Essential Principles of Design

I abhor “list journalism.” It’s lazy and uninspired, and it signifies a genuine lack of engagement on the part of the writer. So with that said, I am about to offer a very short list of what I think are essential principles of design but hopefully I’ve written enough to avoid the aforementioned category. In the weekday world I am a designer, video producer, and animator. I work with other media producers, content writers, researchers, and instructional designers—whose task is very different from mine. We all have very different backgrounds and have traveled varied roads to arrive at our present location, and we all work together.

But before we get to these magical principles, we have to answer a few questions first so that we can share a common foundation for this discussion.

What is Design?

[pullquote]We definitely suffer, as an industry, from a bit of an ivory tower complex…[/pullquote]Design, as I define it and as I learned in school, is the practice of critical thinking and problem solving. Design is the careful and considered creation of a solution after the examination of a problem and what constraints are present in a given scenario. It can be mathematic, artistic, and emotional; it can draw on history, speculation, and fiction; and it can teach, influence, and misinform. But as most people think of it, “design” is either graphic design or interior design. While the principles I want to share certainly apply to all forms of design, including decorating interior design, I’m going to talk about graphic design, which I will use as an umbrella term for all forms of visual design including print media, animation, motion graphics, title design, web, and UI/UX. I also think that these principles apply equally to most visual storytelling and so I am also speaking to video.

Who is a Designer?

Designers are artists. We solve problems by listening to our clients—which sometimes include ourselves—and devise creative solutions that accomplish specific goals, we communicate ideas to wide audiences, and we make information easily accessible. Designers are detail oriented observers who are able to identify the key factors in a scenario and adapt their skills to the unique demands of a project.

If you work in any one of the many facetted arms of the design industry or if you know someone who has, you have probably heard a story or response to a story that begins with or contains the dreaded phrase “my cousin/son/daughter/niece/nephew has Photoshop […].” This is a red flag that whoever is speaking does not understand what design is. While they may have a relation or friend who knows their way around the Adobe suite, the design professions existed long before Adobe’s revolutionary software and the “democratization of design.”

I’m not suggesting that one has to have gone to art school or graduated with a degree emblazoned with the word “design” to be a designer, but I will say that the industry has struggled in recent years with the devaluation of our trades and skills due to the prevalence of design software and an over-eagerness to label anything visual as “design.” We definitely suffer, as an industry, from a bit of an ivory tower complex but I don’t think it’s entirely unfounded—exactly what any biased party would say, right?

But understanding basic concepts and rules, and the history of design as an art form, is critical to good practice. You can’t break the rules until you know what the rules are.

Personality and Critique

Screen-Shot-2015-11-17-at-1.07.21-PMEach of us has our own personal style which influences and is influenced by our perceptions of the world around us, how we live our lives, our likes and dislikes, and our friends. There is incredible diversity in style and skill in the design industry and that is what makes it strong! My education, colleagues, and mentors have certainly shaped my understanding and experience of the design industry and practice. But an equally important influence has been working with, being witness to, and mentoring junior designers, students, and amateurs.

My first experience with this—as a junior designer—was eye opening, and my most recent—as the mentor—has been equally enlightening. Explaining gestalt, tension, and basic typography to someone who has never encountered these ideas in the way I am so used to is always a unique experience and it never fails to improve my own understanding these ideas as well. But it can also be frustrating.

I firmly believe that the primary objective of any good art school or art programme is to teach its students how to construct, deliver, receive, actualize, and effectively apply constructive critique of their work. Art is an inherently emotional and invested pursuit, and that applies as equally to the design community as it does to sculpture, painting, and poetry. It’s very difficult to put effort and passion into a project and then listen to someone who hasn’t been a part of the late nights and frustrating dead ends tell you it’s not working or that it has to be changed. The ability to be objective in order to create and deliver the best work to your clients is something every designer has had to learn. It is a long and painful process, and is often one that many new designers have yet to complete.

Good Design

So with that foundation illuminating what design is and who designers are, what is this errant list I’ve been setting up? Like I said earlier, I have not arrived at these ideas entirely independently, but they are coloured by my personal preferences and unique experiences.

Number One: Design is Everywhere

Design doesn’t just happen in a few, limited areas of life. Design is ever present and far reaching. From the chair in which you’re sitting to the screen you’re reading this blog on—even the letterforms that make up the font used to display the words—each non-naturally occurring element in the world around you is designed. Tools to build are designed, and weapons to destroy are designed. Marketing, way-finding, and entertainment communications are all designed. The spoon you used to stir your coffee this morning was designed. Even the strategies used to share information—how and when details are released—are designed, though this isn’t quite as “artistic” as the visual design I’m discussing it shares a lot of the same research and history.

