| Design Basics

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cautionLike many graphic designers, at some point I’ve probably promoted my services as  “unique.” I often promise to deliver “creative” solutions. But sometimes we need to build on people’s expectations and design in ways that are appropriate, rather than just doing something different.

I thought about this today as I was walking home from work. I was walking by an old brownstone-type building that is on a historic block in Portland. These old buildings are beautiful, but also probably difficult to maintain. This is the sign I saw attached to the broken handrail on the steps going to the front door.


It is a lovely handmade sign. With legible, hand-done typography and even a nice border. The purple ribbon is especially beautiful. All this would be great for an invitation or a welcome sign, but it’s not very effective as a warning sign.

Yes, I’m picking on this poor little sign. But the point is that sometimes you need to use convention to your benefit. We are used to bright colors, usually yellow, orange or red to denote caution or warning signs. These types of signs should attract attention and be easily readable.

Use established conventions and patterns

There are other places where conventions can help design be more practical. Here are a few examples:

  • Web site navigation: Using navigation on the left side or top of your web site. Every once in a while I still see a navigation bar on the right side and just wonder what the designer was thinking.
  • Page layout: Move the reader from the top left corner of your page to the bottom right. This is sort of the explanation of why you have the navigation either top or left, but it can work in other situations as well.
  • Typography: If you want to look wise, wealthy and well-established, use all capped serif type. We’ve all seen this a ton of times on the letterheads of law firms, doctors and accountants. It is a very traditional and conservative approach to a business identity.
  • Using normal page sizes: An example is when someone designs something for PDF distribution, but makes it 9″ x 12″. Everyone, at least everyone in the US, is going to print that out on an 8.5″ x 11″ sized sheet of paper, so why not design it that way? My colleague Mike Maddaloni posted a funny video over at The Hot Iron that raises this issue as it pertains to business cards.

Obviously, there are times to think outside the box and create something unique and different. My point is to think about when using the norms and conventions can aid your design and actually make it more effective.

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