How A Limited Palette Can Make You A Better Designer

Recently I came across the short video below in which noted designer Massimo Vignelli suggests (PDF) we use too many typefaces and designers wouldh be better off sticking with a dozen or so well done fonts our entire careers.

I disagree, as have others, but it did get me thinking about how a limited palette can be a great aid to learning.

Learning in Chunks

In high school you weren’t taught calculus before geometry. You didn’t learn geometry without first having been taught algebra and long before algebra you learned how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

We can’t and don’t learn everything at once. We learn in chunks. We ignore learning some things until we’ve hopefully mastered others.

If you’re like me you were overwhelmed with all the languages you wanted to learn when first teaching yourself how to build websites.

There’s html and css, front end scripting with javascript, and backend scripting with php or asp. Those backend scripts work best with a database like mysql, postgresql, or sql server.

It’s a lot to learn and it doesn’t take long to realize you aren’t going to be an expert in all of them within a few weeks.

The way I learned was in choosing one (html), learning what I could, and then adding another (css). I didn’t necessarily learn everything about one language before starting to learn the next.

I learned the basics of html and then when looking at intermediate html topics I added beginner css. Once I’d moved on to intermediate css I tackled basic javascript.

Essentially I limited the entirety of what I might learn in order to focus on learning one or perhaps two things well at a time. Those one or two things became my initial palette, which I later expanded to include additional things.

Closeup of a painter's palette

Design Palettes

Much like development there’s a lot to learn about design. To name a few:

You aren’t going to be an expert with all of the above overnight. It makes sense to pick one or two to start learning and then include some of the others.

You aren’t going to be an expert with any of the above overnight either. It also makes sense to learn and work with a limited subset of each topic and once you’re comfortable working with that subset, expand the set.

Typography poster

Typographic Palettes

Since it was the Vignelli video that made me think about the topic let me describe the idea in more detail in terms of typography, though this can apply to any aspect of design you wish to learn.

In the last few years the use of @font-face and websites like Typekit and FontSquirrel have opened up the typeface choices available to designers.

The more I learn about typography, the more I want to learn about it and it’s become a large part of my recent self-education as a designer. Still it’s a struggle for me to choose a typeface. I can easily say I like or don’t like a particular face, but don’t necessarily know when to a use one typeface over another.

I’ve come to understand the different ways a typeface might be categorized, but don’t yet understand the subtle differences between faces in the same category. In time I’ll see more of those subtle differences, but at the moment my knowledge and understanding isn’t quite there.

When choosing a typeface for a specific design I can spend endless hours going back and forth trying to choose one without really knowing enough to determine why one is better than another for that specific project.

I know enough to decide a serif will work better than a sans-serif or that an ornamental face is appropriate. What I don’t know yet is how to choose one particular serif over another.

At the same time there are many other important aspects of typography like.

Learning to work with the above is easier when working with a single typeface than always working with a different typeface. Choosing only one face to use isn’t practical of course, but choosing a handful certainly is.

Instead of spending countless back and forth hours choosing which font to use why not limit yourself to a palette of typefaces. Why not stick to a half dozen or so typefaces while exploring leading and typographic color.

By choosing to work with a limited palette of typefaces I can eliminate the confusion I have picking one over another and spend more time working with and learning the many other aspects of typography.

Once my skills working with a small palette of type improves I’ll expand my palette to include more faces.

Typographic scale: the letter 'a' shown from 6px to 72px

How to Build a Palette

You can’t arbitrarily pick a few typefaces and have an effective palette for solving a variety of design problems. Your palette would need to be more varied than Helvetica and Arial for example, as both are similar and would likely be solutions to similar problems.

Instead you’d first want to spend some time understanding a little about typefaces and their classifications

With that understanding you can choose a face or two from several typeface classifications . Later when you expand your palette can start digging into the subclasses under the classifications you use most often.

While the goal is to limit the palette of typefaces to focus on the other aspects of typography, you do need to learn enough about typefaces in order to effectively select a palette.

Book cover for The Grid System

Other Design Palettes

I’ve been using typography as the example, but everything above can be applied to most any aspect of design.

  • Color—Learn how to effectively work with one color scheme based on a handful of colors before working with others. You might even learn to work in grayscale, limiting your hues, while working to master tone and luminence.
  • Layout—You might stick to designing fixed layouts varying the overall width of the layout before jumping into more fluid designs.
  • Grids—You could try working with either horizontal or vertical grids before adding the other. You could choose to work with columnar girds and later add in modular grids.
  • Style—Learn to master one design style before moving to the next. Study minimalism as a base before adding in details of a grunge or hand-drawn style.

None of the above is meant to say you should force client projects to adopt your constraints so you can learn design better.

Naturally you wouldn’t ignore the client’s color branding just so you can experiment with your earth tone palette. You can however experiment on your own projects or know when it’s ok to add your learning constraints to a client project.

Sticking with the typography example most of your clients aren’t going to require you use a specific typeface. You should be able to find a face within your palette that will work.

A big part of the idea of building a palette is to make sure your palette is varied enough to be part of the solution.

Typeface characteristics

Summary

None of us is capable of learning everything at once. We learn better by isolating certain subjects for study and then building on what we’ve learned.

This is true of both theory and practice. It’s one thing to understand the characteristics of one typeface and another to effectively work with it in a design.

Instead of trying to work with everything we can set up limited though varied palettes of different aspects of design. Limited enough to be able to focus on learning other things, and varied enough to be confident a solution can be found within our palette.

Have you tried this approach to learning design? If so where you have formed palettes and how have they helped you?

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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