The Four Basic Principles of Graphic Design

“You might have gotten away with an ugly flyer in the past, but today your readers/customers/clients are influenced more than ever before by the visual presentation, and ugly flyers go to the bottom of the pile.” Robin Williams, author of the Non-Designer’s book series

Whether your task is to design a sales brochure, a display ad, or a newsletter, the purpose is the same: to communicate a message to an audience and to produce a desired response. Put simply, you want to say something to someone so that the person takes a specific action. What this means is that the design you develop is not just about appearance – it is also about the performance of the target audience. Thus, good design is measured equally by form and function.

According to Robin Williams in her extremely popular Non-Designer’s Design Book, there are four principles of design that underlie every design project:

• alignment • proximity • contrast • repetition

Alignment… Alignment refers to how text and graphics are placed on the page. Alignment creates order, organizes page elements, indicates groups of items, and emphasizes visual connection. Interestingly, good alignment is rarely noticed by the reader, while misalignment is immediately detected.

There are two basic types of alignment: edge and center. Edges can be aligned along the top, bottom, left, or right. Center alignment can be either horizontal or vertical. When designing a page, be sure that each element (text, graphics, photographs) has a visual alignment with another item.

Proximity… Proximity describes the distance between individual design elements. Close proximity implies a relationship between the elements; conversely, lack of proximity separates them.

Like alignment, proximity is a tool of visual organization. Placing elements in close proximity unifies them and communicates a sense of order and organization to the reader. When it isn’t possible to group items proximately, then unity between two elements can be achieved by using a third element to connect them.

Contrast… Contrast adds interest as well as organization to the page and is created when two elements are different. Common ways to create contrast include varying size, color, thickness, shape, style, or space. The greater the difference between elements, the greater the contrast.

Besides adding interest to the page, contrast can be used to direct the reader around the page and to emphasize importance or differences. Contrast is only effective when it is evident.

Repetition… Repetition brings visual consistency to page design. When the same design elements – such as uniform size and weight of headline fonts or use of initial caps to begin a chapter – are used, it becomes clear that the pages are related to each other and therefore part of the same document. In this way, repetition creates unity.

Some examples of repetition are using the same style of headlines, the same style of initial capitals, or repeating the same basic layout from one page to another.

The four principles of design are interconnected and work together to communicate the message. Contrast is often the most important visual attraction on a page. If the page elements are not the same, then make them very different, instead of making them similar. Repetition helps develop the organization and strengthens the unity of a page. Repeating visual elements develops the design. Every element should have some visual connection with another element on the page, creating a consistent and sophisticated alignment.

The Basis of Good Design In The Desktop Publisher’s Idea Book, Chuck Green describes five steps that form the basis of good design:

• Set the goal • Compose the message • Choose the medium • Select a design • Illustrate the message

Set the goal Every design task begins by defining the end to be achieved – in other words, the goal of the design project. The goal is most often related to the action desired by the target audience. Is the purpose to invite an inquiry? To generate a purchase? To persuade the reader to a new point of view? Keep the goal in mind and allow it to determine the design.

Compose the message The message is the most important element of any marketing piece, for it informs the reader of the benefits of taking action. Affecting behavior is the result of explaining to the reader what to expect from the product or service; or stated differently, answering the reader’s question, “What’s in it for me?”

If you have a limited amount of space, devote most of it to benefits. Leave the list of features and the company story off altogether, or include it in abbreviated form. Make the message reader-centered, and clearly describe the enjoyment the reader will experience or the pain that will be relieved.

Choose the medium The project’s purpose and message both determine the layout. Sometimes the layout will be obvious – a business card, for example, or a display ad. Other times the choices will be broader. A flyer, a brochure, or a self-mailer are all viable for a marketing piece; the ultimate choice might be determined by the method of delivery to the target audience (for example, via direct mail, at a trade show, or mailed in response to an inquiry).

Select a design To achieve maximum effectiveness, a design must take into account a myriad of elements related to the target audience. Some of these elements are age, education, language skills, visual preferences, cultural expectations, level of knowledge, and desires. These and other factors affect the selection of color palette, fonts, illustrations, and photographs.

Illustrate the message Photographs and illustrations work the hardest when they reiterate and reinforce the message, or show what can’t be said. Secondary use is to set the tone or draw attention to a specific element of the design. It is always desirable when a photograph or illustration can do both simultaneously.

Clip art collections are a convenient and economical way to find an appropriate illustration. However, we offer a word of caution about websites offering free clip art: read the “Terms of Use” carefully. Clip art that is in the public domain (and therefore free) has no restrictions on use. Look especially for a condition that limits use to personal applications, meaning the image cannot be used in a business application such as a brochure. Also be aware that much clip art is intended for use on websites, which may make the resolution too low for commercial printing.

If you need some photographs or illustrations for your layout, call us... we may have something suitable in our collection of stock photography.

Some Additional Tips Other tips for creating good design include:

• Be sparse and simple. Carefully select the design elements so a few will convey the message. A design cluttered with too many elements may confuse or overwhelm the reader. For example, use one large photograph or graphic on a page rather than several smaller ones. And use lots of white space – studies show that designs with significant white space are more pleasant to read and attract attention.

• Use color sparingly. As a design element, color is very important, though too much color can be counterproductive. Use a consistent color palette, and use contrasting color sparingly so that its impact is increased.

• Limit the selection of fonts. Select one typeface and size for body copy and one typeface for headlines, then use these throughout your design. Using too many fonts can be distracting and may interfere with page organization.

• Write clear, comprehensible copy. Remember that a good design effectively conveys a message. Write in short rather than long sentences. Avoid jargon and clichés. Use a vocabulary level appropriate for the audience you are trying to reach.

By paying close attention to the four basic principles of design, the five steps that form the basis of good design, and the additional tips, you will ensure that your design communicates effectively.

Ask Us to Critique Because we know you want the best possible design and layout, we will be happy to look at your preliminary layout and make suggestions if necessary. Call 781-337-0002 and tell us when to expect your file.


Millennium Printing Corporation
370 Libbey Parkway, Weymouth, MA

T: 781.337.0002   |   F: 781.337.1420  

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