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Getting Started with Page Layout: 
Principles of Graphic Design

The killer application that made personal computers popular was VisiCalc, the first of the spreadsheets. VisiCalc showed the world that personal computers could be more than expensive toys for hobbyists, that one could actually use them to get things done. 

The killer application that made Macintosh computers, for a time, the hip alternative to PCs, the machines of choice for the crews in design departments, was PageMaker, the first of the page layout programs. In fact, PageMaker and the Macintosh proved such a powerful combination that beginning in the late 1980s, anyone could be a graphic designer. With a Macintosh and PageMaker, people who didn’t know a matte knife from a machete could start designing pages. Thus began an era of bad design. What people didn’t realize is that having the right tools isn’t enough. A surgical kit is a dangerous thing when not in the hands of a surgeon. The same is true of a page layout program. Graphic design is an art learned through years of practice, study of the works of master designers, and refinement of one’s technique and one’s taste. 

As with any art, there are no hard-and-fast rules for good graphic design. What, after all, are the rules for painting in oils or sculpting in clay? In any art, however, there are established principles to be learned. Before Beethoven could compose like Beethoven, he first had to learn to compose like Haydn. Picasso could be the great innovator of twentieth-century art because he was also the great mimic, capable of absorbing whole formal traditions and then transmuting them through his unique sensibility. When starting out in any artistic enterprise, it pays to sit humbly at the feet of one’s predecessors. Newton famously wrote that he was able to see so far because he stood on the shoulders of giants. 

There are simple lessons to be learned from design traditions that can enable most anyone, given a modicum of sensibility, to design effective page layouts. Here are a few of the most important: 

    The Message Is the Master

    Graphic designers are famous for their egos. One moderately successful designer was recently heard to say, “I need a separate desk just for my attitude.” Effective design, however, requires a certain humility before the constraints of  the message to be communicated. Every piece to be designed—a jewel case insert for a CD-ROM, a black-and-white print ad in a newspaper, a billboard, a corporate logo for a company helicopter, a flier for free pizza delivery, the seal of the President of United States, a package for Pez dispensers, a Web page for a rock band, slides for a presentation to the board of directors—has, or should have, some overriding message, and the first principle of graphic design is that the design should, at the very least, not get in the way of communicating that message. 

    Design Should Clarify, Not Obfuscate

    One of the difficulties encountered in any artistic endeavor is learning how to throw away those wonderful ideas that just don’t work. For example, most people find it very difficult to read lines of type that are over about 36 picas in length (a pica is a measurement used in graphic design equal to about 1/6th of an inch). So, even if you love the sinuous feel of that 78-pica line of type snaking across your page, get rid of it, and the same goes for that large display font (otherwise so perfect) in which the italic h looks like a b. Any design element employed in your work—margins, rules, bullets, borders, photos, illustrations, backgrounds, watermarks, columns of type, footnotes, screened tables or charts—should at the very minimum not get in the way of communicating the message. A case in point: when people design table covers and backdrops for display booths to be used at conventions, they generally use neutral, muted colors—slate gray or cornflower blue, for example—because if the background is fire engine red or lime green, then almost any product put against it will be swallowed up and not be seen. Think of all those Web pages on which the colors of links disappear into the background so completely that they almost cannot be read. Design elements should never obscure the message. In fact, whenever possible, they should actually contribute to communicating the message. 

    Design Elements Should Contribute to Thematic Continuity

    The message, or overall theme, to be communicated by the design should be reinforced by the elements employed. A medieval uncial font appropriate for an invitation to a prayer service would not be appropriate for an annual report. A computer-generated, surrealistic 3-D image might be fantastic for computer game package design but inappropriate on the cover of a manual for baby care. Mixing styles—art deco borders and bullets with a Western typeface like Tombstone—is generally as bad as mixing one’s metaphors and should be avoided. One or two unique design elements that create the particular feel of a piece are enough. 

    Less Is More

    Good design catches the eye. It arrests the viewer or reader and makes him or her linger long enough for the message of the design to "take." In an effort to create arresting, eye-catching work, bad designers tend to place too many elements on a page, thinking that if two fonts look good, then eight will look four times better. In fact, the unnecessary multiplication of entities—too many colors, too many fonts, too many screened boxes, too many borders, bullets, rules, and other elements—is the hallmark of bad design. "Less is more," the architect Mies van der Rohe famously said. The same principle is sometimes less politely put as "Keep it simple, stupid (KISS)." A useful rule of thumb is not to put more than three fonts or three other special elements (icons, rules, borders, screens) on a page or spread (a spread is a pair of facing pages). 

