Design 101: design elements, part 1

Previously, I wrote about the importance of design in libraries and the design process.  Next I’d like to delve in deeper and talk about the elements of design. These elements, or components, are the pieces that make up a whole design. Design elements work together to create a successful design that communicates to your audience if used well.

Most designers would agree, the elements of design are essentially the following:

  • color
  • shape
  • line
  • space or composition
  • value
  • size
  • texture

I am also going to add typography. Though not traditionally an element, choosing type carefully and in some cases even showcasing it within your design, can transform something that meets the status quo into a higher quality design. In carefully crafting your design with an understanding of the elements, your design may be considered not only professional, but memorable.

Rather than talk about all of the elements in this post. I’m going to focus on three to get you started and then I’ll come back to typography and perhaps others in future posts.

With color, composition, and size down, you can create a strong design whether you are making a flyer, sign, promotional materials, or webpage. To create a design considered high quality, nuanced, or sophisticated by design standards, you will need to push further and understand all of the elements. This post is just to get yourself started and able to make something professional that will add to your credibility as a professional organization.

http://frankandjan.com/WIT/?tag=comic-sans

Some have asked me in the past, what credibility has to do with design and libraries and it’s a good question. Without delving too deeply, you can see the above photo where someone has made a simple sign using the typeface comic sans and in response someone calls them out for being unprofessional in using it. Honestly, I have mixed feelings about this image but it still illustrates a valid point: in creating bad design or making poor design choices, you may look unprofessional to your audience. Good design will build trust and credibility with your users. I’ll be including examples throughout this post to show different elements and where they work.

Color

Starting with color, there is an enormous amount of resources on color theory and designing with color. There are scholars who have made a living on researching color alone. To have a successful design, you don’t need to be a color expert but it helps if you have some basics down to understand how color works and doesn’t. It’s a choice to include color in your design- plenty of successful designs are black and white or have minimal color and it’s part of the aesthetic and the message they want to convey.

Sometimes one color is enough; this is called a monochromatic color scheme.

Employing the use of opposite colors on the spectrum together is complementary.

There are numerous ways of combining colors and using them effectively in design. When using color the most important piece to keep in mind is using color consciously, thoughtfully and being aware of individuals who may have vision impairments. You can use many colors in a design, but if not done so with care, it may not achieve the look or convey the message intended. In some cases, misuse of color may not be readable. There are a number of resources available that can assist in putting together a good color palette as well ensuring your colors are accessible.

The designer Luke Beard applies color well on his website. While Beard uses color minimally, as you stay on his website, the color rotates revealing various color combinations in a fun and eye-catching way. The selected colors compliment his website and overall design. If you don’t stay on the page long enough to experience the change in color, you don’t lose much value since the colors work well and the design itself is successful and strong. The change in color is an additional feature intended to delight his audience.
http://lukesbeard.com/

Composition

Composition is where the pieces lay on the page in relation to the page sides, edges and other pieces. Composition may include: an illustration or a logo, title text, headlines, or a call to action, and smaller elements such as a block of text or links. There is a decision to be made about what the most important elements are. Not every element should have the same amount of weight in importance.

In laying out the composition, you’ll want to pay attention to what is referred to as alignment. Often in design you’ll see a strong left alignment where several elements begin at the same starting point on a page; this is fairly conventional and a good choice. Left alignment is certainly not the only successful way to create a composition, but it rarely fails. As the design is being formed it’s good to think of the elements and pieces you are working with abstractly. Imagine them as puzzle pieces or building blocks. Many designers use methods such as the grid, wireframing, or abstract sketching to get a rough sense of the composition. The grid is a good place to start and is a current design trend. My best advice is as you build together the pieces, keeps things somewhat loose and flexible so that you think of the overall page and the pieces in relation to each other, rather than get bogged down by one piece.

http://www.jessicahische.is/designing

On Jessica Hische’s website, she balances a lot of information on each page without losing the quality of the overall design. She showcases portfolio pieces and allows those designs to shine while the composition, typography, and color compliment her efforts and don’t compete for attention. To the right of the large image, Hische aligns the subheading and links to the left, along with the various elements below the link list. Organizing the site in this way creates order and contributes positively to the overall design. Hische devotes a good deal of the composition to white space. Doing so allows the viewer’s eye to rest and directs them back toward the focus, in this case the photo and information on the portfolio piece she is showcasing.

Size

Size is related to composition in that the size of one shape or block of text will relate to others around it.

So, for example, if you have a title, subtitle, author, and publisher and you want to emphasize the title above everything else, then the title will naturally be larger in size. Next, you may want the subtitle to be less than the title but larger than the author or publisher. In some cases, you may want to make the author name the largest element- these are all design decisions relating to size that will convey different things to the audience who sees it.

http://trentwalton.com/2011/05/10/fit-to-scale/

On Trent Walton’s website, he’s making a point about responsive web design (a topic I hope to delve into in a future post). To communicate his message, he’s using size and color. The bold color and size of the title, Fit to Scale, captures viewer’s attention. There is also variation in size within the text block, drawing out the first sentence for emphasis. The navigation is also a different size, easy to see when it’s needed but not in the way of the message of the page.

Putting design into practice

Now that we’ve gone over some basics, I recommend exploring what designs out there speak to you. Develop a collection of designs you like; whether they are websites, flyers, posters, etc., if there is something you like about the design then study it. Much like writers who read a lot to become better writers, designers will study good design and analyze what makes it good in order to become a better designer.

Get feedback from other designers or others who understand design. There are a number of excellent portfolio websites out there that have extremely rich communities willing to offer a critique in exchange for a critique. These are excellent resources that are invaluable to designers, as meaningful feedback is very difficult to find:

Look more deeply into what elements the designer has employed to make the design successful and ask yourself some questions: what colors did they use? what is the balance between the different colors used? is there whitespace? how is the composition set up? can you identify alignments? how did the designer break apart size?

If there is a design you don’t like it is worth exploring why you don’t like it. Ask the same kinds of questions. What makes it fail to you? Figure out what it is that makes you react strongly

This is a way to get yourself to really think in a design way, observe, and subsequently learn about design. In seeing, you will be a step closer to designing well.

If you can recognize, study and thoughtfully employ these elements and make them work together harmoniously you can make a good design. Keep things simple- better to err on the side of restraint than give too much.

Don’t forget that in designing, you are communicating. Think about the message. What do you want to say and how can you attempt to convince your users to believe you? Are you earning credibility? Trust? What kind of atmosphere are you creating?

Design is an opportunity to give our users a positive experience and perhaps even to delight them.


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