The most successful layouts are both stylish and functional; a marriage often achieved by following certain, often unspoken guidelines. Following these rules makes the difference between something that will either draw the attention of a viewer but be such a mess that they won’t understand (or care to understand) what you’re trying to say, or something so practical and bland that it has as much visual impact as assembly instructions for an IKEA bookshelf.
These guidelines aren’t new; they’ve been used by great painters since the Renaissance. The problem is that with the advent of the digital age, many of these rules are largely unknown by a majority of people with access to page layout software or by web designers who know all about code, but have little background in the design process. The thing is, however, that just a little bit of compositional know-how can go a long way; making the difference between an amateurish layout and professional, eye-catching communication.
So here, for the compositional layman and digital dilettante, are some basic guidelines for making successful design:
1) Hierarchy — The first step when creating a new page layout is to size up all your different elements and decide upon a visual hierarchy. Ideally, you’ll have one visually striking “hero” image; a short, 5 to 10-word headline; an even shorter subhead; an easily scanned call-to-action; a paragraph or two of light copy, and a logo. You’ll want to assemble your layout so that the most important element is the most prominent element, just above the second most important element, which is just above the third, and so on. In most instances this hierarchy will be in the same order: hero image, headline, call-to-action, subhead, copy, logo. When laid out properly, these elements will create a natural flow that will grab the viewer’s attention and then quickly lead them to the call to action, with copy and logo providing a final “epilogue” of information.
2) Flow — The human brain likes what is familiar. After determining your visual hierarchy, it’s time to lay those elements out in a way that seems natural. For most, that generally means a “linear” flow from top to bottom, left to right. As a rule of thumb, your primary image should be on the left, your headline to the right of it, toward the top with the subhead below that, copy below that (the eye will skip usually skip over the copy and come back to it later if the viewer is interested), the call to action below this and the logo at the very bottom. Of course, this is a general rule-of-thumb, later I’ll blog about how to creatively assemble your elements to make the eye and brain of the viewer play across a “non-linear” design using techniques developed by classical artists.
3) Simplicity — A common design rule is the K.I.S.S. principle—that doesn’t mean you rock and roll all night and party everyday (though depending upon your design process, maybe it does)—it stands for “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. The ultimate purpose of design is to convey information and that information is lost if it is swallowed by too many colors, too much copy, overuse of font styles, or just being crowded by too many elements. The best, and most often sited, example of simplicity in design is Apple‘s brand. Everything they create is simple; from the design of their products, to their packaging, advertising, and websites — it’s all very crisp and clean and yet still visually striking.
So Keep It Simple! Use color sparingly; choose one or two bright colors as accents with neutral tones taking precedence. Pick one “decorative” font for your headline, and use one simple font for the rest of the copy. Most of all, make sure there’s plenty of Open Space (see rule 4). When laying out your design, ask yourself “Am I screaming at my audience, or whispering to them?” As a designer, you don’t want to be a screamer. Yelling at people makes them uncomfortable and usually puts off an audience. As a designer, you want to be seductive, mysterious, and sly. Subtlety will always win out over blows to the head.
4) Open Space — Most professional designers call it negative space, but I’ve found that some clients tend to think of the term “negative space” as, well… negative. Therefore, I tend toward referring to the use of large, blank areas as “open space”, “relief space” or “air”. Open space is a vital, maybe even the most important (and often underused), element in graphic design. To have impact, your other elements need to be striking. They need to stand out as separate individuals in order to grab the viewer’s attention and then keep it. A striking image surrounded by large swaths of neutral space is always more interesting, eye-catching and comfortable to an audience than an extreme close-up that fills a page. You’re also going to loose your audience if everything’s all jumbled together and crammed into a tiny space. It’s the difference between walking into the cluttered room of a teenager or the sparse, wide-open spaces of a museum; will your audience be overwhelmed and confused and vaguely angry or will they be put at ease and relaxed, focused on what you’re presenting to them?
Keep in mind that open space is often the hardest thing to sell to clients. Many clients feel like unused real estate in a piece is somehow a waste of valuable resources. It’s important to covey that the open space is NOT going unused, but rather being used to emphasize the other elements as an element unto itself.
5) Balance — All great design utilizes symmetry. Elements (including Open Space) should have an anchoring, or opposing, element directly across from it. If you have a colored bar in your design’s header, you should have one at the bottom of the page too. If you have a large block of text on the right side of the design, try placing an image to the left of it. Open Space can also be used to creatively make anchor points (however, this is a much more advanced technique). Balancing your design’s elements will comfort your viewers and add to the visual impact of your communications
So remember, great design has visual impact and makes it easy for your audience to be informed and act. This is achieved by creating a hierarchy of elements, a natural flow from one element to the next, utilizing simplicity and wide open spaces, and creating balance. By keeping these rules in mind, even the least artistic of us can create powerful, successful, emotionally moving, and beautiful media with impact, proffesionalism and poise.