Consistency

Unless you’re designing a video game, consistency matters. Not to make things dull, but to keep attention focused on the good stuff. It’s like driving: Because every stop sign looks alike, you can get where you’re going and carry on a good conversation while you get there. If, instead, all stop signs looked different — like, whatever; you know, creative — you’d spend the whole drive worried about whether you should stop, or where, or when, or how, trying to figure things out. You’d lose your good conversation and your peace, and it would be scary besides. That’s what consistency in design is about. Get the routine, navigational stuff consistent so your audience can settle in, then you can have fun with the real stuff.

Stop signs



  • Email
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Plus
  • Pinterest
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • RSS
This entry was posted in Design, Editorial, Illustration. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Consistency

  1. Reid says:

    “Unless you’re designing a video game, consistency matters.”

    I know the point you’re trying put across here, but in video-game design you worry about repetitiveness — in the visuals, in the action and in the missions. It can quickly make a game boring. Consistent design in video games matters as much as it does everywhere else. Controls, characters, actions, story, and even the look of the game’s “world” must all maintain a high level of consistency. Without it, the result is the same as a boring game — nobody will want to play it.

    Good points in your post, but they are just as applicable to video games as they are to web and print design.

    • Katrina says:

      Yeah, I really don’t get this analogy either. With several artists all working on the same game project, I cannot think of a project that would require more of a need for consistency than video games. Have you seen the art bibles for these things??

  2. Betty says:

    Thanks for this article John! I attend a weekly networking meeting, and I’ve run out of topics to discuss regarding graphic design. Consistency is the Key to Brand Recognition will be next week’s topic.

  3. Mike says:

    Ties in well with your previous post of But it’s already been done, John.

    Fact is, to use BAM as an example, certain design elements (color, layout, etc.) need to be consistent, not new and “fresh.” It’s the content that needs to be fresh, compelling, consistently expressed. Else it can appear that a publication or ad campaign hasn’t found its voice, that it is poking around in the dark hoping to hit something.

    At least when designing publications for a single entity. There needs to be compelling reason for change. The question of “why” to change something needs to be evaluated and answered. U.S. and European road signs have gone through that process. Corporate signage also needs to periodically go through that process even if at the end the determination is to not change anything.

    Take care, Mike

  4. Piero says:

    What a beautiful analogy: maybe your best analogy ever.

  5. Catherine Erik-Soussi, EdD says:

    I just love Mr. McWade’s commentary and valuable learning tools. What and how he shares is great design: defined, clear, and punctuated. His are top takeaways, and I often refer to his website presentations to accent my college lectures on design, perception, and function. What a model.

    Keep it coming, PLEASE. You are a treasure sir.

  6. Amber says:

    Exactly! This is why it’s so important to have standards for the use of a company logo. It may seem obsessive when a designer is handed a thick binder containing branding guidelines, but consistency truly does matter. People need to be able to glance very briefly at a logo (just like a stop sign) and recognize it, then move on. I’ve seen businesses that will change the proportions, colors, fonts, etc. of their logo/wordmark on a whim. If I were the logo police, I’d tell them it makes them look unprofessional. :)

  7. Mike Ver Duin says:

    Good talking point.

    What caught my eye was “designing a stop sign.” Have you seen the video about designing a stop sign by committee?

    • Rae Stanton says:

      LOVE IT!

      • Perlyn says:

        “Unless you’re designing a video game, consistency matters.” I know the point you’re trying to put across here, but in video-game design you worry about repetitiveness in the visuals, in the action and in the missions. It can quickly make a game boring. Consistent design in video games matters as much as it does everywhere else. Controls, characters, actions, story, and even the look of the game’s world must all maintain a high level of consistency. Without it, the result is the same as a boring game, and nobody will want to play it. Good points in your post, but they are just as applicable to video games as they are to web and print design.

  8. Jesse says:

    The sound you didn’t just hear was that of me smacking myself on the forehead. I’m amazed at how you’re always able to point out the obvious without me ever thinking to myself “I already knew that, thanks for nothing.” Nope, instead (more often than not) I’m simply left just sitting there with my mouth hanging open. Eternally thankful.

  9. Jeanne says:

    I really miss the stop sign that stood at the exit of Madison’s TexMex restaurant, El Dorado. It duplicated all the elements of the standard stop sign except for the word: “WHOA.” I’d bet it was more effective than the standard sign, although it seems that the city begged to differ because it didn’t stay up long.

  10. Thom Klos says:

    Hi John,

    “First-time caller.” I’m a big fan of your articles as well as Before & After. I couldn’t agree with you more about the need and benefits of consistency. Unfortunately, there are too many people out there who do not understand this concept. Not only are their logos inconsistent but so are their sales and marketing materials across various print and electronic media.

    Keep up the great work!