    Every Designed Object Should Have a Focus

    Automobile manufacturers put a lot of money into advertising and create some of the most attractive ads in the business. Chrysler Corporation would never create an ad consisting of a dozen small photographs of different models of cars, another dozen bulleted lists of features for each car, a corny starburst up in the corner with the word New! printed inside it, three or four different colored backgrounds, and a dozen rules, all on a single page. Such ads are typical of mom-and-pop-shop, do-it-yourself advertising, but not of professional work. Professionals know that people see thousands of images in a day's time, all competing for their attention. People are not likely to pause long enough to read fine print in an advertisement, and they aren't likely to pause to look at an ad at all unless the ad as a whole grabs their attention. If too many items on the page are competing for the viewer's attention, then nothing will grab the eye, and the viewer will simply flip the page, perhaps without ever having registered that there was an ad there at all. There is almost always, in a good piece of design, some one element that draws the focus of the viewer's eye. Everything else should be subsidiary, and nothing else should compete with that focus. Focus can be achieved in a variety of ways: by arranging items on the page so that they point toward or encircle one spot, by using one strongly contrasting color at the point of focus, or by using one dramatic design element that draws attention to itself. 

    Almost All Designed Objects Should Be Balanced

    In books, magazines, brochures, and other items that consist of pages, the fundamental unit of the design is not the individual page but the spread, consisting of a left, or verso, page and a right, or recto, page. Individual elements of the design should be balanced, across the spread, vertically, horizontally, and diagonally. If a single photo is put in the upper left-hand corner of the left-hand page and no balancing element appears on the right-hand page, then the spread will appear lopsided, as though its elements were sliding off the upper right-hand corner. Two kinds of balance are possible—symmetrical and asymmetrical. In symmetrical balance, elements placed on one side of an imaginary horizontal, diagonal, or vertical dividing line are exactly balanced by corresponding elements of the same size, weight, or intensity on the other side of the line. In asymmetrical balance, balance is achieved by using dissimilar elements on either side of the dividing line—pairing, for example, a large photo at the bottom of the verso page with a large display font heading and an icon at the top of the recto page. Balancing elements on a spread is no different from balancing items of furniture in a room. If one puts all the furniture on one side of the room, then the room will look lopsided and feel uncomfortable. 

    Elements Should Be Aligned with One Another

    Generally, it is a good idea to line up elements in a design, horizontally or vertically, with other elements. A caption, for example, should align left or right with the corresponding picture or illustration. A table or chart might align left and right with a column of text. A folio, or page number, at the bottom of a page might align on the outside with the running head at the top of the page. Alignment of items conveys stability and enhances aesthetic appeal. 

    The Color Palette Should Be Consistent and Harmonious

    Unless the intention of the design is to create something garish and jarring (a possibility when designing, for example, a poster for a Gothic performance art exhibition), then the designer should be careful to use colors that are consistent with one another. Again, one of the hallmarks of bad design is use of colors that, like a lime green suit coat worn with teal pants, clash in unintended ways. Much can be done with screens (also known as tints or shades) of a single color or with two or three colors that harmonize. 
These few principles should help you get started with your own designs. Look for examples of good and bad design—pieces that conform to or violate the principles given above—in the packaging, billboards, and advertisements that you see daily. Many page layout and graphics programs come with templates or wizards containing standard designs that you can adapt to your own purposes. There are also many excellent texts on graphic design. See, for example, PageMaker 6.5: Design and Applications, from Paradigm Publishing (1–800–535–6865) and the excellent books on graphic design from Rockport Publishers (1–508–546–9590). 
 
 
 
Questions for Discussion and Review 

The following questions are based on the preceding text. Clicking on a question will take you to the place in the text where the question is discussed. To return to these questions, simply click the "Back" button in your browser. 

1. Why was the introduction of the application PageMaker so important in the history of design and of personal computing? What did PageMaker (and the other page layout programs that followed it) make possible? 

2. It is often said that in art and in design there are no rules. Why, then, should one study previous masters of art and design? 

3. What relation should a design have to the message of the piece to be designed? 

4. In what ways can a design either clarify or obfuscate? 

5. What is thematic continuity in design, what are some examples of it, and why is it important? 

6. Who first stated the design principle that "less is more," and what does this principle mean for page design? 

7. What is focus in design, and how is focus achieved? 

8. What is balance in design, and how is balance achieved? 

9. Why is alignment important in design, and what is a good rule of thumb for aligning graphic design elements? 

10. What are some good rules of thumb for using color in graphic design? 

 
Floral icons at the top of this page courtesy of  Laurie McCanna Design and Illustration 
 EMCParadigm Publishing