A person’s impression of what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ design generally is picked up through education and experience. Accumulated from the multitude of designers and critics who came before them, most criteria inevitably boils down to personal preference.
All rules are meant to be broken, but rules should never be completely ignored. This set is not intended to be a definitive checklist to making good design. It should, however, provide points to be considered in every creative project you take on. From Timothy Samara’s Design Elements: A Graphic Style Manual, here are 20 rules of graphic design (part 1).
1. Have A Concept
Every, every, every design you ever make must have a meaning behind it. Plain and Simple. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your art is or how creative your graphics look. If your design doesn’t contain a story, an idea or a message you are trying to convey, it isn’t graphic design. It’s just pretty pictures on a page. Tell us something with your work.
2. Communicate, Don’t Decorate
Form carries meaning. No matter how simple or abstract that form may be, form that doesn’t match up communicates conflicting messages to your audience. Experiment with different shapes, details, colors and effects, and explore how they all can work together to support your message. Without keeping your message in mind, your work runs the risk of simply becoming a collage of graphics no longer qualifying as communicative design. Everything the viewer sees should be there for a reason.
3. Speak With One Visual Voice
Make sure every part of your design is talk to one another in the same language. “Does everything relate harmoniously to everything else?” This is the question you must ask yourself when critiquing your own work. All the elements of good design reinforce, restate and reference each other. This applies to shape, weight and placement, both visually as well as conceptually. If even one element is out of place it can disconnect from the others weakening your entire message.
4. Use Two Typefaces Maximum (OK, Maybe Three)
Now that you’ve clearly defined an objective (message) for your project, it’s time to take a look at your text. Text serves a major communicative role in the work you create. You will usually have only two or three objectives you are trying to achieve with each project. Your typefaces serve those objectives. A single type family with various weights and italics is usually enough all in itself, but adding a second typeface can be a nice complimentary touch. Using too many typefaces is distracting and confuses the viewer, so show a lot of restraint in this department.
5. Treat Type As An Image
In it’s most basic form, type is visual material made up of connected lines, dots, shapes and textures. They all need to relate compositionally to the design, no matter how different they seemingly may be. Move away from looking at the headline, pictures and body copy as three separate entities. There are all connected parts of one cohesive image.
6. Keep Type Friendly
It should almost go without saying that illegible type serves your work zero purpose. You may be tempted to grab the fancies, frilliest, most exoctic or creative type you can find, but if it distracts the reader from the message you are trying to communicate it doesn’t work. Type can be expressive, creative and riddled with subliminal meaning, but first and foremost it must transmit the essential information.
7. Show One Thing First
The viewer should be drawn into the most important part of the design first. Make it stand out with a big shape, a startling image, a dramatic type treatment or a daring color–it doesn’t really matter, just hook ‘em in. Once your audience is captured, steadily decrease the action of each less important item guiding the viewer in the logical progression you want them to follow. This establishes ‘hierarchy’ in your image. Remember, you are designing to (a) grab their attention (b) get them the information they need and (c) help them remember it afterward. If there’s no clear focus of what to start with, you’ve already lost the battle.
8. Pick Colors On Purpose
Colors should never be picked simply at random. Every color carries a particular emotional and psychological meaning. Red can mean passion or love, where as green speaks more to nature and growth. Understand what your colors do when you combine them and what they will mean to your audience. The mood of your audience can be successfully controlled simply by what colors you choose to work with.
9. Do More With Less
The more you cram into a confined space, the harder it will be for your viewer to see what they are supposed to be seeing. Anybody can throw a bunch of stuff together and call it ‘complex’ art, but there’s a big difference between something that’s ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’. Remove anything that does not directly contribute to the message you are trying to convey. Make yourself stand out with something sleek, clear and noticeable.
10. Negative Space Is Magical
Negative space (also called white space) can sometimes be more impactful than the actual stuff you put in it. Space in general calls attention to the other content and separates items that are unrelated. Negative space is just as much a shape in terms of composition as positive shapes, and used effectively it can be a powerful element of your design. If negate space goes unconsidered it can feel dead and disconnected, and a lack of negative space overwhelms and confuses the audience.
Check out Part 2 of 20 Rules of Graphic Design!