Design matters (and here’s why)

The design of something is—or should be—more than just the aesthetic of the item. Sure, aesthetics are important. But design is more than aesthetic. It’s about function. And in the realm of the mass media, the primary function is communication.

Overlooking design or trivializing its importance has led to many communication disasters, such as the infamous “do drugs” pencil.


My approach to teaching design is far more than simply making things “pretty” or just teaching software; rather, it is this: the intersection of aesthetics and innovation should be meticulously crafted to enhance communication for the intended message, audience and medium.

Being a successful designer isn’t about being a good artist; it’s about learning how to communicate visually.

Learning how to communicate visually through design is based on a series of principles. Let’s say you have 20 pieces of content. As the designer, your job is to figure out what that content should look like. Principles of design make that job easier. It’s a lot like learning the rules of grammar. First, you need to learn how to apply the rules. Then, you can learn how (and when) to break them.

Principles of design have been conceptualized through many different approaches. My approach considers four principles of design for successful visual communication: proportion, placement, unity and the “big picture.”

A brief explanation of each follows:

Proportion: We don’t want everything to be the same size. That’s boring. But more important, it doesn’t give your audience any relevant information. Every piece of communication needs a dominant focal point. Proportion helps to organize your content and to guide your audience through your content.

Position: Position helps us determine where to put items on the page. When considering position, you should have a definitive reason for the position of each item on the page. Consider the relative location of items to each other and the relative location of items on the page.

Unity: Unity helps us achieve consistency in design and it gives design identity. But unity can be tricky; we don’t want everything to look the exact same. That would be boring. And, more important, it wouldn’t help to achieve our communication objective. An effective use of repetition of design elements (balanced with contrast of design elements) helps achieve unity.

Big Picture: The “big picture” isn’t a traditional principle of design. But, remember, we are approaching design from a communication perspective and not just an aesthetic perspective. All of your design decisions must be made within the context of your communication objective. When embarking on a new design, our goal is always the same: the design should enhance the communication function of the item. Design decisions should be based on three considerations of the communication objective: message, audience and medium. There are two final, yet critical, considerations of the big picture: law and ethics. When designing in the mass media, you must know, understand and apply relevant laws. Consider photographs. It is not legally OK to take any photo you can find on the Internet and use it for your own purposes. There are legal considerations, such as copyright and trademark law. Equally important is ethics. As I often say, just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should. Sure, in Photoshop it’s relatively easy to digitally alter an image. But that doesn’t mean it is ethically (or legally) OK.


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2 responses to “Design matters (and here’s why)

  1. Pingback: Hillary Clinton, Time magazine and devil horns | Visual Communication in the Digital Age·

  2. Pingback: K-2SO and the Uncanny Valley | Visual Communication in the Digital Age·

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