The Non-Designer’s Design Book – by Robin Williams

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When I design a flyer and see it side by side with a professional product, it’s clear that there’s something about my work that’s a bit … amateur.

What that something is, I can’t quite put my finger on. Which is why I decided to read this book. My hope was to learn some basic design theory, and to also pick up some practical tips. This book more than delivers.

First, it introduces the four basic principles in design theory:

1. Spacing

Items related to each other should be close together, while a space buffer should exist between items that are unrelated. (*The book calls this concept “proximity,” but referring to it as “spacing” makes more sense in my own mind.)

2. Alignment

Place items on the page deliberately so that they create lines and have a visual connection with one another. Center alignment usually doesn’t look as good as a flush left or flush right alignment, which creates crisper lines.

3. Repetition

Repeat visual qualities throughout a piece. (i.e. colors, textures, font, graphic concepts, sizes, etc.)

4. Contrast

Avoid elements that are similar, and go for elements that contrast with each other.

Next, the book moves into a review of color theory.

Colors directly across from each other on the color wheel are complementary, and so tend to work well together.

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Colors on either side of the complementary color form a “split complement.”

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Colors that are equidistant from each other on the color wheel (triads) also tend to be compatible.

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Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel.

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Additionally, variations in each color (or hue) can be created by adding black (resulting in “shades”), or by adding white (resulting in “tints.”)

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The book also provides some helpful practical tips:

Using All Caps

All caps for font will cause the aesthetic to be more boxy, but doesn’t necessarily draw additional attention to the text. It also makes the text harder to read. All caps should be used intentionally in order to create a more boxy type of effect.

On Widows and Orphans

At the end of a paragraph, the awkward string of a few leftover words is called a “widow” or orphan. For a more polished look, it’s best to adjust the text to avoid these.

Underlining

In the past, underlining was used in order to signal to the typesetter that the text should be italicized. It was never intended to be used for emphasizing text, as is often the case today. Instead of using underlining, other techniques — like italicization, bold, and size — are preferable.

Paragraphs

Should be indented with 2 spaces OR a space between paragraphs – but not both.

Categories of Type

Before jumping into the descriptions of different types of fonts, it’s important to become acquainted with the “serif.” A serif is the short line that appears at the top or bottom of the long parts of some letters. This detailed type design actually plays a strong role in differentiating between the six major categories of fonts (described below).

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In using these different types of fonts, it’s important to have them be from different families if using multiple types of fonts in a single piece. This creates a more dynamic type of piece.