Will-Harris House - Typofile

Design means Plan, not just Style

By Daniel Will-Harris

One of the most exiting, and at the same time, frightening things about design is starting from a blank page. "All those possibilities," often becomes "too many choices," and you're left wondering where to start. But the more you know about the project and its readers, the less "blank" your page will be from the start; the more answers you'll have, the fewer question marks you'll see.

When you start thinking about a design, your first question should not be how should it look. It should be how should it work?

While design is a very intuitive process, graphic design is an applied art. That means you don't just design something to be pretty, you design it to work, to serve a purpose. This is something that all too many books and articles on design overlook--they're so busy with the way it looks they overlook how it works.

So the headline above is misleading, because you rarely if ever start from zero--you always have a goal. Ok, I know, we're supposed to be growth oriented instead of goal oriented, but design projects that work are designed with a specific goal in mind: to sell, to teach, to warn, to communicate feelings or information. Make your goal as simple as possible, boil it down to its essence like a 17-word TV-Guide blurb and you'll have a target to focus on.

When you start, the possibilities are endless, but the more you know about the project, the goal, and the readers, the more your choices are narrowed, the easier your job, and the more effective your solution.

Some of the more intuitive out there will balk at this: you just know what's best, you do what feels right. That's fine, but I'll guarantee you that you'll do better work if you also take into consideration the goal and the readers and then allow your creative process to percolate. Constraints should stimulate creativity rather than limiting it.

Just the facts, ma'am

If you start with the "why" as in "Why am I doing this: what is it meant to accomplish?" you will already be about 100 times ahead of designers who are just wondering "how should it look?" Not only are you far more likely to come up with something effective as well as attractive, you're less likely to make one of the most basic design errors: to say something with your design that contradicts the message of your text.

So you've got a goal in mind. Now it's time to ask the other basic questions: Who? What? Where? When? How?

Who: Who will be reading this? What's their socioeconomic background? What's their age and eyesight like? Do they need larger text or text with a larger x-height? What do they like? What are they used to seeing? Are they used to MTV or Readers' Digest? It's highly unlikely that you'd create the same design for two radically different groups of people. A radical deconstructivist design may appeal to younger/hipper readers but might confuse and appall more traditional readers. A traditional classic approach may be alluring to older, more upscale readers but might be too subtle or boring for younger readers or those who are used to those star-burst things, common in supermarket ads. Knowing who your reader is will immediately help you focus your approach.

Ask "What?"

What? There are actually three big "whats"

1. What's the purpose/goal of the design;

2. What kind of document are you creating?; A short document is going to require a very different approach than a long one. The short one probably wants to attract attention, while the long one wants to present information in an organized, easy-to-find way.

3. What's the budget? How many pages? How will it be distributed? How much are mailing costs, etc.? How much color can you afford?

Where? Where is your audience reading your message? From a car looking at a billboard 200 feet away, or on a quick reference card pulled from a wallet? On-screen? Where will people see your design? Does it have to stand out from many other competitors on a shelf or through the mail? How close are your readers to your publication? Are they holding it in their hands?

Why? Why are they reading? They're all reading for a reason- -necessity, curiosity, business, pleasure, fear, love. Do they want to read or do they have to? Do you have to sell them on something or are they already convinced? Are they going to be reading every single word or skimming and jumping from topic to topic?

When? How much time do you have? Time is a very important. Projects are often last minute and require results you can produce quickly. Time can be a major limiting factor but just because you don't have a lot of time doesn't mean you can't have a lot of creativity.

How? How will you produce the project? How will you output it? You may find that 600 dpi laser printers are now so good you don't need to imageset everything. Will you be creating the final files, or will the project require giganto scans where you'd be better off creating PS files and sending them to a Scitex? If you're producing something your client will need to print themselves, what kind of printer do they have? Will you need to export to a non-ps format (you'll probably want to avoid gradient fills)... etc.

Armed with answers to these questions you're now in a good position to come up with a design that really fits the requirements--not just something that "looks nice."


Excerpted from TypeStyle: how to choose and use type on a personal computer (Peachpit Press 1988)

(Graphic "P" from "Bizarre and Ornamental Alphabets" from Dover books. Typeface in graphic Celestia from Mark VanBronkhorst and FontHaus)

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