What is Digital Design? (Ultimate Guide & Resources)
What is digital design?
Digital design is any form of visual media, optimized for viewing on a screen. It’s a subset of graphic design, made specifically for viewing on phones and computers.
Website pages, iPhone apps, YouTube videos are all examples digital design. These digital assets are all built for devices. They take into account the platform size, interactivity, user-experience, platform formatting, accessibility.
Visual direction is the sweet spot for any digital designer. Directing how colors, fonts, and graphics show up on a page. The goal is often to maximize clickthroughs, buy-in, or other marketing-related functions.
Digital designers use tools such as Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, Sketch, or Keynote to create their initial mock-up designs.
Most digital products need back-end coding to bring to life. Some designers have a basic skill set in both design and development. But often there is entire team of software engineers to perform the back-end coding and bring the vision to life. Think of the digital designer as optimizing the top layer of a product; the colors, visuals, and interactions.
For example, think of the Amazon app on your phone.
The navigation and buttons you click were created by a digital designer. They optimized the top layer of the app. All the features that you interact with. The colors, the fonts, the image preferences, where the ‘Add to Cart’ button would sit. After testing, they passed their designs to a development team. A team of software developers then used code to bring it all to life and make sure it functions.
Digital design vs. graphic design
What is the difference between digital design and graphic design?
Good question! There are many similarities between both fields. The main differences have to do with their outputs and data analysis.
For outputs, graphic design focuses on visual theory and creating static media such as print ads, magazines, and logos. Digital design focuses on creating dynamic media. It often involves movement, animation, interaction, and audio crafted for phones and computers.
To be a successful digital designer, you must have a set of foundational skills in graphic design. It’s an absolute must. Skills such as visual design, creativity, and stakeholder management span both graphic and digital design.
For data analysis, graphic design doesn’t often have access to much data. A single print ad will provide much less data than a single digital banner ad. There is no way to measure the value of the graphic design on a printed page.
In digital design, data matters much more. For web design, digital designers track page views, clickthrough rates, conversion rates, shares, and many other metrics. Digital media is built quickly and replaced if it’s not moving the needle. A/B tests are performed to optimize the digital experience.
It’s best to have a grasp on both professions.
Graphic design has been around much longer than digital design. While print media and advertising dominated most of the 20th century, the rise of the internet changed that dynamic. It completely transformed the way we communicate and interact with each other. In the 1990’s, digital media started to take up a larger slice of the pie. That trend has continued to now.
Both mediums are important in today’s world. If you’re set on becoming a digital designer, make sure you start with the foundations of graphic design to kickstart your journey.
Types of digital design
Digital design is a wide-ranging profession. From creating social content to designing a skyscraper, there is a vast landscape of digital design professions. To get you started, here are a few of the most common types of digital design:
Mobile app design
While functionality is a top priority for mobile apps, visual design is a close second. Mobile apps must look good. They need a stylish interface that provides a smooth user-experience. Digital designers are in charge of making this happen. Choosing the colors, fonts, buttons, graphics, to optimize usability.
The original digital design profession, web design is still in-demand today. Websites are the backbone of any brand. It’s the first place potential customers look when seeking information about a product. Digital designers must optimize websites to improve the customer experience. Navigation, page layout, and copy are key to move prospective customers through their marketing funnel.
UX design focuses on improving the entire user-experience of digital products, from end-to-end. This area of digital design can span every area of business: web design, app design, marketing builds. Any area where you can reduce friction and create a simpler experience for your customers.
Email marketing design
Email marketing is a strategy based on sending emails to customers and prospects. It’s still one of the most effective digital marketing channels available. Emails are optimized for each audience. Digital design gives life to otherwise boring emails. Crafting HTML and CSS, organizing layouts, and writing copy crafted to sell.
Online banner ad design
With a goal of generating traffic to a website, online banner ads rely on good digital design. These are ads you see on most websites. Often they are a square or rectangle on a page, including visual movement, sale tags, and call-to-actions. Digital designers help optimize banner ads by creating a series of ads and A/B testing to see which are most effective at driving sales.
