How Design Principles Help You Make Design Decisions

Is there a sequence to apply design principles when creating a composition? That’s the question Mita asked in a comment on a recent post. With so many things to consider, should we apply certain principles before others?

While some principles are more important than others and are likely to be thought about first, I don’t think you apply design principles in sequence. The principles of design are about how to communicate ideas and concepts graphically.
Understanding them leads to better design decisions.

While this post will focus on design, please note much of what’s here could be applied to many other aspects of life. As a general rule I think understanding more about any subject is valuable in helping you make better decisions.

Help people make good design decisions

Making Design Decisions

The design of anything involves making a lot of decisions. You have to decide what the thing will do and how it will do it. You have to decide what features to include and more importantly, what not to include. From the moment you begin to design to the moment you stop, you’re making decisions.

Some decisions are easy to make. There’s a clear best among the possible options. However, the more options there are and the less difference between one option and the next, the harder it becomes to decide.

Design principles show you how to communicate the ideas you want to share visually

When designing a site you have to decide what typeface to use, how large should the font be, how wide should a measure of text should be, how much space should exist between each line of text, and on and on. Even with just these few things there’s an endless number of combinations you could choose.

How about color? Why choose one specific color from all the millions of possible hues, shades, and values? Having made the choice once, what colors should you then choose to go with the first? Without any context to provide a reason for choosing you can become overwhelmed quickly. Without a reason you’ll probably fall back on choosing from among your personal favorite colors just so you have some kind of reason to narrow the options.

Design principles serve as a better context to help you decide. They offer guidelines based on decades and centuries of experience to help narrow down a limitless number of options to a few you can more reasonably choose from.

The principles don’t make the decisions for you, but they offer a rational context to constrain options and help you decide.

Unity and Design Choices

If there is a design principle that comes first, perhaps it’s unity, which tells us that every part of a design should work together toward the same purpose. Each then reinforces the others so the whole becomes more than the sum of all the parts. Unity provides the missing context.

You first make some decisions based not on specific design principles, but on the goals of the design and what you’re trying to communicate. You form a concept in unity with site goals and use that concept to lead you down a general path of design decisions reducing an infinite amount of options to a manageable few.

If your concepts calls for being conservative it suggests a more neutral color palette than a varied and colorful palette. Your conservative concept immediately reduces all possible color choices to a more manageable amount.

A second kind of unity, visual unity, works in a similar way though it stems more from design principles. It suggests your second color be chosen from those that work well with your first. It tells you font-size, leading, and measure should all inform each other and be informed by the choice of a typeface.

If you follow both conceptual and visual unity, each decision you make further constrains all the decisions that follow, making it easier to choose.

Decisions at the end should be easier to make than decisions at the start since there should be fewer possible options from which to choose. If you find later decisions difficult to make and you’re fighting against the initial choices you made, either you’ve made a poor decision early or you’re hanging on to something despite what unity is telling you.

Design Principles Show You How

The initial decisions in a design are mostly informed by things external to the design itself. These early decisions are less about visual principles and more about site and business goals. Design principles will come in after you’ve chosen a concept. They guide you in how to communicate that concept.

For example say one of the things you’re trying to communicate in a design is a concept of openness. Further, say in one section of the design you want to show that certain bits of information are related and distinct from other bits of information. You decide to group these related bits together.

How might you go about connecting and separating the information? You could:

  • Present similar information in the same color
  • Place related information at the endpoints of connecting lines
  • Enclose each group of information by drawing a border around it
  • Provide more space between the different groups than between the information inside each group

Any of the above and more can be used to show some information on the page belongs together and that the group of information is distinct from another group. So which should you choose?

In this example I said the concept called for openness. Of the 4 choices above, space conveys openness better than the other options so it’s the option I would likely choose. Proximity is the principle that shows space can be used this way. Understanding the principle allows you to reference it when making a choice. Had you not been aware of proximity your choice in how to connect and separate information would have come from a less open solution.

The principle didn’t help determine that openness was a goal and it didn’t help decide which information should be grouped together, but having made those choices, the principle helped show how to visually communicate them.

Summary

You’re going to make a lot of choices when designing a site. The early and more important decisions will be informed by the goals of the project and the definition of the design problem. They’ll also be informed by your own experiences and observations. You’ll be looking outside the design to constrain options to a manageable amount.

There isn’t a single right choice with these early decisions. There will be several workable solutions and part of why you’ve been hired is to try to find the best of these workable solutions.

Once a few initial decisions are made, the principle of unity provides a roadmap to decisions that come after. Each unified decision then further constrains the options for subsequent decisions.

Most design principles offer the how. They show you how you can visually communicate the ideas you want to share with an audience. Much as we can choose different words and different ways to form sentences, we can choose among different elements and principles to communicate visually.

A larger vocabulary and understanding of grammar can help you communicate better through writing. A greater understanding of design elements and principles can help you communicate better visually.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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