The real experience of printing from the web

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I rarely have a need to print anything from online resources (I don’t even own a printer), but am still a big fan of using a print stylesheet to be sure users get what I deem as a useful printout. A quick print preview of this site should give you a good idea: strip all the nav, extra images, random design formatting, etc and make only use shades of black. I even strip the site title from the content (it prints by default in the upper left corner of the page anyway). To me this makes sense. But for someone used to seeing the “Click here for printable page” icon, I can see how there might be some confusion as to how it magically transformed.

The purpose of printing

I’m going to put every webpage into two broad categories: a specific content page or a broad portal page that leads to the content. Now consider the reasons for printing either of these. In the case of the content page, it is most likely to get printed for the content. This is the type of page I would suspect gets printed most often. Why would someone need to print a portal-esque page? Perhaps for example or to capture a specific period in time of that website – think screenshot. I don’t see this scenerio being nearly as prominent.

In the aim to always design for a purpose, this would suggest that the approach taken towards the print stylesheet for a homepage (often slightly portal in character) should be different from the approach for the content specific pages. A user printing the homepage might be doing so to capture those eye-candy gradients and navigation and so on. Printing for this reason may be much more effecient by making a screenshot and printing directly from that instead of the browser, not all users are going to be aware of that option. Creating a print version of this page that matches the screen as close as possible will likely please the most users. But when printing for content, that extra stuff just gets in the way making the document less useful and blowing ink and paper. In this case, attention to styling the content in it’s most useful fashion – sans surrounding page elements – is better appreciated.

Think of it this way. The cover of a book is often much more graphic rich than the interior. While web design and print design are very different, when printing the web it helps to take cues from the more mature print design. If every page of the book had all the design elements of the cover hanging in it, it would become much less readable.

Easing into the new black

A page created with web standards in mind typically leaves all the fancy graphics and design to background images. This poses the immediate problem of browsers removing background images and colors on printing by default. As standards compliant sites become more common a shift in the expectations of how a printout will render should follow slowly behind. Probably very slowly, but following nevertheless. Eventually the confusion will be when a content page tries to match the paper version to the screen. I long for the day.

Changes in web browsers affect the print style issue as well. The nerds can use Firefox extensions to delete or resize parts of a page before printing. IE7 adds print formatting that lets the user drag margins around to fit the page as desired. People will become more accustomed to print versions that are specific to the content as these tools get more use.

What thought process

One of the challenges of creating for the web is thinking like the user. I end up using a lot of tools and processes that the typical user doesn’t and that changes what I expect to see. As I suggested, my tastes for print styles is the bare minimum. This probably isn’t what everyone else hopes for. If you’re someone who creates for the web, do you use specific print styles and how drastic do you change the page from screen to print? If you don’t create for so much as use the web, what do you expect to happen when you push that print button on your browser (without having followed a “print only version” icon)?


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