Good Design is CRAP
by Ryan Wilmot
I still remember sitting in my Graphic Design 1 class my freshman year of college and hearing the secret of design for the first time. I was dumbstruck. It wasn’t what I expected. No profound truth or inspiring mantra to rally behind, but a single word: “CRAP.”
After the initial shock wore off, our professor explained that this one word was really a compass containing the four essential principles of design: contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity. If we built our creative process on these four pillars, every design project would be set up for success. These principles play off of and feed into each other. They are tools for your tool belt to be used, practiced and refined until they work seamlessly together and become second nature.
So what do these principles mean when it comes to design? How can they guide our creative process? I’m glad you asked.
Black and white, geometric and organic, rough and soft, bold and subdued—design is enhanced by contrast. It grabs your attention and piques your interest. It tells a story through comparison. Whether through color, ideas, textures, or shapes, contrast is a powerful tool. If you were trying to promote a new super soft pillow, it would be one thing to create advertisements that had angels resting on your pillow, and another to portray your competitor’s pillow to a rock and yours as a cloud. Seeing an ad with someone using a rock for a pillow makes you wince and long for the soft comfort of a good pillow. Or, think about any road sign you pass on the highway. The reason you are able to read it going 65 mph is because the text and the background are contrasting colors. A stop sign grabs your attention because the background is red and the type is white. If the background were blue and the text were green you might just breeze through that intersection. Contrast is a powerful tool in design, both to tell a story and to capture the viewer’s attention.
Pattern, organization, styling, texture—it’s the little things that make all the difference. When you opened your closet this morning to get dressed, you were probably greeted with an array of stripes, plaids, herringbones, spots, and checks. What you didn’t realize, perhaps, is that you were looking at repetition on hangers. In the world of design, the principle of repetition is used all the time and in varying ways. If you crack the cover of a book and start reading, you will quickly recognize repeated text styles. The chapter headings all look the same, all of the dialogue is italicized, and all of the page numbers are found in the same place. This is a form of repetition that gives order and structure to design. To use the clothing example, repetition can also become a design element. It gives personality, texture, and rhythm to a piece, whether it’s a piece of clothing or an annual report. Repetition is a small thing that can make a big diference.
Justification, grid, The Golden Mean, flow—alignment provides the scaffolding of your design. Have you ever wondered why newspapers have columns? Or why we write on college-ruled paper in grade school? These things are forms of alignment–organizing content and creating a flow for the information. Whenever I sit down to start a design project, the first thing I do after I open a new document is to hit “Command+R” and bring out my rulers on the screen. That way whenever I add text or a design element to the document I can bring out a guide and make sure everything lines up. Alignment also can create beauty. You may have heard of The Golden Mean—the principal that beauty is found when you follow a 2/3 to 1/3 ratio rule. For example, when you’re watching a movie and the camera is focused on a single person, their face is usually occupying 1/3 of the screen, while the background is occupying the other 2/3. If you aren’t looking for it, you will never notice it, but once you know the secret you will see it everywhere. All good design follows a grid of some kind, creating both organization and beauty.
Kerning, placement, negative space, tension—proximity tells the viewer what’s most important and reinforces an ad’s message. You’ve probably received a print piece in the mail that was jam-packed with content to the extent that you just threw it away because you either didn’t want to read everything on the piece or you didn’t know where to focus your attention. Contrast that with a piece you might receive that has a large headline with a product shot directly beneath it. Now your eyes know what to focus on—they know that the headline is associated with the product, and because there isn’t a lot of other text or images on the page the message is clearly sent. For another example, think about when you’re walking down the street and you see two people walking hand in hand. You know they are together because of how close they are to each other. The same principal applies to design. The closer things are to one another—whether they are design elements, text and photo, or letters in a word—the more intentional their relation appears. Using supporting principles like white space makes it even clearer that these things go together, and your message will be better conveyed as a result.
Whether you are designing packaging, print materials, business cards, or mobile apps, these four principles of design help your work be noticed, make your design more beautiful, and more effectively convey your message. Try them, and see for yourself.