In a digital age, desktop publishing has made it possible for nearly anyone to produce well-designed online and paper documents, such as newsletters, business cards, websites, posters, letterheads, PowerPoint and Keynote presentations, etc. While professional graphic designers are the best resource for producing high quality designs, nearly all of us working in professional fields could benefit from having knowledge of basic design principles.
The best resource, in my view, for learning graphic design is Robin Williams’ classic, The Non-Designer’s Design Book. She outlines the basic principles of design: proximity, alignment, repetition, and contrast. What you learn from her book can be seen in well designed templates that come installed in programs like Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, and Apple’s Pages and Keynote. While in a pinch, you could pull up these design templates and use them without much customizing of the layout, but it would be better to recognize the design principles used in these templates to help make your projects unique. The basics principles of graphic design are not as difficult to understand as you might think.
So launch Microsoft Word, Pages, or any program using professional design templates and let’s use the them to recognize basic design principles.
When you examine professional design templates one of the first things you might notice is that there are usually no more than three different fonts used in a document or design piece. Many newsletters, for example, make use of the classic and readable Helvetica or Helvetica Neue font. A designer will use the same one or two fonts, but will will change the size and style of the font for different parts the document. Regular Helvetica Neue font style may be used for the body text, while a slightly larger size of the same font, in bold style, will be used for sub-titles and pull-out quotes. Highlight the texts in templates and make note of the names of fonts that are used. Typically they include Helvetica, Courier, or Baskerville, with a variation in size and style of the font (e.g. bold, all caps, italics.)
The next element you will want to notice in design templates is how items and information are grouped together. As Williams points out, “When several items are in close proximity to each other, they become one visual unit rather than several separate units.” For example, in this business card, information is separated into groups, instead of scattered all over the card. This makes the information easier to read.
Well-designed documents also use a repetition of elements, as we can see in this newsletter where three images are cropped and aligned together for effective repetition. Again, as Williams points out, “You can repeat colors, shapes, textures, spatial relationships, line thickness, fonts, sizes, graphic concepts, etc.” The effective use of repetition is pleasing to eye and it can communicate important content in a design.
Notice also how the designers use contrast to make layouts graphically appealing. The large PortagoITC TT font used for the nameplate of the newsletter below is in near stark contrast with the Helvetica Neue used for the body font. We also see how the designer used a strong red graphic fill to make the nameplate stand out. The idea behind contrast as Williams explains, “is to avoid elements on the page that are merely similar. If the elements (type, color, size, line thickness, shape, space, etc.) are not the same, then make them very different.”
Probably the easiest basic principle of design to recognize in templates is alignment. Body text of course is usually always aligned to the left. But notice how other elements (images, boxes, titles, and information) are aligned with one another. “Nothing should be placed on the page arbitrarily,” writes Williams. In the postcard below, the alignment of elements is very evident. The image of the house is aligned with the green box. The street name and price of the house are both centered, and the contact information is grouped together under the photo of the real estate agent. The arrangement of these elements helps the reader move his/her eyes from one element to the next.
There’s nothing wrong with using templates to produce documents, but when you understand the basic elements of design, you can customize templates and make them unique for your individual purposes.
So how aware are you of basic design principles in the work you do? What online and book resources have you learned from?