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Let’s face it, not everyone is a graphic designer (sadly the same truth cannot be applied to critics). Knowing a few basic things about layout, typography and color can make a world of difference for those small projects that are essential to get done in-house quickly, with little or no budget.

Whether you are an administrative assistant preparing memos or inter-office documents, a programmer roughing out a basic interface for a web site or software application or a baker creating a poster for an advertisement, there are some basic design principles that, if followed, will make your efforts just that much more “professional.”

Let’s get started

1. Give everything breathing room

This is one of the most elementary concepts, and perhaps the most often abused. Elements in a design (type, boxes, lines, etc.) are a lot like people, they don’t always like to be packed too close together, and they need to breathe – in other words they need adequate space around or between them. With modern desktop publishing applications, like Adobe InDesign, Adobe Illustrator, QuarkXPress, and even Word, we now have the ability to control many aspects of the layout and typography, even with minimal working knowledge of the software. Below is an example of how text and design elements on a page can look, before and after this basic principle is applied.





2. Use 2 maybe 3 different fonts at most

With the large amount of default fonts available to anyone with the latest desktop publishing software, (not to mention the proliferation of the thousands of free fonts available on web) it’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to use all of your favorite fonts in one particular design. The fact is, unless there is a very specific reason to use numerous fonts in a design, you should stick to using at most, 2 -3 different type faces. It’s even acceptable to use just one (many fonts have different weights and styles that can be used effectively and still make for a consistent and professional presentation). For example, if 2 fonts are utilized, one type of font may be selected for headings and another for the body copy. Sticking to the basics can make plain and simple documents more cohesive and easy to read.

3. Avoid cliché fonts

One of the most obvious signs of an amateur design is the use of cliché or default style fonts. There are essentially a handful of culprits that reside in Microsoft and Apple applications, and for the most part should be avoided for any ‘design’ that you want to look professional or polished. Some of these fonts include (but definitely not limited to) Times New Roman, Brush Script, Comic Sans, Arial, Cooper, Stencil, Courier, DomCasual, and Tekton Pro. It should also be noted that a font should be chosen for a purpose specific to the task at hand, not just because it looks neat. Most of all, fonts need to be readable. Now I should mention that many of the “bad” fonts aren’t necessarily poorly designed – many still have their uses. What has happened is that many of these fonts have been used in many poor or slap-dash designs over the years and bring with them the stigma of “unprofessional’ or ‘cliche’. A good example is Comic Sans, for a cursive font, it is not poorly designed, in fact some primary school educators will use this font because it’s characters are easy for the kids to read and identify.


4. Use clip art sparingly or not at all

There are thousands if not millions of clip art or stock art options available to use these days, so the temptation is great to utilize an illustration or photo to demonstrate a point or add ‘flavor’ to a design, often; it’s just superfluous noise, and if the clip art is of poor quality it only lessens your design.

5. You don’t have to center everything

From a composition standpoint, simply centering an object of interest isn’t always the best idea (in fact more often than not it’s a poor choice). There is a basic concept that many photographers and visual artists adhere to – the Rule of Thirds

6. Figure – Ground relationship

Okay this one isn’t quite as simple as the others, but it is worth mentioning here.

There is a universal design principal known as the Figure-Ground Relationship. This is one of many principles referred to as Gestalt principles of perception. Basically speaking – it means that we perceive visual stimuli in two distinct and separate elements, the Figure and the Ground. Figure elements are what we focus on and the Ground elements sit in the background. Keep your Figure and Ground elements clearly differentiated to maintain a stable, clear and easy to read design.


Some basic rules:

  • The figure is the object of focus and has a defined shape
  • The ground usually continues behind the figure
  • Figures appear closer, and ground further away
  • Objects above the horizon line are often considered ground
  • Objects below the horizon line are often considered figure
  • Objects in lower portions of designs are more likely to be seen as figure elements

7. Less is more

It’s acceptable to have “white space” or “negative space” in a design, it allows things to breathe, and simply adding more items to fill up space, serves more often than not to clutter up and confuse things. Noisy backgrounds under blocks of text are a common problem. Examine your design critically, and ask yourself “is that pattern of juggling elves really needed here” or can I reduce the amount of text to say the same thing, but in a more concise manner, allowing for more space.





8. Be consistent

Consistency in design is crucial. For example, when designing multi-page documents or web pages, maintaining consistent type styles, colours and image elements (icons, etc.) can be vital to ensure a professional finish. This often abused principle is also one of the easiest to adhere to.

9. Use colour wisely



With great power comes great responsibility. Much like the principle less is more; the use of colour should be handled with care. Effect, emotion, and message are all things that colour can convey, and if abused, can create very unsightly, often boisterous compositions.

Colour theory is far beyond the range of this piece, but knowing when and how to use colour is vital, and in the absence of proper training, simply use colour sparingly – stick to more neutral palettes and using stronger colours for accents. Below are some useful links on colour theory and working with colour.

Here are some helpful links on Colour


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