There is a scene in the sitcom Arrested Development where Gob is blacklisted from The Alliance of Magicians after revealing secrets of the trade. I really hope there isn’t an Alliance of Designers lurking somewhere out there, because if there is they may be coming for my legs.
This article is the first in my “Design Secrets” series. If you are an entrepreneur or self-taught designer, these personal tips, tricks and secrets will help your designs and layouts really shine.
Always seek to reduce visual clutter
Our first tip involves the use of four elements: contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity. When approaching any layout, this trick helps to reduce visual clutter and draw the viewer in. I learned this trick early on in design school and have used it on everything ever since (thanks Rod!).
Let’s take a look at these four elements as I used them to design a brochure for The Monson Firm, a law firm in Mandeville, La. Their branding features lots of white space with crisp pops of color, regionally inspired photography and custom typography.
Contrast’s job is to create visual excitement in your layout. Instead of using the same colors, fonts, images and picture sizes, consider varying up these elements using their extremes.
The opening spread of this brochure uses contrast in color and size as well as emphasis, something normally not considered. A solid white background on the right is contrasted with a bright, colorful, full-page background to the left. I also used several versions of the font Universe — one tall and thin, one short and bold. Within the typography itself, alternating colors are used for emphasis (see Counselors With a Kick). Finally we have a full page of peppers contrasted with two peppers isolated on a white background on the opposite page.
The next spread gives us a few more examples. Here we have contrasts of color and content. White text on a color background contrasts with the black type on the next page. The top of the attorney bio page is essentially white space, and the bottom is filled with images, color and text. Finally there is the contrast of human and animal in the custom and stock photography.
Look at the elements of your layout and search for areas where you can increase contrast. Does the layout draw the eye to the main message? If not, make the most important elements bigger. Does all of your text seem to merge together? Play with color and font variations to make your copywriting more visually dramatic.
Repetition is a great tool to present groups of similar elements. Repetition can come in many forms, from information to graphics to the repeating of a theme. Let’s look at all three.
On the first spread, the individual Practice Areas are listed in a slightly larger font and alternating colors, creating dynamic, repeating elements. On the attorney page, there is a set format using icons, shapes and typography that repeat for each person. This theme carries over to the back cover, where the locations use similar icons and typography.
You will also notice how the multi-colored pepper theme carries throughout the brochure. The repeating element of the peppers keeps the feel of the brochure light and crisp, complimenting the firm’s existing branding.
In your own layout, is any information grouped together? Use this as an opportunity to develop your own graphic systems to present this information. Blocks of text and listed items are two places to start practicing.
You are probably familiar with alignment in MS word — left, centered, right, justified. The alignment I am referring to is a little different. This type of alignment helps to group similar items together and to give the page structure. Let’s look at how elements can be aligned to each other and to the page they are on for maximum visual effect.
I always have a grid of guides in my design file to help position elements. If you aren’t working with a guide or grids, know that pretty much every designer relies on them. They help tremendously when you aligning multiple elements on the page.
On the back cover, the addresses are aligned both vertically and horizontally. On the attorneys spread, everything is aligned to the guides and to the other elements. Here are a few screenshots of my design file showing how I used guides to align these elements.
Taking a look at your own layout, how effective is your alignment? Does tightening up the alignment of elements help organize information? Can anything else be lined up to deliver your message more effectively?
We all desire to be close to someone, but even then we sometimes need space. Think of the elements in your layout in the same way. Make sure not to overcrowd elements, don’t be afraid of white space, and let everything just breathe a little.
Let’s take a look at the Just For Kicks spread again. I used a lot of white space on both pages. The space flows easily around every element, giving the two pages a sense of coherence even though the information they contain is different. The spacing around every paragraph and headline is consistent, letting the text be grouped together yet seemingly in clusters.
Proximity really comes in to play when an element is positioned between two other elements. Matthew’s name needed to be right in the middle of his head and the image above. Too low and it appears grouped with his photo. Too high and it becomes part of the header, removing it from being the most important element on the page. They grey dotted lines here show the same height above and below the type.
Does your layout breathe? Crowded elements often get overlooked, so the best way to make sure the main elements of your layout shine is to give them space to breathe.
The Alliance of Designers
If you’ve managed to finish reading this design article, then The Alliance of Designers is just an illusion, thank goodness. I love sharing my knowledge with people, and I hope you can use these tips and tricks to make your next graphic design job a stellar one.