Here are some basic rules to follow that will help you develop the skills of a good graphic designer with a solid technical foundation. These rules are to help you avoid some simple fundamental mistakes that many inexperienced designers make. Keep in mind that no rule is absolute in the world of design, so the rules can always be bent for the sake of better design. The intent here is to simply help elevate your fundamental level of design knowledge and to encourage you to go beyond the rules when it is the right decision.
Be aware the age group that your design is going to target is an important factor. Younger readers need larger print because it is difficult for them to distinguish the characters and comprehend words. As a guideline:
Kindergarten-First Grade 24 pt. bold
Second Grade 24 pt. plain
Third-Fourth Grade 18 pt. plain
Fifth Grade 14pt. Plain
Also, readers over 40 may have vision problems, so you should use a minimum of 14 point type that will help them read your copy with less difficulty.
Be sure that you use a good visual separation between the words and the background. Avoid light or bright colors and avoid complicated or busy backgrounds.
A great design and great content make a for great product.
Remember to always know your audience. It sounds simple, but if we don't know what our audience wants or how they best will receive the message, we can't create a design that will appeal to them effectively.
Make note that your target market's reading skills can influence design. It is especially important that the page layout is not intimidating for people who can't read well or who don't enjoy reading. You can achieve this by using plenty of white space that helps to narrow columns (39 to 52 character — 8 to 12 words) and remove redundant copy that paraphrases or summarizes the content. Use color to categorize content. Most importantly, treat similar information similarly. Understand the importance of consistency for the reader and ways to create a consistent and balanced look through different types of repetition.
Remember, you are not designing for yourself, you are designing to communicate to others. Take the audience's needs, skills, and abilities into account when developing your design. Consider the culture of your audience. Western cultures read from the upper left across to the right and then down. Asian cultures read from the upper right down and then across. The habits and orientations of the culture are difficult to override, so always keep these in mind when designing.
Symmetrical, radial, formal, and informal ways of arranging elements on a page to achieve visual balance is an important element of your design process. Also covers the 'rule of thirds' and other structural elements. Our bodies need a balance of nutrients to keep us healthy but every now and then it's OK to pig out on junk. Balance in design is much the same. For most of our reading our eyes and minds are most comfortable with evenly balanced layouts where the graphics don't overpower the text and the page doesn't seem to tilt to one side or the other.
Learn how to arrange elements on the page through proximity by keeping like items together and creating unity by how close or far apart elements are from each other. Observe a group of people in a room. You can often learn a lot about who is listening intently to another person, which are strangers, or who is ignoring who by how close together they sit or stand. In design, proximity or closeness creates a bond between people and between elements on a page. How close together or far apart elements are placed suggests a relationship (or lack of) between otherwise disparate parts. Unity is also achieved by using a third element to connect distant parts..
The art of nothing is another description for this principle. White space is an important principle of design missing from the page layouts of many novices. White space is nothing. White space is the absence of text and graphics. It breaks up text and graphics. It provides visual breathing room for the eye. Add white space to make a page less cramped, confusing, or overwhelming. Leave plenty of white space around type and graphic elements (an eighth to a quarter inch depending on size relative to the layout).
Leave a little more white space at the bottom of a page relative to the top of the page (e.g., 0.75 inch at the top and 1 inch at the bottom). This will optically balance the page so it won't look like it is slipping off at the bottom. Create a wide margin to direct the reader's attention into the copy or image area. Use at least a quarter-inch gutter between columns. Use left aligned (unjustified) text to create visual relief for your audience. Be careful that the "rag" indents on the right are not too big.
Increase leading (white space between lines) to lighten the look of the page. Invite the reader into the page by leaving open space at the top and along the left margin.
While centered text has its place it is often the mark of a novice designer. Learn how to align text and graphics to create more interesting, dynamic, or appropriate layouts. Lack of alignment creates a sloppy, unorganized look. Mixing too many alignments can have a similiar effect. However, it's also OK to break alignment when it serves a specific purpose such as to intentionally create tension or draw attention to a specific element on the page.
For simple arrangements, items can be aligned using the automatic align options in your software. For more complicated layouts the use of guidelines and grids aid in the precise placement of elements. Try to limit the number of fonts used in a design to a minimum-less is more when it comes to fonts in graphic design. Most importantly, have another set of eyes look at your work. So many foolish, careless errors can pass by your eyes after staring at a piece of work for too long. Use the buddy system, it's a lifesaver.
Big vs. small, black vs. white. These are some ways to create contrast and visual interest. Learn a variety of ways to use contrast. Contrast is one the principles of design. Contrast occurs when two elements are different. The greater the difference the greater the contrast. The key to working with contrast is to make sure the differences are obvious. Four common methods of creating contrast are by using differences in size, value, color, and type.
Contrast adds interest to the page and provides a means of emphasizing what is important or directing the reader's eye. On a page without contrast, the reader doesn't know where to look first or what is important. Contrast makes a page more interesting so the reader is more apt to pay attention to what is on the page. Contrast aids in readability by making headlines and subheadings stand out. Contrast shows what is important by making smaller or lighter elements recede on the page to allow other elements to take center stage.
Color is symbolism and association. It is fundamental to the mechanics of color reproduction on the Web and in print. Color is not essential to a good design, but great design makes good use of color theory. Black and white and shades of gray can create 'color' that is just as effective as reds, blues, and greens. However, color is an added dimension that can evoke moods and make powerful statements when used wisely.
Remember, like anything in life, you will get better at graphic design by doing it. Most people learn more from their mistakes than their successes in life, so try to take something away from every design experience your have. Always observe your surroundings and the objects you encounter in everyday life. Study the design of these things and decide what, in your opinion, works and doesn't work and why. Inspiration can come from anywhere, so keep your eyes as well as your mind open.