Social media content design
A fast-growing area of digital marketing, social media has been a hot topic the past decade. These designers must be well-versed in branding, photography, and visual communication. They must know their target audience well. And know how best to interact and engage with them. While visual elements are important in social media design, understanding how to interact with your audience through text is most important.
YouTube is now one of the top search engines on the internet. People rely on YouTube to learn information, get news updates, and find out about new products. Digital designers can specialize in video design, creating video to help achieve marketing or training goals. These videos can live on third party websites like YouTube. And be hosted on internal websites to provide product and brand education.
More popular than ever, animation design is the process of creating visual effects and moving graphics, often in a video format. Used on websites and in film, animations often replicate movements of humans and features of real places. Animated videos are becoming a common output for digital marketing teams. They help to educate customers about products, services, and brand.
Abbreviated as IxD, interaction designers specialize in creating interactive digital experiences. Sometimes used interchangeably with user-experience design, interaction design is more focused on the specific moments of interaction. It can be considered a subset in the broader landscape of user-experience design.
Keynote and PowerPoint are effective tools for communicating information. Some digital designers specialize in presentation design only. Companies create presentations internally to sell ideas to leadership, train employees, and communicate new programs to colleagues. Designing effective presentations relies on visual design and storytelling best practices.
Best practices for digital design
Not sure where to start? Check out some best practices for digital design. These best practices are those that can be applied across any digital design profession. It’s not an exhaustive list, only a few basics to get you started in the right direction.
Learn graphic design basics
Remember that digital design all starts with a foundation in graphic design. Learn the basics by taking LinkedIn Learning courses or watching YouTube videos. Although it is helpful to understand the theory behind graphic design, your best bet is to jump in and learn a tool. Start with Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. As you learn the tool, the theory will come along with it in the background.
As you take these courses, make sure you get enough hands-on practice. Complete the lab workshops in the software tools themselves. Practice is the best learning method. A few basics of graphic design to know are:
- Use only 3-4 colors
- Learn how to use white space
- Know how to use typefaces
- Understand text and image alignment
- Simple designs are often better than complex
- Start with icons; they are simple, yet powerful for visual storytelling
- Use your creativity and test many different ideas
Research before you build
Too often, digital designers jump into creating before doing enough research. The danger? You end up spending hours building a beautiful product, only to find out that it won’t work. It doesn’t solve the problem. Or it doesn’t resonate with the audience.
Before you put pen to paper, do your research. Know the exact problem you are solving. Know your audience in and out. Understand the challenges they have now and anticipate their challenges of the future. Set up A/B tests to determine the most effective way to move the needle. Once all your research is complete, you can then start ideating on creative ideas.
Always build with an audience-first mindset
Simply said, know your audience. Don’t assume you know them already. Actually get to know them. Conduct interviews, run user-tests, research their demographics and tendencies on Google.
The entire purpose of your digital design is to solve a problem for your audience. Or change their behavior. It’s not about putting pretty pictures on a screen. Before and during your build, make sure you keep your audience top of mind.
Understand what they do, how they spend their time, what they care about. Designing brilliant digital products begins and ends with understanding the human you’re building for.
Keep your experience consistent
Consistency is key to successful digital design. Whether you’re designing an iPhone app or a Keynote presentation.
Your users want a predictable experience, with a taste of novelty to keep them engaged and coming back. This includes both visual design and user-experience. In web design, this means buttons, text, layout, colors are uniform throughout the entire site. Pages link together, making it a seamless user-experience for even the most beginner roamers of the internet.
User-experience design focuses on consistent experiences. They look at research: clicks, time spent on pages, errors and hiccups. They take this research and ideate on new ways to reduce friction and create an improved digital experience for their audience.
Simplify your writing
Writing is a pillar of human communication. Especially in the digital space.
When creating digital products, write as if you’re a human speaking to another human. Use words that most people can understand. Cut out any large words or long sentences. Have your writing reviewed by many users to check for readability and comprehension.
