The Non Designer's Design Book is an excellent read for anyone who does desktop publishing but hasn't had any graphic art classes. The content is broken down into simple, easy-to-read chunks with plenty of examples. It's easy to get without an instructor. While some design fundamentals seem obvious, the author, RobinWilliams, explains the why, whether you just do some business letters for your clients or you design newsletters. There's value to be gleaned from this book.

Ms. Williams' basic premise in the book is that if you can name something (a layout, technique, or flaw), you can understand it, recognize it, and fix it. Her example for this is a Joshua tree. She read about Joshua trees, but didn't think she had seen any before. However, the next time she left her house, Joshua trees were everywhere. I had a similar experience with Kia Spectras and Bernese Mountain Dogs. I suspect that many of us have witnessed this phenomenon first hand.

With the thought that ―the ability to name something gives you power over it, Ms. Williams explores some basics of layout, colors, and fonts. Contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity are important in layout. Regarding color, Ms. Williams explained the color wheel, color relationships, shades, tints, and tones; and for the first time in my life, I understood it. She also talks about the different kinds of fonts and when it is appropriate to use them. She creates a simple curriculum that will benefit all but the advanced graphic designers.

Here are some highlights and rules of thumb from her book:

  • Group related items together. Physical closeness implies a relationship. Don't create relationships that don't exist.
  • Strong alignment is good. Don't center things unless you can clearly articulate why you are doing it. The strength of an edge gives strength to the layout. Find a strong alignment and stick to it.
  • Repeat some aspect of the design throughout the layout.
  • Don't stick things in corners or the middle just because there's white space there. ―Nothing should be placed on the page arbitrarily. Every item should have a visual connection with something else on the page.
  • All caps are hard to read. Don't do it. If you do use it, use it only a little and be able to explain why you are doing so.
  • If you have a lot of content that actually needs to be read, use an ―old style‖ font. A second choice is a slab serif font, often used in children's books.
  • Contrast creates interest and helps to organize the layout. If two types of things aren't the same, make them really different.
  • Warm colors stand out. Cool colors recede. If you want to use color contrast, you need a lot of warm color on the page to make the cool color stronger.

Ms. Williams sums up the information in a process. Start with a focal point, group the information, create strong alignment, create repetition, and put in appropriate contrast.

Some of these things I knew and some I didn't. Ms. Williams was right. Now that I can name it and identify it, I am having an easier time of designing layouts. And, best of all, I have a book to reference when someone centers too much stuff or uses all caps - styles that have always bugged me.

This article was originally written for the September 2009 issue of IVAAcast.