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Lesson 1: Who, Me? An Artist?

Graphic Design for Non-Designers

Table of Contents

Introduction and Pep Talk

There are few sentences in the English language that strike as much fear in your heart as, "Design a newsletter for the upcoming trade show; your deadline is tomorrow." The first thing to do after retreating to your office or cube is to take a few deep breaths. Next, pick up pen and paper and face the realization that you don't know where to begin.

Graphic designers the world over face this daunting challenge every day. It might be their life's passion, but even the experts have to start somewhere. Fitting images and text on a page is a lot like putting together a puzzle. It can be frustrating, tiresome, exhilarating -- and rewarding.

However, not everyone who is given a design assignment is a graphic designer. Not everyone has gone to school to study the art of placing images and setting type. Not everyone relishes critiquing every billboard and advertisement. On the other hand, everyone at one time or another has had to create a document that is composed and proportioned well -- if only a resume or a yard sale flyer. Teachers often need to create posters, secretaries are asked to publish a newsletter, and small business owners find themselves wearing the hats of both entrepreneur and ad agency account executive. Many times these jobs are too "simple" to take to a professional graphic artist or, more likely, there's no room in the budget for a pro.

So, who says you can't do it? I've heard the excuses: "I'm not an artist" or "I don't know anything about design." But actually, you know more than you think. There are four basic principles that every graphic artist follows:

  • Group common elements, also called proximity
  • Arrange elements so that they line up, also called alignment
  • Establish consistency with repetition
  • Create interesting juxtaposition with contrast

The first thing to do is look at magazines, books, record covers, posters -- anything that combines images and text. What do you like? What makes visual sense to you? In other words, what is easy to read and understand that is also eye-catching and gets the point across? This is the first step and can be the most fun.

Key Design Terms

Any time you find you have to work in an unfamiliar field, you need to start by learning the field's special terms or jargon. Every field has distinctive terms and names. Imagine a doctor exclaiming, "Nurse, hand me that sharp thingamajig so that I can cut open this patient."


Even though designing a page isn't as serious an undertaking as performing open-heart surgery, it can be almost as scary. Becoming comfortable with the following terms can ease anxiety and lead others to believe you know what you are doing -- even if you don't.

  • Body copy (copy or text): Large amounts of text on a page; for example, a story or article in a newsletter or a paragraph of information in an advertisement.
  • Letterform: An individual letter or character
  • Typography: The art of setting and creating type
  • Element: Any item on a page, such as a block of type, a photograph, a logo, or a headline
  • Composition: How elements are placed, or composed, on a page
  • White space: Space that surrounds elements on the page (see Figure 1-1)
  • Positive space: The space taken up by an element (see Figure 1-1)
  • Negative space: Another term for white space

    Figure 1-1: The element itself is the positive space;
    the area surrounding it is the negative space.

  • Left aligned (quad left): When a block of text is lined up on the left. Seen frequently in magazines and newspapers (see Figure 1-2)

    Figure 1-2: This is an example of left-aligned text.

  • Right aligned (quad right): A block of text that is lined up on the right (see Figure 1-3)

    Figure 1-3: This is an example of right-aligned text.

  • Centered: A block of text that lines up around an imaginary center (see Figure 1-4)

    Figure 1-4: This is an example of centered text.

  • Justified: A block of text that is evenly aligned on the right and left (see Figure 1-5)

    Figure 1-5: This is an example of justified text.

Grouping Elements

Whether you are designing a small newspaper advertisement or a six-page newsletter, your goal is to convey information. When people read, they follow basic patterns. For those of us in Western cultures, the pattern is right to left and top to bottom. This means, for one thing, that you don't want to put the first thing you want someone to read at the bottom of the page. Nor do you want to separate items that go together. This is where the first principle comes into play.

As an example, let's say you have to organize a file cabinet full of bills, tax documents, and invoices. Most likely you'd begin by putting like items together; that is, in proximity to one another. Do the same thing when you design or organize a page. We'll start with something relatively simple: a birthday invitation. However, the process is the same for more complex design tasks. Ask yourself what information you need to convey:

  • What's happening?
  • Why?
  • For whom?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Any other pertinent information?

Now write down your answers:

  • Party
  • To celebrate a birthday
  • Six-year-old boy
  • Saturday, November 11
  • His grandmother's house, 111 USA Way
  • RSVP to 512-555-1111

Next, we put this information to work.

Organization is Key

Take a look at the invitation I created using the information from the previous section (Figure 1-6).

Figure 1-6: I created this invitation without thinking about organization or grouping.

What's the first thing you see? Was it the address? How about the RSVP?

What should have been the first thing you saw? What is the first piece of information someone receiving this invitation needs to know? Exactly! You should have read, "Come help Henry celebrate his 6th birthday!" first. The way the invitation is designed now, the person reading the card doesn't know what you are telling them to RSVP to or why there's a date at the top of the card (if they can find it!).

Now, let's take the same words and images and put them together in a less confusing way. Look at our list again. The list is actually in order according to the importance of the information to the person receiving the invitation:

  • What's happening?
  • Why?
  • For whom?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Any other pertinent information?

Now take a look at the reorganized version in Figure 1-7.

Figure 1-7: This is the reorganized and less confusing invitation.

Let's take a look at the changes:

  • First of all, I took away the background pattern and used one set of balloons instead.
  • I added the word "Party!"
  • Further down, I announced whom the party was for.
  • Then I grouped the when and where information.
  • Since the phone number is the least important info, I made it smaller and put it at the bottom.
  • Now like elements, including graphic elements, are grouped together. Party and balloons are more or less equivalent, so it makes visual sense to put them next to each other. When and where are always asked together, so place them together on the page.

Do It Yourself!

Now you can see why grouping is important. It gives our eyes a place to start and follow when we look at a document. It gives an element importance and visually organizes images and text. Let's put your new knowledge to work.

Using the principle we covered in this lesson, take this list of everyday objects and organize it visually.

  • Books
  • Biographies
  • Graphic design
  • Novels
  • Reference
  • CDs
  • Books on CDs
  • Country
  • Rock
  • Periodicals
  • Annuals
  • Monthlies
  • Weeklies

Compare your list to the one in Figure 1-8.

Figure 1-8: Here's our list ordered using the grouping principle.

Grouping is an important design principle because without it, we'd be searching for a starting point instead of immediately perceiving the intended information. In the next lesson, we take a look at the principle of alignment.

Next Lesson

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