Once you’ve written a draft, submit your text to websites like the Hemingway App. This website shows you the reading level of your content. And provides suggestions on how to simplify.
Aim for interactivity
One core benefit of digital design is the ability for humans to interact with your content or products. The best digital design optimizes interactivity, providing an engaging experience their audiences keep coming back for.
This is easier said than done. Providing a good interactive experience all starts with providing value to your audience. It doesn’t matter how ‘cool’ you think an interactive feature is. If it doesn’t provide real value, it will flop. Value in interactivity could be about providing entertainment, knowledge, competition, or status-improvement.
In both marketing and eLearning, interactivity continues to grow in both video and banner advertising.
Test your content and products
Digital products often have a short lifespan. A banner ad only lives for a few weeks before its outdated. An iPhone app needs updates to solve bugs and improve the user-interface.
The best digital design focuses on frequent testing. Instead of waiting until the end, it’s best if digital design is iterative. That is, testing with users often, on a continual basis. This strategy works best for web and mobile phone app design, digital products that are based on good user-experience and interactivity.
In the marketing world of digital design, A/B testing is an effective way to test your content. This strategy works well for digital marketing campaigns: PPC, banner ads, paid social, and email marketing. Create two versions of your design. Then set up your campaigns to split test, sending each design to 50% of the audience. By testing both, you can see which was most effective, allowing you to continue to refine and improve your design.
Try the 3-second comprehension test
If you showed your design to someone, would they be able to understand it in 3-seconds?
Building digital content or products can get complex. As you spend more time in your build, it becomes more difficult for you to recognize simplicity. After awhile, it all seems simple to you. It often takes a fresh set of eyes and experiences to provide helpful feedback.
Gather your users and aim to collect feedback on first impressions. What did they notice in the first 3-seconds? Do they understand what this content/product is about? These initial thoughts on first impressions can help tweak your digital designs, improving clarity and usability.
Digital design software
What type of software do digital designers use?
As such a vast profession, there are many different software and tools designers may. It fully depends on the scope of their role and the niche they’ve decided to focus. Here are some common software tools used by digital designers:
The industry-standard of vector graphics, Adobe Illustrator is the most commonly used graphic design software for professionals. Designers can create icons, graphics, logos, illustrations, packaging, just about anything. If you are just beginning in digital design and not sure which tool to learn, start with Adobe Illustrator.
Another core product by Adobe, Photoshop is a raster graphics editor, ideal for photo editing and graphic design. Note that Photoshop uses pixels, which means it’s not the best tool for creating scalable graphics (Illustrator is better for those). But it is the ideal tool for manipulating images and creating digital art pieces.
Not just presentation software, Apple Keynote offers a diverse set of design tools as well. Within Keynote, you can create graphics, build animated videos, and create memorable presentations. Tons of customizable features that allow designers to easily manipulate shapes, draw simple logos, and create smooth animations.
Sketch is a vector graphics editor, mostly used for user-experience design of websites and mobile applications. Featuring an intuitive user-interface, Sketch allows designers to easily create digital products and collaborate with your team. The software allows you to do a wide range of design tasks, such as create icons or build a new product from scratch.
Figma is a collaborative design tool that helps teams build better products together. It allows teams of digital designers to create, prototype, and gather feedback all in one tool. It’s mostly browser-based which makes it quick and easy to work with large groups of stakeholders.
The top dog in 3D design, AutoCAD is built for engineers, architects, and construction professionals. It helps them create precise 2D and 3D drawings using a wide-range of objects and surfaces.
If you’re looking for a free image editor, GIMP is a go-to choice. As a free and open-source raster editor, the software is used mostly to edit images and create free-form drawing. There are many 3rd party plugins available to customize GIMP and optimize the tool to fit your needs.
About the Author:
Andrew DeBell is a learning experience strategist and content developer on the customer education team at Atlassian. Connect with him on LinkedIn for more.