Jens Oliver Meiert

Print Styling, the 3 Basics

Post from April 5, 2019 (↻ May 29, 2021), filed under and .

Running start. Pretty much every website should have a usable print view.

Why? Because users still print, of course, especially when sites—and also apps—contain useful content (like professional articles) or important information (as with confirmations or invoices). Users may even need to print at times, for reasons we should leave them to judge. On top of that the print dialog is also used to save information in electronic form, and thus printing does not necessarily equate eco-terrorism.

What does this mean? My view. (There are others.)

1. Have a Print Style Sheet, and Be It a Negative One

A “negative” print style sheet means to explicitly cater only for non-print media, and not do anything for print but rely on appropriate HTML to be displayed according to user agents defaults. (This approach is a dead simple classic.) A “positive” print style sheet, then, does of course refer to style rules for print, applied through the print media type.

2. Hide What’s Not Usable or Useful—and Be Subtle Otherwise

In positive print style sheets, it’s usually the first step, and a most convenient one at that, to hide (display: none) everything that’s not usable or useful on printing or saving. This usually doesn’t include branding (site logo) but instead navigation options (header, footer) and forms, as well as supplementary and embedded information that may be useful in hypertext context but not in print—think in-article teasers for related articles or galleries, or sidebar elements that provide auxiliary but not critical information. (Mileage may vary here as it seems neither important nor possible to come up with strict definitions on what must and must not be shown in print.)

For hyperlinks—I can’t think of little else “hypertextual” this would apply to—use rather subtle, if any, cues to indicate their presence. Links don’t work on paper, and so they don’t need the prominence they need on interactive displays. In most cases this doesn’t only mean not to expand links to be appended by the URLs they point to (this is, with few exceptions, a long deprecated practice for it disrupts reading), but also to use a text color that’s more like the regular copy, and much toned-down underlining (borrowing from the school of Edward Tufte).

Print views from two popular web design websites.

Figure: Useful to drop link underlines, harmful—though likely unintended—to disrupt or thwart reading.

3. Test and Tweak

There’s a great number of sites and apps where print styling has been dismissed or plainly been forgotten. Don’t dismiss, nor forget. Test for a reasonable print experience, and, finally, consider:

Print styling is easy, especially in its negative variant. The larger our interest in a good user experience, however, the higher the demand to make sure print doesn’t only work but that it’s also pleasant. As that sort of pleasure stems from good design, when we want nicely designed print styling, we are beyond basic rules and quick tips but need to invest time in optimizing further and, perhaps, planning for print styling.

❧ Pretty much every website should have a usable print view.

This post had several working titles, with anything from three to five basics to ground rules. I’ve decided to keep it simple, to merge the rules down to form three groups, and to speak of “basics” rather than “rules.” I’m convinced we need to keep print in mind. And that it’s easy.

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About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on April 29, 2020.

I’m Jens Oliver Meiert, and I’m an engineering manager and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to the W3C and the WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. Other than that, I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on I share some of my views and experiences.

If you have questions or suggestions about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message.

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