The skill designers lack and other small tips

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.

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25 Responses to The skill designers lack and other small tips

  1. Split5 says:

    Well written . . . I like the way of explaining things just like an FAQ instead of an article. A lot of interesting points you mentioned.


  2. Dirk Dallas says:

    As always awesome! I like these little snippets.

  3. David Johns says:

    Well put. You’ve done it again.

  4. Amy Stewart says:

    Excellent points. I especially appreciate the comment about brands needing consistency, even at the expense of it seeming “boring.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to talk clients out of changing their look simply because they’re tired of it.

    And I totally agree about amateurs tending to put borders on things. Any embellishment that’s easy to add in the Office suite is one that should generally be avoided in professional printwork. I just wrote a treatise on my website about why underlines should be banned:

  5. Ken Tryon says:

    When you say designers lack skill in typography, do you mean designing type or using type? What are some good resources to learn typography?

    I like your take on communication: I moved into design from tech support and video, and the common theme is clearly communicating ideas. In my case, it is especially communicating technical concepts to non-technical people. My mom taught junior high math and science, and I guess it rubbed off.


  6. Luis says:

    Thank you for this article! It was clear and succinct. I like the short direct answers that drive the point home!

  7. Giulietta says:

    Excellent reminders. Typography is an art unto itself. You have to learn to “feel” the typography since optical in this case really can be an illusion.


    Rebel at large

  8. I have to agree that designers these days lack skill in typography. The use of it, that is. I started my design career before computers. I took design courses at MCAD and would hand comp headlines using issues of U&Lc magazine for assignments. Every typeface has a personality, and it’s important to know this when communicating key messages. Now that I use the computer for design, I still apply the same attention to detail to the typography — choosing the right typeface for the project, its size, leading, kerning, etc.

    Thanks for a terrific (and short) article. Well put!

  9. Jarrod Galm says:


    You say that many designers are lacking typographic understanding. Are there any books you can recommend that would help designers get a better understanding of typography?

  10. Mary Ramirez says:

    Thanks for some very good observations…prompting me to say “eek, do I do that?” Being a typesetter requires a sense of balance and design, but I feel that I must add that a passable command of the English language goes a long way in creating any work that deals with words. The tragedy is how much misuse and downright ignorance is evident these days.
    I love the articles. I am still trying to make the leap from the days of black words on white paper to millions of colors and consequently trillions of combinations. Green and pink? It can be done!

  11. Kerry says:


    I would recommend, “Basic Typography: A Design Manual” by James Craig, and “Logo, Font & Lettering Bible” by Leslie Cabarga as good starters.

  12. Kerry says:


    Good article in small bite sizes.

    Coming from the era where we had to draw headlines, sketch out body copy for pre-comps, and figuring out copy-fitting before sending out for type, I would have to agree that the respect for typography in the age of “free fonts” is lacking.

    Type isn’t just the obligatory words that are needed to make sense of the design. They have shapes and meaning that transcends their purpose of comprehension. In other words, the shapes of each counter and x-height influence how the words are to be read, and the emotion they are to convey.

    Other than comprehension, the typography should match the style and mood of what is being communicated. And the other elements, such as pictures and color, help support this same message. Together they can make a powerful visual communication.

  13. Devun Fernandez says:

    I think we’re on the same page, no pun intended. Great article. Go Helvetica!

  14. I really enjoyed this article. When I was brand police/brand educator for an international commercial real estate company, I had to answer to that “it’s so boring” mindset every day! I love how you worded the concept. Thanks, I always enjoy the Design Talk posts!

  15. Joe says:

    I love how you explained what I learned in the course of 4 years in college in only a couple of sentences. As far as type, I totally agree. The film Helvetica helped me begin to truly understand type:

  16. NitroPress says:

    I would agree that many designers, even those with enough training and education to know better, are weak on typographical design principles. But I wouldn’t call it the greatest weakness overall.

    IMHO, the greatest weakness is not learning enough about the subject and the intended audience, and doing a beautiful, award-contending design that is abysmally matched to its need.

  17. Chris Purcell says:

    John, thanks for your remarks about the importance of typography. It’s true!

    I work as a typography trainer for a greeting card company. While a large part of the training I do concerns our proprietary typefaces and our house style, I also spend a lot of time on the basic stuff: optical adjustment of size, leading and kerning; ligatures, apostrophes, etc etc. Many of the new hires I meet, who are very good designers, tell me that they learned about type as a design element, but not about how to set it correctly.

    If Jarrod happens to revisit this thread, I’d also recommend R. Bringhurst’s very comprehensive “Elements of Typographic Style,” which should be purchased in hardcover, so that it lasts as long as you live.

    James Felici’s “Complete Manual of Typography” is also very good, but in a more cumbersome size. But good.

  18. Dare Porter says:

    I agree with Chris Purcell, while typography is important, understanding the intent of the article, ad, or site is paramount. Design should support the message, not overwhelm or misdirect. Each design is a solution to a problem with typography being only one of the elements.

  19. Tip #10 is crucial . . . I’ve seen less-experienced designers put boxes within boxes and around boxes. Thanks for this tip!

  20. Beth Watson says:

    I usually agree with your comments, but find this one to have an issue. The topic, consistency. “If you’re painting a picture, there’s not much need for consistency. If you’re communicating a company brand, consistency is gospel.” In my painting classes, especially with oils, I have found that even there, an underlying thread ties in. Example: When we are preparing to paint, we have a certain color, the mother color, that is mixed into many of the other colors we are going to use. It ties them together, even if you don’t know it is there, and makes the image look more “together” and from the same color family.

    • John McWade says:

      You raise a good issue. Consistency (in your case color consistency) exists in every good painting, and I’d add that consistency in various forms (type, color, line, shape, etc.) is present in every good design. In the case of branding, however, we’re talking about consistency over time, meaning the same image repeated again and again and again and again and again. You do this in painting only if you are creating a matched set or series of images. Thomas Kinkade’s look-alike paintings come to mind — which because of the repetition have become a brand.

  21. Ian Samson says:

    Brief and concise. I love your articles!

    As a Creative Head, I know if a layout is a disaster or a gold bar by merely looking at its fonts! In using contrast, a shadow must remain a shadow. If it darkens everything, then it becomes another gloomy piece of wasted idea.

  22. Excellent article.

    “The most common weakness among all designers is knowledge of typography.”

    Not ignorance of typography.

    I can’t be the only reader to have appreciated the irony in the statement, can I?

  23. Ussen says:

    Proof positive. Typography is not an appendage of graphic design. It is its essence.

  24. A nice way to communicate professionalism in designing.

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