The “Rules” of Graphic Design (1-5)

When I was in college, I remember a professor telling me that we can’t break the rules of good design until we know what they are. So I responded with, “Well, what are the rules then?” Her response was not exactly what I had hoped for: “That’s what we’re here to learn. You’ll figure it out along the way.” Ugh.

What I wanted was a comprehensive list of rules in chronological order, like those that you may have received in grade school: (1) walk in single-file lines, (2) raise your hand and don’t yell out, (3) clean your desk.

Here is an attempt to outline some of the “rules” of good graphic design. Remember, these really aren’t rules, they can be broken, and in fact, they should be broken; they really are more like general guidelines or best practices.

1. Do Use Proper Tracking and Kerning
Always consider the space between letters. The tracking is the overall space between all characters, and the kerning is the space between each letter and its nearest neighbor.

There are reasons to increase or decrease the tracking. Say you want to make the word mark feel lighter, then increase the tracking and the effect will be achieved. Or let’s say you want to make the type seem strong and bold, then perhaps tightening up the tracking will do some good.

The kerning can be very tricky. Typically, the rule is that you want the kerning to be visually equal between each space. A good way to visualize this is to imagine pouring sand in between each of the letterforms. You want to use the exact same amount of sand between each letter in the entire word. Between words, you want to use approximately double the amount of sand.

This is a general rule, and like any rule, you can break it, if you break it with good reason and purpose. If you break the rule but don’t know why, then it may come off looking amateurish.

2. Do Use a Grid
Think mathematically about why things are in the place that they are. Line them up. Give the negative space a reason for being there. You may find that you’ll have to develop multiple structures for different types of content. Using a grid to align elements brings order to chaos, which is a big part of what graphic designers do.

This is such an important rule there is an entire section later in the text.

3. Do Use White Space
White Space is tricky because most viewers want empty space to be filled. It’s akin to an eerie silence when it’s done improperly. It’ll make your design sing when it’s done right.

In general, adding more elements does not mean it’s a better design. Don’t add things to your designs; try taking things away instead. Too many elements can compete from each other—they can be noisy, distracting, etc.

As an experiment, next time you’re working on a project, save a new version and then try taking away every single thing that isn’t absolutely essential to its effective communication. What does it leave you with? It might not be great, but you can now see how many things were there that maybe didn’t need to be. Think about how the result of this exercise could be tweaked to create a winning design.

Pro-tip: Use a grid to get effective white space in your layouts.

4. Do Not Distort a Typeface
The thought here is that a masterful type designer, most likely hundreds of years ago, dedicated their life to painstakingly craft each letterform out of small pieces of metal, and now, because you have some piece of software, you can just stretch it out however you please. This is somewhat blasphemous to the original creator and the legacy of the typeface itself.

That said, an even better reason not to do it is that it typically looks bad and greatly decreases legibility. How to break the rule: If you’re going to distort a typeface, do it in an informed and involved way. Simply stretching it is not a good way to distort it, but cutting off a piece or editing all of the letterforms so that the serifs have slightly rounded corners, for example, these are both ways to break this rule effectively

5. Do Stay Consistent
Good design should feel complete as one unit. Consistency can help achieve this, and inconsistency can destroy it.

If you’re using a certain level of abstraction in the representational forms of a logo (let’s say a horse) and the logo includes two different forms (a horse and a knight), be sure that the visual translations are the same level abstraction and that they look like they were created in harmony as one unit.

If you’re laying out a magazine use consistent typography to indicate to the reader what is a heading, what is a byline, and what is body copy.

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