Whenever the accursed phrase “doesn’t need to be designed” joins a conversation, usually from someone in marketing, the designer’s role should be to calmly—which is sometimes the hard part, trust me, I know—explain that shortcuts always come back to haunt you. Careful consideration of a project shouldn’t reinvent the wheel anew or pose a significant challenge to project progress or deadlines, but purpose and delivery are important parts of every design process and should be considered whenever reusing a design or pushing something to the public.

The shelf life or longevity of a product is also a fundamental detail to consider. If something has to go live today and that is the basis of justification for accepting a poor design, it’s critical that the designer(s) ask how long the project will live “in the wild.” And it’s important not to limit the scope of the answer to how long a product is being promoted or the next development cycle, in the modern media landscape it’s not uncommon to find bad or outdated designs haunting brands long after their successors have replaced them.

Number Two: Clear Communication is ALWAYS the Goal

David Carson typeset an interview with Bryan Ferry entirely in Dingbat in a 1994 issue of Ray Gun, though the article was also printed in the back of the same issue in a legible typeface.

Design communicates and design functions. The clear, unambiguous, and precise accomplishment of these tasks is the goal of any and every practical design. (I say practical design here because there are avant garde designs whose goal is purely aesthetic, like David Carson’s typesetting of Bryan Ferry’s interview in Ray Gun in Dingbat.) Design can function to entertain, accomplish tasks, and question; design can communicate news, opinions, and ideas; and it can do both at the same time. But it cannot do neither.

If the spoon you used for your coffee this morning required you to lift a lid on the bowl of the spoon in order to scoop sugar, it would be a cumbersome and ineffective tool. If it had a large hole in the center that reduced the bowl of the spoon to merely a rim of metal, it wouldn’t be useful for stirring in the cream. These, hopefully hypothetical, spoons are unsuccessful designs. They do not function in a clear or unambiguous way—if they function at all.

Similarly, if the video you are watching places important elements or information outside of the action safe margins, it may not successfully translate to all screens and therefore becomes ineffective on certain devices. This is called designing to (or speaking to) the lowest common denominator, and even in this digital world of iPhones and Galaxy tablets it’s important to consider universal application. A product that does not communicate clearly does not communicate at all.

Number Three: Keep It Simple, Stupid

I feel like this one doesn’t need much explanation, but I’ll do my best to provide one.

Simplicity is a difficult ideal to strive for but will, with frightening regularity, often produce the best results; not only visually, but functionally as well. A simple design doesn’t “muddy the waters” with irrelevant information or visual elements, and it makes clear distinctions between primary content and sidebars. Simple design makes good use of a strong content hierarchy and imagery. But simple is also context specific: “simple steampunk” and “simple grunge” are vastly different from one another, and further still from “simple Swiss.”

Imagine if your car had two accelerator pedals, two break pedals, and two shift knobs but only one of these worked for any combination of specific details in a given scenario. That would be a fatally unsuccessful design. Similarly, imagine reading a magazine article that employs five different typefaces, each with a full range of weights and point sizes, with no categorical hierarchy informing when or for which elements each typeface is used. It’s chaos!

Number Three, Sub A: Simple Doesn’t Mean Minimal

A major mistake many new, especially young, designers make is the conflation of simple with minimal. Minimalism is a distinct, unique aesthetic. Simplicity is a guiding principle of design. Minimalist designs can be surprisingly complex, and simple designs don’t have to be minimalist. This confusion often leads to lazy, uninspired work that makes the audience work to find its content. (White space is an element of design, not a feature!) I’ve seen students and professionals alike describe stark, overly minimal design as simple or “Swiss-inspired” when the reality is the result of a lack of consideration or attention to detail. These designs miss the mark entirely and don’t come close to referencing the powerful use of typography, gestalt, colour, and imagery; geometric form; or asymmetric balance Swiss design is famous for.

Simple doesn’t mean you can’t use a rule or a flourish in your print piece. Simple doesn’t mean you can’t have a bow on your package or a cantilever porch on your house. Simple means not superfluous. Simple means that every element on the page, every detail in the walls and floors, every moving pixel, or every button has a purpose and is not implemented without reason.

Strong Results

Together, these three principles can guide sound decision making and help designers and their clients achieve strong results. But they can’t make up for a lack of design knowledge. Your cousin may know photoshop extraordinarily well, but a professional designer knows how to lead the eye around a page and build a sense of unity through multiple scenes, across platforms, and within a brand. Good design doesn’t grow on trees, it takes years of practice and endless iteration. As designers we must be flexible, never stop learning, and push ourselves and our art every day.