design principles such as color choice

Basic Graphic Design Principles Everyone Should Know

Think you know great design? It’s one of those “I know it when I see it” experiences. You might notice a package on a store shelf or a billboard or a web page that just looks right. More often, however, you notice when it looks bad. But do you know what underlying design principles make it good or bad? Could you explain how to improve it?


Why You Should Learn a Thing or Two About Design

In our DIY world, you can easily create your own T-shirts or build your own web page. However, having the tools doesn’t make you an instant graphic designer. And some people have more natural artistic talent than others. If design “clicks” for you, great! If not, and you have to design something for work, school, or a community group, you may dread it. Either way, anyone can benefit from learning a few basic design principles.

Even if you’re saying, “forget it; I’ll just hire a designer,” you should still know a few things. You need to be able to communicate with the designer and understand the possibilities or limitations of what he/she can do within your budget.

Design know-how can even help you write better emails and take better photos! Get a grasp on these basic design principles.


The Importance of Color

Color carries a range of psychological implications. You can guess many of them, but others might surprise you. For example, purple is associated not only with royalty but also with introversion. Context matters, too. Red can convey love or violence depending on how you use it. People’s reaction to colors can change from moment to moment according to life experiences, as this article explains.

When it comes to branding, pay careful attention to color. If you design something for a company or organization, follow branding guidelines carefully. Remember not all shades can be accurately reproduced in all media. Whether you design for the screen or a printed piece affects your options.

Also consider color when planning text. Combine text and background colors to be read easily. No one wants to read yellow on black, and a colorblind person can’t read red on green (or vice versa).


How to Work with Images

Many people new to design get confused about the legality of using images from the web. Remember that most images are subject to copyright. And while you may be legally allowed to use them,  you may need to pay a fee and/or credit the creator. If you work with images in your design, take some time to learn what and what not to do.

Another area that trips up some users is image resolution. When an image is described as “low-resolution” it is generally 72dpi. An image of this quality is appropriate only for digital use. If you need to print an image, make sure it is “high-resolution,” or “hi-res,” which is generally at least 300dpi. For large format printing, you may need an even higher resolution. If you are collaborating with a professional designer or printer, clarify their needs.


Plan Your Layout

You probably know when something looks too cluttered. However, many people are tempted to include every possible detail in a design, cramming the space. Say only what you need to say. If you’re designing for the web, remember you can always link to further information if you need to elaborate on certain points.

Choose one object as your focal point. Perhaps it’s the title of your event, or an image that perfectly captures the mood. Follow the rule of thirds for how to place it. Divide the space into thirds horizontally and vertically. Then place your most important object or text at one of the intersections.

Keep your layout balanced. It doesn’t have to be symmetrical, but ensure you have equal weight — roughly the same amount of “stuff” — from side to side and top to bottom.

Text can be the hardest part of layout. Avoid using too much text that is uniform in size and emphasis. That being said, don’t go too far the other way. Break text into smaller chunks with appropriate headlines. You might opt for lists instead of complete sentences. An experienced copywriter can help you maximize your message in fewer words.


The Right Font for the Job

Nothing is harder to read than a mix of numerous fonts in varying sizes, colors, and effects. Tread lightly. Stick with one or two complementary, easy-to-read fonts. As a general rule, serif fonts are easier to read in print, while sans serif fonts are easier to read on a screen. Learn more with this fun infographic. Fonts can also convey different degrees of formality and style. So keep your brand in mind, as well as your target audience.

When it comes to fonts, size matters. Think about your audience. We might not like to hear it, but middle aged and older folks need bigger print. Keep it small enough to leave some negative space (more below) but large enough to read easily.


Notice Negative Space

Your design comprises not only what you include but what you leave out. Note how much negative space remains. Some people refer to it as “white space.” They generally agree they want more, but not how to get it. Limit yourself to that one focal object. You can use more than one image but use them sparsely and with balance. Don’t try to cram in five photos just because you like them. Also, refer to the sections above for how to limit your text.

Once you find some white space, notice what shape it takes. Some logo designers use negative space very cleverly to actually create other objects. This infographic includes two examples. You don’t have to get that fancy. But you can do simple things like allowing the edge of a text block to roughly follow the shape of an adjacent object.


Your design work will improve with practice. Start to notice designs that you like and study what makes them successful. Build your design vocabulary and you’ll become more skilled at it, whatever your walk of life.


IMAGE: Vixrealitum / CC0 Public Domain

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