Industrial designer and list maker Dieter Rams wrote a mini-festo in 80s called “Ten Principles for Good Design”. It’s hard to disagree with but I always felt it lacked a practicality that a student or someone early in their career might find helpful. Although I have years before I can consider myself a master like Rams, I thought it would be useful to post my own list of what I’ve learned so far. Here are ten I find most important:
1. The computer is a production tool, not a design tool.
Design is both a noun and a verb. A design is something you create, a technical drawing, a digital comp, or a set of instructions. To design is to imagine then articulate; it is the act of forming an intention. The verb form takes place in your head, then must be translated and worked out with a tool — and the less restrictive the better. I recommend a pencil.
2. Understand the golden ratio and use it.
I like to think of 1.618 as the Pi of rectangles. Just as Pi describes the relationship of a perfect circle to its radius, The Golden Ratio describes the relationship of a perfect rectangle to its diagonals. Because graphic designers work almost primarily with rectangles, (e.g. computer screens, paper, televisions) it is important to know how to use them correctly. Oddly enough, the ratio also describes the shape of spiral galaxies and just about every system in nature. There is much to learn, so read up.
3. Do not reinvent convention, use conventions that work.
Convention is something that is adopted by a user group or society, more than it is created by a single designer. Think of it as a process of consensus that over gets harder and harder to change over time. Asking a user to adjust to something unconventional is asking for their time, most users are only willing to spare a little before jumping ship.
4. You, the designer, must decide what is most important.
Hierarchy is what separates something that is designed from something that is not. It is a tool to create a linear narrative, even if the experience is non-linear–such as with most websites. Users left to there own devices will create a wide range of experiences for themselves, but most will take the path of less resistance. It is your job to make that path lead somewhere.
5. Tell a story.
Design is communication. Communication at its most basic level is the telling of a story. A good product or brand is an extension of our personal story. Our smart phones, our sports cars, our clothes. Anything that says something about our personality and the choices we make. Graphic design is a big part of how that is story told.
6. Done is better than perfect.
I once took a class with Ed Benguiat, a legendary logo and type designer who drew most of the fonts you use everyday with his hand. Reflecting on a long and prolific career he once said, “I never made a single piece that I liked”. This is the rub of being a perfectionist; you are never satisfied, you are never finished. Unfortunately clients don’t think the same way and judge you by the work you actually produce. At a certain point, often before you’re ready, you must hand over your masterpiece.
7. Making good work is difficult.
If you’re tired, frustrated, and are thinking of a career change, you’re probably making progress.
8. Understand typography and use it.
Developing your typography skills is akin to learning how to play the piano. Playing a note is as easy as pushing a key. There are a few simple tunes you can pick up quick, but mastering arrangement, rhythm, and cadence takes time and practice. Like music, type has subtleties that are not easily explained–it just has to feel right. There are a few rules too. Find a great teacher.
9. Be a psychologist.
Clients are often terrible at saying what they really mean or even knowing what they really want. The reasoning behind their decision making often has to do with factors that have little to do with a good design, like what they think their boss will like. Use design rounds as a way of understanding what they want, not as a way of gaining their approval. Convince them a great idea is theirs–they are paying for your council and your expertise, not your ego.
10. Learn to love the process not the product.
My first drawing class in college involved making countless three minute gesture drawings in charcoal, which were thrown away at the end of class. After a few classes our teacher gave us the chance to really show our stuff, telling us to spend an hour and a half on one drawing. When we were finished he instructed us to throw those drawings away as well, without sharing them with anyone. It was a special kind of torture for a group of young art students who were eager to impress, but it was an important lesson.
In design, anything worth doing will involve a team of people and most likely someone else’s money. Falling too much in love with your own vision will not only prevent you from accepting other’s good ideas, it will cause friction from your co-workers. Love what you do and let the good work happen on its own.