Your work is not precious
Design is like learning a new language — if you understand the basics, you’ll have what it takes to become an expert at it. Rules are a great teacher and if you manage to make sense out of them, you’ll not only be able to apply them correctly, but also get them to work in your favour and break them every once in a while.
The title of this article is, in fact, a quote which I ”borrowed” from David Underwood, a design consultant at the University of Colorado Boulder. He teaches a very insightful online course in graphic design where he talks about the basic rules of design (although the course is called Graphic Design, the principles he describes are applicable to all other forms of design too).
If you are a practicing designer, you probably know these best practices in and out. If you are like me, in the beginning of your design practice, those rules will be your friend and most valuable critic along the way. I’d like to share them because they are concise and instructive and I believe that everybody interested in the topic will benefit from them.
Design practice #1 — you can’t create in a vacuum
I am pretty certain that one of the most ridiculous questions you can ask an artist, is where they get their inspiration from. Because it’s obvious — real life, surroundings, experiences. Designers, like all other artists also get inspiration from their environment and the events they have gone through in life. Everything around us is somebody’s design. As we are visual creatures, what we see around us has an impact on the way we think, the way we behave, perform and communicate. Sometimes we get inspired on a very subconscious level — we cannot remember where/if we have already seen or experienced something that led us to a particular solution.
Nearly anything we come up with today has presumably been done before and it’s much harder to be an innovator now than it used to be 50 years ago— not only in design but practically in every other artistic field. However, design is not about discovering the hot water, it’s about creating solutions that work, that are adequate, necessary and efficient. The way to do that successfully, especially today, is to look at things critically. Keep your eyes and ears wide open, learn from your peers but! whatever you do, be critical — not only towards the work of others but towards what you yourself do (design).
Design practice #2 — use a grid system
Grids are an excellent tool when it comes to designing because they give us a sense of organization and structure. I’m sure you remember when you were taught in literature class that you should always draft a plan for your essays. This way the chance to get distracted and start talking about something off-topic is much smaller. It is the same in design. When we use a grid, we align all the elements in our design so that they don’t look as if we’ve rushed through the job and placed everything at random places. You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it (and probably we’ve done it ourselves at some point!). We can spot a certain misalignment but it is still hard for the naked eye to measure the exact distance between two design elements. People with a long career behind their backs are much more perceptive to alignment, the experience has “automated” this process for them but even professionals use grids.
Design practice #3 — negative space is just as important as your content
One of the strongest assets in a design composition is negative space. Imagine that you are attending a concert at a big arena which can house 1000 people. If you try to find a specific person amongst the crowd, it will be nearly impossible. Why? Because our eyes cannot locate something if there is too much distraction or visual noise around it. The same happens when you clutter your design with much more elements than the canvas (working space) can actually take. You will confuse your audience and they will not know where to look. Give your design space to breathe. Simple (minimalistic) design is never outdated because it is easy to understand.
Negative space does not only enable us to express ourselves more efficiently, it can also be used creatively to forge in dynamics in the composition and draw attention to a specific element. It is fascinating. It makes the audience think. And if something makes us think and requires effort in order to figure it out, we don’t forget it. Negative space does not necessarily have to be white. It can be yellow, grey, purple etc. It is just a space with no graphic elements on it, where our eyes go to “get some rest”.
Design practice #4 — use typography wisely
Type is probably the most important element of the designs we create. Type is the message itself. We need to be particularly careful when choosing the type we’re going to work with, as it should be in line with what we are trying to communicate. If we are designing a poster for raising awareness on child labour for example, and we use a decorative typeface, we will fail to complete the task successfully because decorative type communicates playfulness and humor, not gravity and importance. In contrast, if we are designing a wedding invitation and we use a bold aggressive typeface, our work will seem amateur and totally out of place because weddings are joyful events and the message they communicate should also be joyful, not solemn.
Another very important aspect we need to take into consideration when working with type, is how to combine typefaces. First of all, limit yourself to using maximum two different typefaces in one piece of design. Otherwise, your work will look sloppy and unprofessional. Second, choose typefaces that contrast each other in an obvious way. If you use two different typefaces which look similar, this may be misunderstood as if you used a wrong typeface by mistake. Details are not just details. They are what makes our work unique.
