Dutch independent theatre poster

Here’s the third in a series about my design symposium presented to first-year students at Delft University of Technology’s Media & Knowledge Engineering program.

Design explains the HOW of things: how to order a gift, how to navigate a web site, how to serve a client’s needs, how to communicate to an audience and how to convey information.

More importantly, design communicates ideas, concepts, and functions to specific audiences, based on age, gender, income, etc.

The design process begins by creating general information and narrowing it down to specific information. Lead the viewer’s eye to the important elements of your design.

If elements are placed at regular intervals creating a smooth rhythm, then a calming, non-distracting effect will be produced. Unity of elements means that they all belong together and complete the design as a whole.

Grid examples

Grids organize information. Grouping, repeating, or placing elements on a grid achieves unity, providing a unifying framework for design’s various elements.

A couple of basic techniques can be used in order to simplify a design solution:

1. Reduce a design to its essence
2. Organize the design’s elements

Images are often more appealing – and just as identifiable – when portions of the image are suggested rather than completely visible. This is a common approach to visual identities and signage systems where impact and recognizability are key.

Victoria and Albert Museum logo

The Victoria and Albert Museum logo shows this case in point. A part of the letter A is missing, but the viewer can take cues from the serif of the ampersand and the top of the remaining letterform to piece together the remains of the letter.

In order to apply this technique to interface design, the designer has to break down the presentation as much as possible and question the functionality being presented when the result is still too complex to visually understand.

Simplicity does not have to mean lack of décor, only that the décor should be a vital part of the design, and anything not needed can and should be done away with.

Effective design often involves oversimplifying in order to make a point. If you make an effort to give your viewer a basic understanding of your message, the design will succeed.

Experienced designers depend on trial and error in order to determine those elements truly essential to a design. This can be seen as a three-step process:

1. Determine the design’s essential qualities. Which elements should be a part of it? Consider colour, texture, pattern and images.

Travel brochure design

2. Examine each element in the design, asking yourself why it is needed, how it relates to the design’s essence, and how the design would suffer without it. If none of these can be properly answered, then remove the element. Try to remove the element from the design anyway. What happens? If the design fails either in its function or look, the element needs to be replaced. Otherwise, consider removing it.

3. A regular pattern’s predictability lets the viewer scan ahead more easily to the area of interest when making a comparison or answering a question. It also brings about important aesthetic benefits, as there seems to be a near-universal human fascination with the decorative effect of repeating patterns. By establishing a pattern, the viewer’s experience is brought to a higher level of abstraction.

A good example of this is a series of black and white rectangles, which when properly arranged becomes a checkerboard.

Raygun Magazine cover

Aligning elements along common axes, repeating sizes and spacing of elements, or reducing elements to their basic geometric forms are all part of achieving organization in design. Successful design balances contrast with regularity.

A few helpful guidelines in achieving regularity:

– Use regular geometric forms and muted colors wherever possible.
– If multiple similar forms are required, make them identical in size, shape, color, texture, line weight, orientation, alignment or spacing.
– Limit typography choices to a few sizes from one or two font families, making certain that critical elements intended to stand out do so.

Start with Part One and Part Two. This series concludes next week…


  • Comment by Jim O. — August 26, 2011 @ 10:53 am

    Great examples and design tips! Thanks for the post.

  • Pingback by Design Symposium TU Delft, Part 4 | Vancouverscape — August 25, 2014 @ 11:13 pm

    […] concluding chapter in my Design Symposium series. Earlier chapters include Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. While living in The Netherlands, I devised a design symposium that I presented to first-year […]

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