Sunday, October 09, 2011

A Basic Principle of Design

Photo credit: grietgriet from

An in-house graphic designer friend of mine had a tough in-house client. He had completed a beautiful brochure design under rush conditions, only to have the client demand that he make adjustments to some bullet points. The client wanted a different leading (space between lines of text) for each bullet point. The client felt that bullet points needed more leading than other text. This was not only introduced an inconsistency, it impacted the overall tone of the brochure. It was weaker. But my friend had to do it, because the client got mad at him for trying to tell him why that wasn't a good idea, and contacted his immediate boss. (Ouch!) He wanted the change, and that was that. The final brochure was weaker, but it got done.

What happened here? What's the big deal about changing something here or there? Was the client right?

Design is not simply a matter of arranging different elements. Each part of a design must work together. A good designer understands this. No element — whether text, color, white space, shapes, or images —is independent of any other element. Every part impacts the whole.

There is a reason for this. A psychological theory called Gestalt, states that human beings perceive things in patterns. Think about it. When we see a picture in the newspaper, we first discern what the picture is, without even considering that it's a bunch of tiny, printed, dots close together. And when we see a bunch of cars and lines arranged a certain way, we assume it's a parking lot. We generally take items — sometimes unrelated items — and envision a pattern or make connections. In other words, we tend to group things together naturally. A good designer uses this when they design anything, because the purpose of design is to bring clarity and order to a message, and our tendency to group items can be used to present order and consistency.

This also presents a problem when making judgments about a design's effectiveness. It's very easy to examine a part or section without regard to the whole. This is so because the concentration required for a meticulous examination doesn't apply with an audience who simply glances at the work. For non-designers, who make decisions about design, this can be a stumbling block. They often aren't aware how the details affect the overall design's effectiveness. Yet, when they judge a design they will examine the details unnaturally. However, a good designer can guide non-designers in how to see a design without getting lost in the details.

One of the best ways designers do this is to establish the expectations ahead of time with a design brief. In a design brief the stated objectives for an effective design will act as the barometer for solutions. The non-designer will have the tools to determine, against the stated objectives, whether the design has accomplished its task, rather than making suggestions according to personal tastes. The designer will also have an objective way to steer the non-designer toward what to look for and why certain decisions were made. This will empower the non-designer to make some determinations that are graphically sound, rather than making vague statements of preference.

I've sometimes been guilty of rushing through this process. But I must admit, it came back to bite me more often than not.


  1. Anonymous8:16 AM

    This is a great post. Thanks. Would it be possible to have an example of a design brief?

  2. Thanks. I've written previously about creative briefs. Check this post out.

  3. Thanks Kerry, that's exactly what I was looking for. By the way this is a great blog. Very informative and inspirational.

  4. You are most welcome, Matt.

  5. Great article. Real feel for your designer friend and the bullet points. It sounds like somebody was just trying to prove a (bullet) point and say I AM PAYING! I WANT IT MY WAY! Cheers Kerry.

  6. Yeah, we still talk about it today. It was bizarre.

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