For non-designers, graphic design can appear a difficult task to master. There are multiple styles, typefaces, colour choices, layout options and more. However, when it comes to document design, you can narrow things down to a few basic principles. Master those and you’ll be able to become a better visual communicator—even if you’re not a graphic designer.
In the following infographic by designer Curtis Newbold, he provides 50 important rules for a good document design. Sorted in 10 different categories, these design rules include:
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- Negative space
Put together they form the handy acronym, Colour CRAYON TIP. According to Curtis, the “Why” represents the idea that designers know why people react the way they do. There more principles and theories to consider when creating good design. But if you can master these 50 concepts, your document design skills will improve. Take a look at the infographic below:
The top 50 most important rules of document design
The colour wheel
Use the colour wheel to create matching colour schemes that are monochromatic, analogous, complimentary, split complimentary, triadic and/or tetradic.
Four or fewer
In most cases, create a colour scheme of four or fewer colours.
Use dark, desaturated colours to express serious and professional; bright, desaturated colours to express friendly and professional; and fully saturated colours to grab attention or appeal to children.
Know how people and cultures respond to colours; use colours to show caution, danger, happy, jealous, scary, acceptable, and other related emotions and experiences.
White is nice
Treat white as a colour. Use white to communicate clarity, sophistication, cleanliness, professional, and even, in some cases, expensive.
Use contrasting colours for clarity and visual interest. If it’s a different colour, it should be obviously different.
Make the most important things on the document the biggest and boldest. Use clearly different sizes for fonts and icons.
Use different font families when using more than one font. Contrast serif body text, for example, with a sans serif or script heading.
Highlight no more than 10% of the objects on a document. Make headings and important text and objects stand out by using boldface, colour, italics, underline, reverse type, and so forth. Only use two or three techniques at once and don’t use ALL CAPS to highlight.
When overlaying text on top of an image or watermark, contrast the background with the text significantly to avoid conflicts and visual noise.
Within a single document you should repeat all visual elements. Different sizes, colours, shapes, layouts, and so forth should be limited in number and repeated throughout.
Repeat all visual elements across multiple documents to create continuity, clarity, and branding between documents.
Consider designing visual cues—shapes, logos, icons—that repeat from page to page (or slide to slide) to make the document design seem uniform and organized.
Keep the personality and/or professionalism of the document design consistent by repeating styles in diction, tone, layout, and other content.
Develop and use style guides in order to repeat features of a brand identity, including colour, layout, typography, paper weight, logo use, and so forth.
Give purpose and show relationships to every object on the page. Avoid arbitrary placement or “floating” objects that don’t seem to be visually connected to anything else.
Everything on the page should be aligned to something else. Avoid centre-alignment for most layouts and text.
Put related items in close proximity and unrelated items apart from each other. Avoid randomizing placements of objects and text on a page.
Arrange objects to show clear stability (or lack thereof). Objects that are flat and horizontal appear stable and calm. Vertical arrangement can appear more active. Tilted objects can appear in motion.
Position objects strategically. Space implies time. Tilted objects imply instability. Objects in upper-half imply free and happy. Know the position’s purpose.
Match or intentionally interrupt your audience’s expectation(s). Use branding, document genres, tone, colours, and so forth that align with what your audience expects and hopes to see.
Increase complexity of a design or content to heighten credibility of data. Simplify a document design to make it seem more elegant and sophisticated. Make a document busy to make products or services appear inexpensive.
Apply diverse visual figures of speech—such as metaphor, pun, hyperbole, metonymy, and so forth—to increase comprehensibility, create interest, and meaningful depth of your communication’s purpose.
Simplify visual design elements while increasing communicative propositions (or ideas to be communicated). Divide the number of propositions by the number of visual elements and seek for a number greater than 1.
Make your document design reach its audience through credibility, emotion, logic, and timing.
Five hat racks (LATCH)
Know the most effective way(s) to organize your information (there are only five): by location/space, by alphabet, by time/chronology, by category, or by hierarchy.
Know the hierarchy of importance of your information. Give visual cues to guide your audience through the most important information to the least important.
Organize your document design so people can scan information quickly and in sections. Recognize that people rarely read entire documents—they scan and satisfice.
Rule of thirds
To increase visual interest, divide your document into nine equal segments of space (in thirds both horizontally and vertically) and place most important or interesting details on the intersections where invisible lines divide the segments.
To increase aesthetic interest and reduce visual noise, move the edges of some objects and images off the edges of the page.
Pay attention to the shapes you create between two objects. Recognize that every time you design to objects, a third shape is being designed between the two.
Increase interest in some logo designs by making them multi-stable—where negative space appears to become the figure or central visual piece, then recedes to the background.
Observe all empty space and identify if it’s purposeful and effective. If the white or empty space doesn’t appear designed or intentional, it will create unintentional visual noise and reduce credibility.
Keep visual designs stable by making clear distinctions between figures and backgrounds. Objects in lover regions or that overlay other objects appear in front and are perceived as more important.
Be intentional about your margins. Avoid thin or awkward margins between objects and text and the edges of pages that inadvertently create shapes and paths.
Most document designs should use two different fonts (rarely one or three or more), typically from two different font families. Use one font for headings and titles, and the other for body copy.
Know your font families and use them appropriately. Most fonts can be labeled as on of the following: serif, sans serif, script, decorative, or grunge.
Apply the appropriate font to the personality of your document design. Recognize that subtle nuances in typefaces make big differences in the personality of your document. Avoid default or overused fonts like Helvetica.
Be sure your font is legible for the specific word(s) you’re displaying. Some typefaces work well for particular words but not for others. If a word is really common, you can use less legible fonts. For names, use only very legible fonts.
Increase readability by increasing line-spacing, using legible fonts, shortening line length, and using heavy enough weight to contrast the background.
The four types
Use icons to make reading quicker, more recognizable, engaging, and universal. Know the four icon types (similar, example, symbolic, and arbitrary) and apply the appropriate one to your communication purpose.
Use icons and shapes to enhance immediate recognition. While logos are useful to brands, icons and shapes can also be useful for non-brand-centric designs like wayfinding signs, handouts, and poster campaigns.
Use mnemonic devices in icons to make them more clearly linked to a brand name or idea (and thus easier to remember).
Lines and paths
Use lines, arrows, and other pathway-creating visual tools to guide a viewer’s eyes and mind in specific, important, and intentional directions. Avoid lines and arrows where importance is already obvious.
Apply pictorial versions of data in charts and graphs to make information more readable and appealing to large audiences.
For most designs, use as many pictures and icons as possible as long as the important information can be made clear and represented ethically. Audiences will remember communications with images up to 60% more than ones without images.
Use the appropriate resolution for the specific medium (72dpi for most digital and 300dpi for most print). Do not use images that are pixelated or distorted in any way; your document design will lose immediate credibility.
When using pictures of people, increase the size of the face (and remove bodily features) to communicate personality and intellect. To communicate health, vitality, and sensuality, decrease the size of the face and include more body.
Make sure all faces look toward the inside or spine of the document design. Avoid having images of people looking in the direction that goes off the page.
When using multiple photos in the same document design, make sure that their photographic styles, including lighting, position, and colours are consistent.