    • Kamaljit says:

      Ties in well with your previous post of But it’s already been done, John. Fact is, to use Before & After magazine as an example, certain design elements (color, layout, etc.) need to be consistent, not new and fresh. It’s the content that needs to be fresh, compelling, consistently expressed. Else it can appear that a publication or ad campaign hasn’t found its voice, that it is poking around in the dark hoping to hit something. At least when designing publications for a single entity, there needs to be a compelling reason for change. The question of why to change something needs to be evaluated and answered. U.S. and European road signs have gone through that process. Corporate signage also needs to periodically go through that process, even if at the end the determination is to not change anything. Take care, Mike

  11. Lauren Turetsky says:

    Just to throw a curve ball into this discussion, I would like to comment that not everything in the design needs to be consistent. There are times when only certain elements have consistency and this can be where design gets interesting.

    Two examples of this are:
    Google’s logo changing to represent an idea/holiday/person etc.

    Michael Bierut’s posters for the Yale School of Architecture. Each features a unique treatment of the school’s encircled Y trademark. Yale School of Architecture and the Y changes, but the posters are always in black & white, and there is always a Y in a circle.

    • Joanne says:

      Yes, Lauren, in those two examples there is change, but there is still a constant — the word “Google” and the white “Y” inside the black circle. I agree in strong design standards to make it easy for people to sift through all the visual noise of today.

      • Lauren Turetsky says:

        Yes! I definitely agree that there are constants and therefore consistency, but the idea of having a series of logos is a daring design choice. It would have been much safer for the Yale School to choose one consistent logo or logotype than variables.

  12. Peter says:

    In a previous job I was designing navigation for a large site. I insisted that each navigational structure for the sub-units be consistent. I was called in to a sub-unit director’s office because their staff wanted their pages to be “unique.” I had the following quote from Emerson thrown at me “consistency is the hobgobblin of small minds.” Fortunately, I knew the quote in context as, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” An important distinction, as John notes, since things like the fact that we all drive on the right (in the U.S.) or stop at red lights is not a “foolish consistency” nor is the use of consistent navigational elements!

  13. I remember when Before & After experimented rather briefly with taking its format from an 8-1/2″ x 11″ to an 11″ x 17″ tab. The blowback was a bit explosive, and the format quickly went back to 8-1/2″ x 11″ because that is the size that fit into a binder and on a desk next to a computer keyboard.

    • John McWade says:

      Print issues 31 and 32, unique in our history.

      • :-) I love how you corrected the formatting of the dimensions in my comment . . . even to the use of ″ instead of ” for inches. One small — but important — reason why Before & After will always be the standard by which design is measured.

  14. Wal Robinson says:

    As a signwriter, I am often explaining to clients that it is better to use recognisable symbols, colours, directory signs, etc., as people need to be able to quickly take in the message and not spend time trying to translate it. As for being different or creative, often the most striking designs are the ones that take the standard and then contrast something against it to create drama and impact. So even in creativity, consistency is still important.

  15. Susan says:

    One of my photography professors in college was a big fan of this consistency principle. He would always tell us that it was the secret to McDonald’s success — buy a Big Mac here or in Moscow, and it always tastes the same! I have never tried a Big Mac in Moscow, and I don’t think I’ve ever eaten one here, for that matter, but I would agree that people are comfortable with the familiar. It lets them, as you say, “settle in.” Thanks for another amazing post (especially loved the accompanying visual!).

  16. J says:

    I don’t understand the video game analogy and I also find it insulting. There are great examples of UI in video game design. Blizzard is a great company to look at for this. How do they not use consistency in their design? It’s an outrageous comment. I worked in game design for 13 years as a graphic designer. Consistency is very important in ALL design. It creates an understandable and familiar language.

    • John McWade says:

      I agree. As I replied to the first two commenters, my analogy was a poor one. What I’d had in mind was not the UI but the anything-goes, shoot-em-up, knock-em-down, crazy-making scene-shifting of the typical video game. You are correct, of course; consistency, especially in the UI, indeed does create an understandable and familiar language!

      • J says:

        So you were thinking of the level layouts of a video game? Believe it or not, consistencies lie there as well because of the story, or playful, addicting pattern that is being created for the user. I think a good analogy would be a surrealist picture created for fine-art purposes. It could have consistencies but probably doesn’t need them. I think anything that is commercial needs consistencies to communicate effectively to the user to sell the message. Fine art expresses an emotion or inspiration, and its messaging is not always clear, but it does create an impact.

        P.S.: When I wrote the initial reply, I became very passionate and didn’t read through all of the comments. Sorry :-(

  17. Adele says:

    They should also cover these things in college handbooks as I have to teach all of my juniors everything all over again! Consistency should be the very first thing they teach. Thanks John!

  18. Samantha says:

    Gosh John! That was a great analogy! It makes perfect sense, and it’s a great way to actually explain to a client WHY they need that kind of consistency instead of having a million things going on at once!

    As always, you’re a genius! Thank you!

Comments are closed.