Archive for July, 2010

Graphic design tip: use bold contrast

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

There are a few central principles that good graphic design tends to be based upon.

In the future, you’ll hear me banging on a lot, for instance, about ‘hierarchy’ and ‘rhythm’ (both stories for another day).

Instead, today, let’s talk a bit about another of those principles: contrast.

Strong and confident use of contrast (and I don’t mean the button on your TV/monitor) can be the difference between a piece of design that looks average and amateur and one that looks stylish and professional.

What does contrast mean?

Contrast is about differences. Most commonly, in design, people think of it in terms of colour. Two colours that are very similar (deep orange and primary red, for instance) have much less contrast than two colours that are very different (dark blue and yellow).

But your contrast doesn’t have to be all about colour. It could be about size. A strongly contrasting design might incorporate very large elements and very small elements. Or it could be about shape: smooth curves set against jagged edges.

You get the idea.

Design is about making bold contrasts in a controlled way

Most people are afraid of contrast. If you try and put two very different elements together, there’s a chance you’ll fail, and fail very conspicuously. On the other hand, if you put two very similar elements together, there’s not that risk.

(And this doesn’t just go for graphic design. Who except a master of food design would put ice cream with bacon and egg?)

Big contrast = big risk.

This is because people notice contrast. The flip side? People tend to ignore things that exhibit low contrast.

But designers take risks

If you want your work to look designed, start using contrast. Sure, it may not always work out. But how much better to learn through failure than to stagnate through timidity?

This doesn’t mean everything has to be dramatic or unsubtle. Not at all. And you need to be strategic in your use of contrast: don’t make every part of your design contrasty, or you’ll have a crazed maelstrom of competing elements.

Here’s an example of how you can use contrast strategically

d'Overbroeck's College Garden Party invitation design

… It’s an invitation I recently designed for the d’Overbroeck’s College Summer Garden Party. Not a high-profile piece of work, and also a job that I had very little time to carry out. But I turned to my guiding principle of contrast to give me a quick solution.

So where’s the contrast? I guess there’s contrast inherent in white text on a dark background. But the contrast I’d like to focus on is that of typeface.

I’ve paired a beautiful script font – all fluency and curvaceous lines – with stolid gothic capitals. There is huge contrast, here: large vs small, flowing vs blocky, classic vs modern, lowercase vs capitals.

This is confident contrast. It reflects the ethos of the organisation I’m designing for (modern, bold) and also the nature of the event (a ‘traditional’ garden party). So it’s not just gratuitous contrast-for-contrast’s-sake.

But I know that people will see that invitation and will respond to it as if it’s something proper, something high quality. Because the invitation looks designed. Nobody would expect that kind of contrast from an invitation that someone’s PA had knocked out on the office printer and cut on the guillotine.

Therefore, looking at this, they’ll (probably subconsciously) think: ‘They got a designer to do the invitations? This is going to be a stylish event.’

Holistic design vs tacked-on design

Monday, July 26th, 2010

An illustration of a blackbird

The Shiny Forager has written a great blog post about the crossover between content and design. And she (correctly, in my view) takes issue with the idea that content and design are separate things.

The idea that one can do the content bit, then do the design bit. Or vice versa.

Her example is a presentation with slides. Should one do the talk first then create the slides as backup? Or create the slides first and write the talk to narrate and link the slides together?

But she concludes that one should do neither. One should conceive of the two in tandem; work on the slides and narrative together, organically, allowing each to feed into the other.

Absolutely right.

All great designs – be they presentations, websites, products – started off with a blank page. This has always been my problem with the notion of design-by-customisation. Handy though design-by-customisation may be – say in adapting another’s WordPress theme to make one’s own site – it unavoidably narrows your horizons.

Prejudices you to accept the status quo. To take the easy route. To imitate. To do what is conventional.

If you want to come up with something different, something that stands out, it’s probably not the best idea to take as your starting point somebody else’s framework.

Because it’s only the blank sheet of paper – the brainstorming stage at which anything goes – that allows true innovation.

And true innovation comes from integrated thinking.

This is what I’m calling holistic design. It’s what Apple’s Jonathan Ive did, creating the iPod: a product that wasn’t just a better mp3 player, but was a reinterpretation of an mp3 player. An mp3 player designed from the ground up, no preconceptions.

Great design demands that the designer be involved at all stages of a product’s conception – whether that product be a brochure, a website or an electronic device.

In the same way, great ads were created (typically) by a designer and a copywriter. In tandem. Not a copywriter doing the content, then handing it over to the designer for some visuals. Not the designer making a great image, then giving it to the copywriter to come up with some words.

But holistic design.

Why I designed this site the way I did

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

If there’s one overriding message I want to communicate about design, it’s that there is purpose behind it. That making something look nice is just part of the process. A fairly small part. Honestly.

Design starts with your audience, with your goals, your problems. And tries to speak to, achieve and address those things, respectively.
And I thought I’d start off illustrating this by writing about the recent redesign of the Parsley website.


A standard design portfolio type site tends simply to showcase a variety of projects. But what I think is important about Parsley’s approach is this idea of deliberate strategy. Having a reason for everything.

So, for us, a portfolio is not just an opportunity to get people looking at the results of your work; it’s also an opportunity to explain why that work looks as it does, how the process worked and what the thinking was behind it. So that a prospective client can browse through the projects and get a sense not just of how our work looks, but also what it might be like to work with us, and why we work the way we do.

The work should obviously stand alone (not everyone will want to read the text) – but I wanted to offer the curious a bit more insight into each project we feature.

To this end, I wanted a portfolio style that incorporated text as well as images. I also wanted each portfolio item to be Google-friendly (through having its own, keyword-led page, avoiding use of technologies such as Flash that block search).

I wanted a clean, non-gimmicky look. Because a portfolio website is about the work it features, and I didn’t want the design template to compete with the portfolio pieces. I chose clean lines, coherent colours and a minimum of distracting clutter.


Sorry, herb-lovers, but parsley’s just in the name.

Some of the other design variants involved graphics/photos of parsley. But I don’t really want people to focus too much on vegetation. Otherwise we start looking like a gardening centre.

And that’s not one of my goals.

Good day, and welcome

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

Today sees the launch of the newly redesigned Parsley site. You’re on it, right now.

What do you mean, you didn’t notice?

Well. The inclusion of this blog is one of several additions to the old site, which was looking somewhat tired.

Soon I’ll blog about the site redesign and the thinking behind it – as well as populating this blog with opinion, critiques, news and work. But, for now, I merely repeat: welcome.