Basic Principles of Design

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

Basic principles of Graphic Design

We live in a graphic savvy culture. Design infuses everything from the gadgets we use to communicate and play, to the clothes we wear, to the bottle our shampoo comes in. Every brochure we pick up, every ad in a magazine, every commercial on TV is designed. It is said that the average person now is exposed to more than 3,000 images a day. We are almost force-fed images all day, every day.

But just because we eat every day doesn’t mean we know how to cook.

Just because we eat every day doesn't mean we know how to cook.

Adobe Creative Cloud apps (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, etc.) have been downloaded an astounding 237 million times (as of 2018). In addition, there is other graphics-capable software in use today.

Many users have no design training.

Even those with formal training don’t necessarily know what they’re doing. Why? Beacuse many schools now focus curriculum more on software and less on design principles. People who know only the programs, not design, are sometimes hired to teach new generations of graphic designers. The result? Graphic design graduates with a lack of good grounding in their field.

Because of this, bad design abounds.

In opposition to the tide of design illiteracy, let’s agree on four basic principles.

Principle #1: Simplicity is the Soul of Good Design
Beginning designers often get to a stage in a project where they sense that the design is not working and ask themselves, “What else does this need?”

More often they should be asking, “What do I need to delete?” This is especially true with corporate identity design. The best identities are spare and are the more memorable and effective for it.

Principle #2: Computers Don’t Design for You
Even if we could plug computers directly into our brains, it would still be necessary to know what our end product should look like before we could design it.

At the beginning of my career I usually made my master logos with pen and ink. Now, I always design identities with a vector computer program. It is the tool of choice. These programs offer capabilities that cannot be duplicated by hand, but they stiil need our know-how to work. Computers don’t design on their own, in the esthetic sense. Generally speaking, computers don’t do what we want them to do. They do what we tell them to do. It’s up to us to know which shapes, sizes, relationships and colors will work. I call this Visual Knowledge. If we don’t have that Visual Knowledge, the computer can’t supply it. Computers supply mathematically based processes, not knowledge.

A computer won’t tell you if your shapes are esthetically mismatched. A computer can tell you what size your elements are, but it doesn’t know if those sizes are appropriate together. That’s your job.

In the end, if you can’t draw, you can’t draw on the computer. If you can’t design, you can’t design on the computer.

Early in my teaching career, I taught a course called Graphic Techniques. It covered many difficult esthetic and manual skills that graphic designers used to need. One of my students was on the brink of failing. He begged me to let him have the benefit of the doubt. “I’m a whiz on the computer,” he said. “You’ll see.” He barely passed that course, and when we got to the computer-based design, his work was horrible. His designs were all techno-crap. The lesson: computers don’t supply esthetics.

Principle #3: Beware BYC Design
When I began graphic design, we didn’t use computers. If we wanted a gradient in a design, there were two ways to get it.

• We hired an airbrush artist to paint the gradient, then had it photographed, photo-separated and spliced into plate negatives by a photoengraver.

• We could have the photoengravers (if they knew how) make the gradients directly. Either way, some of the control was relinquished to the airbrush artists and photoengravers.

In both cases gradients were so expensive, they were seldom worth squandering the design budget on. Nowadays there are very few airbrush artists (good thing, too; with all the heavy-metal pigments in the air, this was a hazardous profession). Today most airbrushing is done in Photoshop. Also, the whole profession of photoengraving has almost vanished. Our designs go from the computer directly to plates without anyone having to make color separations (which used to be expensive in their own right) or stripping together and registering the separate negatives from which to burn the printing plates.

Some of those processes that used to be so expensive are easy to do now; the only thing they cost today’s designers is the trouble of clicking a certain button. That has created an epidemic of BYC Design.

What does it mean? “Because You Can.” That is an extremely shallow reason for doing something. Sadly, when it’s the designer’s only reason, the design usually suffers.

Principle #4: Beware JTBD Design
Only slightly better than BYC design is JTBD Design, “Just to Be Different.”

(Given the moral of this story, this kitschy type treatment is ironically appropriate.)

Not that novelty is a bad thing. It’s great if it doesn’t cause other problems like bad legibility, poor reproduction, or greater costs for the client (remember, not acting in the client’s best interest is inherently unprofessional). Measured against the possible downsides, novelty alone can be a poor bargain.

Hang on.

We’ll get to some design principles you can really buy into.

Adapted from Logo Design Theory: How Branding Design Really Works

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