Five Steps to

Better Design

Story, by Debra Devine

The best design solutions are achieved when all elements work together as a whole. Bad design often originates from trying to force things together that have no business being joined in the first place. Good design is not limited to one discipline these tips can be applied to any project from print design to interior design.

Step 1: Know the elements and principles of art.
The biggest obstacle you will face will be convincing a client that, by making everything big and bold, nothing will stand out. It will only look unprofessional. If you understand the elements and principles that make things look better you will know why something works while other things don’t.

The elements of art describe the appearance of objects.

Line: a path moving through space which can be straight, curved or implied. Lines have a start and end point and are defined by width, length and direction.

Shape: the use of two-dimensional shape either geometric or organic which is defined by other elements of art.

Color: defined by the way light strikes an object. Color or hue is what we label colors such as red, green andblue.

Value: lightness or darkness of a color. Value is important when hightlighting and shading an object.

Form: the volume an object has either actual three-dimensional space as in sculpture or the appearance of volume achieved by perspective and shading techniques used when working with a two-dimensional design.

Texture: the feel or implied feel of an object. A sculpture may feel smooth, rough etc. With a two-dimensional piece the appearance of texture is achieved by perspective and shading techniques.

Space: the organization of parts that make up a design. Space includes the foreground, middle ground and background.

The principles of art describe how the objects react in relation to their environment.

Balance: the arrangement of objects in their space. The three ways to balance a page are symmetrical, asymmetrical and radial.

Contrast: when colors are used to vibrate against each other to create a stark image. Contrast is highest when using complimentary colors (red & green, blue & orange and yellow & purple) or black & white.

Emphasis: acheived by using elements like color or shape to draw attention to one area of the design.

Movement: the use of elements to make a design move around it's space. In a two dimensional space the use of color, value and space give the appearance of movement in a design.

Pattern: the repetition of elements repeated to create a design.

Rhythm: uses the regular repetition of elements to bring a sense of cohesive movement around a design.

Proportion: the relationship between size and proportion of elements in a design.

Variety: using different sizes, shapes and other elements to add interest to a design.

Unity/Harmony: when the priciples and elements of art work together to complete a coherent visual message.

Step 2: Do not start a design project until all the elements are in hand.
I often see designers trying to design before the artwork is selected. They will leave a horizontal space and then, later in the process, will find that the image for the design is a vertical photo. With every design, you have three choices to make:

  • Create the design before all the elements are ready and crop page elements to fill in the blanks.
    Outcome: You will save time by not redesigning the page, but the result is often a bad design.
    Reason: A nice vertical image may look horrible as a square.
  • Create the design before all the elements are ready and redesign the project later.
    Outcome: The design is somewhat pleasing, if you are lucky.
    Cost: You had to waste time redesigning the project.
  • Wait until all text, photos and other elements are ready for your design.
    Outcome: The project is designed as a whole, and the page elements complement each other.
    The drawback to waiting is that if your materials are chosen too late in the process you will miss your deadline. To avoid this fate, set a deadline for when you must come up with a Plan B in case the material you are hoping to have does not arrive on time.

Step 3: Use silhouetted photos to add interest to your design.
Wrapping text around an object has a great visual effect in a design layout. The organic space adds a more relaxed, natural feel. Just be sure to leave enough space around the image so it can breathe. Unless you have a very good reason to do so, do not box a photo. It will make the page look cold and sterile.

Step 4: Seek advice.
If you are working on a design that is taking a long time to put together, stop and ask a co-worker, a friend or someone else for feedback, even by e-mail. Even if you are on a tight deadline, take the time to reevaluate early to save time and effort in the end.

One of my co-workers has started her own business on the side as a party planner. Every once in a while I’ll receive e-mails from her containing designs for her next project, asking if her designs work or how they can be improved. The e-mails are sent to a handful of designers and non-designers. She then collects the feedback she receives, sorts through the ideas and tweaks her design. A few days later another e-mail will arrive with a well-designed revision. Sometimes she gets more advice and will resend the project a few times during the process. If she had struggled on her own she may have come to the same conclusions, but it’s likely she saved a lot of time by sharing her design and asking for feedback.

Step 5: Keep learning.
Technology changes constantly. If you don’t follow trends, software updates and even social media, you will lose ground on new information. New devices and procedures often will help you design better and faster than before.

Clients often insist on bad designs. Our duty as designers is to sell our clients on good design, even if we must reach a compromise with our clients. These steps will help your designs look better and get your projects assembled more quickly.