Graphic design, for those who are not designers, often seems a difficult task to master. Aren’t there thousands of rules that apply to colors, typefaces, layouts, user experience, and so forth? Well, yes, technically. But the reality is, designing successful documents can be stripped down to just a few basic principles. If you can master the basics, you’ll be a good visual communicator even if you aren’t a professional graphic designer.
I was recently asked what I look for when I evaluate a design and then was asked to develop a rubric for doing so. As I mulled it over, I determined that to evaluate a good design, you could essentially break down document design theory into 10 fundamental areas. Because mnemonic devices are useful for remembering things, I opted to frame those document design principles in a handy acronym: Color-CRAYON-TIP. Color is its own category, and then the acronym establishes these other 9 categories: Contrast, Repetition, Arrangement, “Why,” Organization, Negative-Space, Typography, Iconography, and Photography. Under each of the 10 categories, I labeled five critical rules that good design follows. The infographic below demonstrates how this Color-CRAYON-TIP model works.
The one category that may seem strange is the “Why” category. Fundamental to creating a good design is knowing just how people respond to visual cues. “Why” represents the idea that designers know why people react the way they do and they infuse (sometimes simple, sometimes complex) communicative devices like metaphors and propositions to enhance comprehensibility and engagement.
Are there more principles and theories to consider when creating and evaluating a good design? Most certainly. But if you can master these 50 basic concepts, your document design and visual communication skills will still be pretty stellar. If the graphic is too large to view on your screen, I included descriptions of each category in text below.
1. The Color Wheel
Use the color wheel to create matching color schemes that are monochromatic, analogous, complementary, split complementary, triadic, and/or tetradic.
2. Four or Fewer
In most cases, create your design using a color scheme of four or fewer colors.
Use dark, desaturated colors to express serious and professional. Use bright, desaturated colors to express friendly and professional. Use fully saturated colors to grab attention or to appeal to children.
4. Color Psychology
Know how people and cultures respond to colors; use color to show caution, danger, happy, jealous, scary, acceptable, and other related emotions and experiences.
5. White is Nice
Treat white as a color. Use white to communicate clarity, sophistication, cleanliness, professional, and even, in some cases, expensive.
Use contrasting colors for clarity and visual interest. If it’s a different color, it should be obviously different.
Make the most important thing on the document the biggest and boldest. Use clearly different sizes for fonts and icons. If they’re meant to be different sizes, they should be significantly different.
Use different font families when using more than one font. Contrast serif body text, for example, with a sans serif or script heading. If they’re different typefaces, they should be very different.
Highlight no more than 10% of objects on a document. Make headings and important text and objects stand out by using boldface, color, italics, underlining, reverse type, and so forth. Only use two or three techniques at once and don’t use ALL CAPS to highlight.
When overlaying text on top of an image or watermark, contrast the background with the text significantly to avoid conflicts or visual noise.
1. Repeat Within
Repeat all visual elements within a single document. Different typefaces, colors, sizes, shapes, layouts and so forth should be limited in number and repeated throughout.
2. Repeat Across
Repeat all visual elements across multiple documents to create continuity, clarity, and branding between documents.
3. Visual Cues
Consider designing visual cues—shapes, logos, icons—that repeat from page to page (or slide to slide) to make a document seem uniform and organized.
Keep the personality and/or professionalism of the document consistent by repeating styles in diction, tone, layout, and other content.
5. Style Guide
Develop and use style guides in order to repeat features of a brand identity, including color, layout, typography, paper weight, logo use, and so forth.
Give purpose and show relationships to every object on a page. Avoid arbitrary placement or “floating” objects that don’t seem visually connected to anything else.
Everything on a page should be aligned to something else. Avoid center-alignment for most layouts and text.
Put related items close in proximity and unrelated items apart from each other. Avoid randomizing placements of objects and text on a page.
Arrange objects to show clear stability (or lack thereof). Objects that are flat and horizontal appear stable and calm. Vertical arrangement can appear more active. Tilted objects can appear in motion.
Position objects strategically. Space implies time. Tilted objects imply instability. Objects in upper-half imply free and happy. Know the position’s purpose.
Match or intentionally interrupt your audience’s expectation(s). Use branding, document genres, tone, colors, and so forth that align with what your audience expects or hopes to see.
