One resoundingly negative consequence of the amazíng advances in computing power over the last 25 or so years is the notion, still popular despite constant debunking, that all you need to be a designer today is to buy a computer (usually a Macintosh).
When over-caffeinated pundits were first promoting the term “desktop publishing” in the mid-1980s, many said the new technology would result in so many great new print publications (this was before the Internet boom) that it would put the First Amendment into overdrive.
What really happened, of course, is that entirely unqualified, untrained and untalented people got hold of a Mac, a LaserWriter and some software and proceeded to crank out a few metric tons of 300dpi landfill.
My, how judgmental, you may think. Oddly enough, for all the counterculture tendencies of some, artists in general are among the most judgmental and elitist folks around, and have no problem observing (and saying) that people are not “equal” when it comes to design talent.
A clever advertisement from that bygone “DTP” era promoted a graphic design firm with the tagline, “Using Picasso’s paintbrush doesn’t make you Picasso“. Since this is a principle and not a value judgment, it is as true now, and will be as true in 2050, as it was then. Fact is, there are elements of a good design that must be attended to and contended with, no matter the medium – print, broadcast, web, even mobile phone displays.
Think of the elements of design as the basic building blocks. These elements will be part of everything you design, from consumer products and furniture to magazine pages and billboards, whether you know that or not. (For now, we will restrict our discussion to the layouts that are common to print and web publishing.) It should go without saying, but very little does anymore, that understanding these basic elements will enable you to create more powerful pages for your packaging, ad, magazine or website.
At the most basic level, there are five elements in any design:
1. Lines and Linework
These terms do not refer to pen-and-ink or pencil sketches, but to borders, frames and rules. Horizontal or vertical, thick or thin, regular or irregular, they help define and delimit spaces around various elements on your pages. Good linework increases both the readability and “directionality” (see #5, below) of the design as a whole.
Any enclosed area, form or contour in your design is a shape. Shapes in most layouts are square or rectangular, but nothing says they must be, and circles are useful, too. You can also use images to create other, regular or irregular shapes.
Texture imparts a “surface” feeling, and is tactile in printed matter, so choosing the paper stock-matte, weave, coated – is a design decision, too. Textures on layouts meant for broadcast or the Internet are visual only, but still key.
Color is probably the element that most designers are at least acutely aware of, if not schooled in. However, color is not required in many designs, and some art educators suggest creating designs without any color first. The artist, in this view, should then add only as much color as needed to enhance or complete the design. Another school of thought holds that color should be one of the first elements determined. Experience and experimentation will help every artist develop a good color sense and strategy.
Effectively designed layouts, in magazines or on your computer screen, usually have a sense of motion. A good design will lead the reader’s eyes through the design deliberately, using color changes, shapes, linework and copy placement to direct viewers’ attention to what the designer wants them to see.
Balance and Interest
Other considerations enter in to the process of making good design choices, such as the feelings of space, balance, action and even excitement. The important thing for young, inexperienced designers to remember is that “less is more”. One can often identify the design work of a beginner by a lack of open (or “negative”) space, an overdose of motion or color contrast, the proliferation of different typefaces and conflicting directionality. Rather than pull every tool and trick out of the bag, the designer needs to remember the ultimate aim of the layout, which for pages in print or on the web is quite simple: Draw the reader in so you can deliver your message.
It seems much simpler after, say, three or four years in a fast-paced, high quality, well-managed design studio. One of the simpler ways of judging a page design is to ask, Does it say “read me” when you look at it? Frankly, some print and web pages look like the backside of a rental agreement, while others seem designed to confuse the readers or test their reactions to optical illusions.
The bottom line of good design is, quite simply, to attract readers’ attention, direct it in a particular way and, in concert with the copywriting, make a positive impression. It is, after all, “commercial art” at which most artists work. It becomes much easier for them to do as they learn to leave their egos out of it and simply do what is necessary, proper and effective. If they are unable to do so, perhaps they should go get one of Picasso’s paintbrushes and be a different kind of artist entirely.