press works is not going to be very successful. A printer who doesn’t spend the time to understand what the designer expects is going to lose money on the job. The same logic applies to the interactive workflow.

If it’s an interactive project, the designer needs to have a solid understanding of the markup toolset (HTML, CSS and/or Flash). All projects are design-driven, some projects are also development-driven. Therefore, all parties need to have a baseline understanding of what’s possible and respect for what the other party does. Without this, teams tend to become costly and anti-productive.

As you scan the technology landscape, what are you seeing that really excites or intrigues you?

Everything interactive is exceptionally exciting and intriguing right now. Smartphones and tablets are rapidly changing the way we interact with everything (and everybody), media companies, for the most part, are experimenting and learning how to evolve. HTML5, CSS3 and modern browsers are opening up a new level of design possibilities and opportunities. Lots of great stuff, tough to figure out what to focus on first.

Currently, I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to wrap my head around the visual side of JavaScript. Flash (and ActionScript) introduced a whole generation of designers to scripting, as a result we can mock up some design elements faster with code than we can in Photoshop or Illustrator. As modern browsers get stronger, HTML5 plus JavaScript becomes more intriguing.

What’s your favorite:

  1. website?
    Formal: Technical:
  2. mobile app?
    InstapaperReeder and Infinity Blade.
  3. book?
    This always changes, how can you have just one? Lately I read with my kids more than I read to myself, so I have to go with The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

Learn more about Matthew Richmond’s session at the HOW Interactive Design Conference, and register by September 30 to save $100.

This post originally appeared on the HOW blog.