Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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Basic Graphic Design Principles

As you perhaps recall, last month we undertook to discern the differences between two financial management tools: QuickBooks Pro and Quicken Home and Business. While that piece marked the termination of our series relating to SOHO administrative systems, it also heralded the commencement of our new project: an examination of the complex world of business graphics.

Let's get started

As time has gone on, the increasing ubiquity of graphics software has spawned a new era of creative freedom and empowerment for the average business person. It has also been responsible for the creation of a time in which the generation of really bad graphics has become rule rather than exception. If you have been following this column for some time, please excuse the following redundancy:

Should you wish to have your organisation perceived by others as professional and competent, hire a firm which employs graphic designers to produce important materials including websites, brochures, business stationary, cards and logos.

That being said however, there are still numerous instances when you will most certainly be required to produce materials in-house, as it is cost prohibitive to send everything to a service bureau. These articles may include proposals, memos, policy documents, intranets, fax-outs, invoices, customer statements and the like. While the following is not intended to be a substitute for 4 years of design school, it will certainly assist you in your efforts to produce more attractive and professional documents and hopefully open your eyes to the myriad possibilities available to the would-be designer.

The essential principles

If you learn nothing else about good form when composing pages, you will yet have gone far toward attaining invaluable base knowledge concerning graphic design should you merely grasp the following four principles:

  • Proximity - elements on a page which are related should be grouped closely together to enhance this perception to the reader. Further, element groups which are unrelated should maintain adequate space between them so as not to confuse the message.
  • Alignment - elements which have been grouped as above must all maintain clear spatial relationships to one another, following obvious, strong lines throughout. Attention to this principle helps give a page the cohesion, strength and clarity required for professional looking results.
  • Repetition - certain page components should be repeated to gain further cohesion. This activity ranges from simple considerations such as utilising the same font style for all headings, to more complex stylistic matters, including the disassembly of main graphic elements into component parts which may be otherwise individually employed (e.g. as bullets).
  • Contrast - this is perhaps the most important consideration a designer has to be aware of. If everything on a page looks similar, there is nothing to grab the reader's attention and hold it. Contrast should be very obvious - don't assume that 12 vs. 14pt text or black on brown is sufficient; be adventurous. If things are meant to contrast then make them really contrast. Use entirely different font families, radically different colours and allow the juxtaposition to draw the readers eye. The use of contrast in conjunction with the other factors additionally allows you to enhance the perceived visual organisation of the page as element groups stand out more clearly from their neighbours.

The following is an example of a common report title page as it goes through a transformation utilising the above principles.

graphic design iteration process

The first example is what I usually encounter when presented with a document generated by a typical uninitiated individual. It is sedate, confusing, unbalanced and unimaginative. The use of the corporate logo seems superfluous in this context and aside from it there appear to be no discrete elements other than a single text block. The unconscious attempt at contrasting the slightly larger report title with the rest of the body looks more like a mistake than style.

The second instance utilises the principle of proximity to bring a little clarity to the text. Repetition is also used to organise the space between the elements. Although this is somewhat better than the first example, it still needs a lot of work.

The third example uses a variety of alignments to strengthen the cohesiveness of the textual and graphical content. The components are additionally further subdivided to enhance their individual effect. The text is right justified - a device that lends an air of sophistication to a page - while the logo has been slightly enlarged to align with the word "State". To further emphasise the unity of the content a vertical rule (line) has been placed at the left of the page which aligns with the top and bottom of the text at right. This device however, has the unfortunate effect of creating "trapped white space" (irregularly shaped, bounded white space) which seems to push the elements apart. Perhaps this might be used to better effect on the right to further augment the strength of this alignment.

While the fourth instance isn't a design I'd be overly proud of - as it still presents some stylistic difficulties - it illustrates very clearly the power of contrast. When initially looking at these covers, were not your eyes automatically drawn to this example? Even now as you look at them, your eyes want to rest there seemingly of their own accord. The contrasts are many: font size, reverse vs. standard type, font style, font family, justification, light and shadow. If you look at the way the word "status" and the vertical black bar form a clear corner effect, you will also notice that this is contrasted and balanced by the text and logo which comprise another corner at page bottom left. Everything relates to one line of alignment or another and seems to generate sufficient interest in the reader to instigate his perusal of all elements - your ultimate goal has been realised.

Stay tuned next month as we initiate our examination of the tools utilised by graphics professionals and novices alike with a comparison of Corel Draw 9 and Adobe Illustrator 8.

Originally published in Ottawa Computes! magazine, February, 2000, by technology columnist, Ray Richards.


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