Design practice #5 — use colour with intention
Colour is another great element of (graphic) design which can go a long way if used appropriately. Different colours evoke certain emotions. Blue, for example means trust, reliability and authority, green is the colour of health, nature, fertility, orange communicates creativity whereas red is a symbol of passion, energy and speed. Opacity and saturation are other qualities that colour has. We tend to associate particular tints of colour with taste and smell values. Light pink for example, is perceived as something sweet like a bubble-gum. Dark brown is not appealing at all in the food industry but works well for cosmetics. Good understanding of those qualities gives our work a finished and professional look and helps us create meaningful designs.
Some colour tips:
- Avoid using raw saturated colours as they often come across as childish. They do not exist in nature so they look artificial. Use natural colours instead.
- Combine colours consciously. Don’t mix pastel with bright ones because the contrast they create is distasteful. Use the principles of colour theory when not sure what colour combinations work well.
- Be careful when placing text on a colourful background and when applying colour to typography in general— you need to allow for enough contrast so that the text can be easy to read.
- Colour is a lot like type. It’s a good rule of thumb to create hierarchy in colour as in typography — this way you will not risk damaging the eyes of your viewers.
- Be consistent (this applies to design in general too!). Use the exact same shades and tints throughout your design.
- Colour in brand design should not be a coincidence.
Design practice #6 — design is not decoration
Every element in your design should have a clear purpose. If you cannot explain and justify why something is a part of your composition, better remove it. Design is not decoration. The elements you use need to tell a coherent story, complement each other and function as a unity — nothing should be there just to make other things ”look beautiful”. If you add something and you don’t know why, take it away. Your message doesn’t become more comprehensible if you try to say it, using elements that don’t serve an explicit purpose.
Design practice #7 — contrast commands attention
There are so many ways we can use contrast in order to make our designs interesting and distinctive. Contrast can be applied to shapes, photography, colour, typography. If you want to establish a connection with the viewer and capture their attention, contrast is a definitive approach to accomplishing that. Contrasting elements are vivid and make our designs stand out. There are a number of ways to create contrast. We can use proximity between elements, play around with scale, colours and forms. Another way is to explore typographic contrast — experiment with the weight and the size of the type but be careful — when it comes to type, legibility is our first priority.
Design practice #8 — use tension and movement to give your composition life
The art of design and the art of photography are quite similar. You’ve probably seen those so-called stock images which you forget the minute after you turn your eyes away from them. They are bland, mundane and lifeless. You’ve also seen images that are dynamic, powerful and full of life. What differentiates the one from the other? Something that we like to call creativity (although I think we’ve ruined the meaning of this word) — depicting something in an unusual way.
It’s the same with design. As I mentioned earlier, design is not about discovering the hot water and whatever you create, most likely won’t be 100% novel. But it does not necessarily have to be. Experiment with tension and movement in your designs and I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with some quite original solutions. Tilt your elements, crop them, scale them, repeat them, you’ll be surprised with the results.
Design practice #9 — give your audience an obvious target
Regardless of the number and type of elements in your design, the viewer should be given a focal point (or target). Whatever the focal point is, they should not work hard in order to figure out where you’d like them to look first. You cannot hook the audience if you provide them with 6 different targets, you will only confuse them and they won’t understand what you’re trying to say. Usually, using visual hierarchy is a good way to create a clear portal — arrange and structure the elements of your design in such a way that they don’t fight for the viewer’s attention all at the same time but rather guide the audience through what is primary and what is of secondary importance.
Design practice #10 — give yourself distance from your work
Why do we get our work assessed by teachers at school and professors at the university? Because it’s harder for us to assess our own work and stay objective in the meantime. We need someone to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes and give us constructive critique. Revision is just as important as the design process itself. When we’ve spent so much time on creating something, we tend to attach ourselves to it too much, it’s valuable for us because we’ve dedicated a lot of effort to finalizing it and we become biased.
We sometimes tend to overdo it so we need to stop and give ourselves distance. An objective expert can provide us with some quite useful feedback. Give yourself time and revise your work or have it reviewed by a fellow designer. There are times when something we have designed on a Sunday evening looks terrible on Monday morning. Occasionally, we lose focus and we need either time or someone else to put us back on track.
These are the 10 best principles of design which Dave Underwood identified as crucial when studying the fundamentals of (graphic) design. Adopt them, experiment with them and eventually break them if you are confident enough to do this. Like anything else, it takes time, experience and hard work to master design. Talent is there only to speed up the process and make it easier. Remember, your designs are not precious. Your ability to create them is.