Writer Mark Penfold e-mailed me from the UK with questions for an article he was preparing on page layout for Computer Arts magazine. Any of his questions could sustain an entire article and some a book. Here are the really short answers:
1. What are the basic elements of design? Are there any golden rules?
The three basics are type, image and space. The golden rule is to understand clearly what you intend to communicate. Although it doesn’t sound “graphical,” more design fails for lack of a clear purpose than for any other reason.
2. How do the elements of layout interact? Do you look at headline styles in isolation from, say, image size? Does the relationship depend on the medium?
Nothing happens in isolation. Every element in a visual field is related to every other—this line opens into that space, which is like that shape. The mistake is to not perceive that everything you see is related and interactive.
3. How important is consistency, and what are the best ways to ensure a feeling of identity without becoming boring?
If you’re painting a picture, there’s not much need for consistency. If you’re communicating a company brand, consistency is gospel—same elements, same typefaces, same colors, same relationships, every time they appear in every venue (above). You’ll get bored, but your brand will be strong. Resist the urge to fiddle.
4. What skills do designers lack most?
The most common weakness among all designers is knowledge of typography.
5. What are the differences between laying out a single page and a spread? And how about a longer section?
A single page is about the size of the human head, so everything’s right in front of us, and we see it all pretty much at once. A spread is too wide to see all at once, so our eyes must scan side to side. Same is true of a tabloid and a big computer screen. You must design a big space on two levels—global and local.
6. How do you use layout to control the reader’s eye?
Do you mean . . . . . . like this?
7. What part does color play in layout and typography?
Viewers identify color more quickly than any other attribute. They’re also attracted to or repelled by color more readily than any other attribute. Repellent colors on an otherwise brilliant layout will ruin it and vice-versa.
8. How important is the use of full color?
Full color is how we experience life, so the more “alive” that you want your page to feel, the more important full color is.
9. How do you accommodate for images if you have to plan a layout before you’ve seen them?
Use a grid. Without the actual photos you can control only the size and shape of an image. This is usually a heavy compromise, suitable mainly for newspapers.
10. Are there any errors that would give someone away as not being a professional layout artist?
An amateur is likely to use more fonts or more decorative fonts or apply embellishments like shadows and outlines. An amateur is likelier to put borders around things. An amateur is likelier to even out the “gray,” making the page elements similar in size and spacing. From a pro you’re likelier to see very bold moves and high contrasts of color, size and position.
The print version of this article is in Before & After issue 38.