Printing pains

What’s the problem with print?

Have you ever wanted to print a web page? How often do you find that what you have printed has a multi-coloured banner and navigation buttons or worse, text that disappears off the edge of your page?

Why does it occur to so few website designers and developers that you might want to print a page? After all, you might want to:

  • read an article away from the computer
  • show it to a friend
  • file it away for future reference.

What are the options?

There are a number of different ways to provide printer-friendly web pages:

  • style sheets
  • scripting
  • portable document format (PDF) files.

Style sheets

One option is style sheets. These take a little time and thought to set up, but almost no maintenance. The key is to build your site around valid HTML/XHTML and CSS: it’s then quite easy to have one style sheet which controls the appearance of files on screen and a second which controls the appearance of files sent to a printer. (You can also set up style sheets for mobile devices and screen readers, but that’s an article for another day.)

If you don’t want to print a page, find the Print Preview option on your browser and notice the difference between what you see in your browser and what will print. You can find examples at A list apart and456 Berea St.

The main downside of this approach is that (unless they always preview before printing) visitors won’t find out what the print version looks like until they’ve printed it. Oh, and if you don’t check carefully, you can end up with pages that don’t quite fit on your page: on some sites, the printed pages lose 4 or 5 characters from the right margin. I suspect they might have been checked on US letter paper, which is a little wider than A4.


On many large sites, such as Wikipedia, content pages include a button or link labelled ‘Print’ or something similar. In general, these present the visitor with a new page (sometimes in a new window) with menus, ads and similar elements removed.

Like style sheets, these take some work to set up and test, but are relatively low-maintenance after that. They do require an extra click for the user, but also offer more control.

Wikipedia has the added feature of ‘books’: a reader can combine a number of articles into a single file, which can be downloaded as a PDF or ODF file.

PDF files

For many people who have been using the web for a while, PDF is the first format they think of when it comes to printable versions of web pages. PDFs have many advantages: most people have Adobe™ Acrobat® Reader, and if they don’t they can download it free of charge from Adobe.

This is the ideal format if it’s important that the document your visitors print looks exactly the same as the one you see on your computer. While Acrobat itself is not cheap, there is a range of free or inexpensive software available to create your own PDF files.

The downside is that every time you make a change to a document, you need to make it in two files (the HTML and the PDF) or end up with two different versions. Again, there is software available to create both HTML and PDF files from a single source, but this means extra work in the setup stages.

So what’s the answer?

There is no one ‘right’ answer: there are only options. Developers and site owners need to consider the possibility that some visitors will want to print their content, and provide an option. Fail to do so and you risk irritating – even alienating – a group of your site visitors: they may not return.

For advice on the best option for your site, contact me.

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