2. Credible Complexity
Increase complexity of a design or content to heighten credibility of data. Simplify a document to make it seem more elegant or sophisticated. Make a document busy to make products or services appear inexpensive.
Apply diverse visual figures of speech—such as metaphor, pun, hyperbole, metonymy, and so forth—to increase comprehensibility, creative interest, and meaningful depth of your communication’s purpose.
4. Propositional Density
Simplify visual design elements while increasing communicative propositions (or ideas to be communicated). Divide the number of propositions by the number of visual elements and seek for a number greater than 1.
5. Rhetorical Four
Make your document reach its audience through ethos (credibility), pathos (emotion), logos (logic), and kairos (timing).
1. Five Hat Racks (LATCH)
Know the most effective way(s) to organize your information (there are only five): by location/space, by alphabet, by time/chronology, by category, or by hierarchy.
Know the hierarchy of importance of your information. Give visual cues to guide your audience through the most important information to the least important information.
Organize document so that a person can scan information quickly and in sections. Recognize that people rarely read entire documents—they scan and satisfice.
4. Rule of Thirds
To increase visual interest, divide your document into nine equal segments of space (in thirds both horizontally and vertically) and place most important or interesting details on the intersections where invisible lines divide the segments.
To increase aesthetic interest and reduce visual noise, move the edges of some objects and images off the edges of the page.
1. 1 + 1=3
Pay attention to the shapes you create between two objects. Recognize that every time you design two objects, a third shape is being designed between the two.
Increase interest in some logo designs by making them multi-stable—where negative space appears to become the figure or central visual piece, then recedes to the background like in the face-vase image above.
3. Empty Noise
Observe all empty space and identify if it is purposeful and effective. If the white or empty space doesn’t appear designed or intentional, it will create unintentional visual noise and reduce credibility.
Keep visual designs stable by making clear distinctions between figures and backgrounds. Objects in lower regions or that overlay other objects appear in front and are perceived as more important.
Be intentional about your margins. Avoid thin or awkward margins between objects and text and the edges of pages that inadvertently create shapes and paths.
1. Two Fonts
Most documents should use two different fonts (rarely one or three or more), typically from two different font families. Use one font for headings and titles and the other for body text.
2. Font Families
Know your font families and use them appropriately. Most fonts can be labeled as one of the following: serif, sans-serif, script, decorative, or grunge.
Apply the appropriate font to the personality of your document. Recognize that subtle nuances in typefaces make big differences in the personality of your document. Avoid default and overused fonts.
Be sure your font is legible for the specific word(s) you are displaying. Some typefaces work well for particular words but not for others. If a word is real common, you can use less legible fonts. For names, use only very legible fonts.
Increase readability by increasing line spacing, using legible fonts, shortening line length, and using heavy enough weight to contrast background.
1. The Four Types
Use icons to make reading quicker, more recognizable, engaging, and universal. Know the four icon types (similar, example, symbolic, and arbitrary) and apply the appropriate one to your communication purpose.
2. Brand Recognition
Use icons and shapes to enhance immediate recognition. While logos are useful to brands, icons and shapes can also be useful for non-brand-centric designs like wayfinding signs, handouts, and poster campaigns.
Use mnemonic devices in icons to make them more clearly linked to a brand name or idea (and thus easier to remember).
4. Lines and Paths
Use lines, arrows, and other pathway-creating visual tools to guide a viewer’s eyes and mind in specific, important, and intentional directions. Avoid lines and arrows where importance is already obvious.
Apply pictorial versions of data in charts and graphs to make information more readable and appealing to large audiences.
1. Picture Superiority
For most designs, use as many pictures and icons as possible as long as the important information can be made clear and represented ethically. Audiences will remember communications with images up to 60% more than ones without images.
Use the appropriate resolution for the specific medium (72dpi for most digital and 300dpi for most print). Do not use images that are pixilated or distorted in any way; your document will lose immediate credibility.
3. Face-ism Ratio
When using pictures of people, increase the size of the face (and remove bodily features) to communicate personality and intellect. To communicate health, vitality, and sensuality, decrease the size of the face and include more body.
Make sure all faces look toward the inside or spine of the document. Avoid having images of people looking in the direction that goes off the page.
5. Style Match
When using multiple photos in the same document, make sure that their photographic styles, including lighting, position, and colors are consistent.
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