Have you ever found yourself working on a task for which you hardly feel equipped? Perhaps the task fell to you because it aligned more closely with your other job responsibilities than anyone else’s. As you begin trying to tackle the task, however, you might feel about as adept as an elephant in the kitchen. This is especially common when you’re working for a small business or a nonprofit organization because teams are small, and team members are usually wearing multiple hats. Design work often fits into this category—you could think of it as design for non-designers.

Perhaps you oversee marketing for your organization. You’re engaging with new customers, building relationships with current customers, developing marketing strategy, creating content, nurturing the email list, and managing social media. So, it makes sense that you would also be the one to handle design, right?! It might sound like a simple addition, but as you begin to create designs of your own, you might find they just don’t feel quite right. And, even more frustrating, you’re not even sure how to begin evaluating them.

design for non-designers

What makes a good design?

We all appreciate good design. To go for a drive in a fine sports car is to experience excellence in design—a smooth ride, quick acceleration, tight handling around corners, and a stellar sound system. Rarely do we give any thought to the suspension, the gearing, the transmission, the steering mechanism, and the computer system. We just know the driving experience is top notch. 

In the same way, most of us recognize a good visual design when we encounter it. It captures our attention and communicates effectively. As with automobile design, visual design relies on a set of underlying components and principles that most people rarely consider. When all the components click, it just feels right. As a designer, you will want to “take a good look under the hood” and spend some time considering these elements and principles of design. 

Whether you have some natural affinity for design or find yourself reaching for tips on design for non-designers, be encouraged that the underlying principles of design can be learned, and implementing them will drastically improve your efforts. Becoming aware of the basic principles of design will not only help you in your design, but will also give you the tools to evaluate the designs you like and determine what makes them work. So, let’s get started!

The 11 Basic Principles:

design for non-designers

– the arrangement of elements to show their degree of importance.

Hierarchy is about deciding which information in your design is most important, and then arranging the elements of your design to guide the user through your design. More important elements should be more eye-catching, so the user can easily tell where to focus their attention. A very simple example of hierarchy in design would be a newspaper with bold headlines, sub-headings and smaller body text. There are all kinds of ways to increase or decrease the emphasis placed on a component of your design, such as changing the text or image size, adjusting the location on the page, and working with color and contrast.  

Scale – the relative size of one element in relationship to another.

Scale is all about comparison and relative size, so we can’t discuss scale unless we’ve got two elements in relationship. Playing with the scale of a design element is one way to create hierarchy or show your viewer where to look in your design. For example, we might scale a particular image up or down to unexpected sizes, thus attracting the attention of the audience.  

Contrast – the degree of difference between two elements.

Contrast in various elements of a design can be increased or decreased to accomplish the intended purpose within a design. If you want to highlight or draw attention to a particular part of a design, you can increase the contrast to make it pop. Decreasing the contrast, on the other hand, will make an element less prominent, maybe even disappearing into the background. A designer might employ contrast in size, shape, thickness, or color.

negative space
Negative Space – the areas that are intentionally left empty in a design.

Also referred to as white space, negative space is basically the background. It does not have to actually be white. It might have a texture, a color, or even a pattern, but it keeps the design from feeling too busy or cluttered and it assures that the viewer’s eye can attend to the focal point of the design.  

Balance – the distribution of visual weight throughout a design.

Balance refers to the idea that every component of a design—the text, the images, the lines, the shapes—has a “weight” or a degree of presence. Keeping balance in mind means making sure that you don’t have too many design elements piling up in any one section of your design. Because we naturally crave balance over disorder, its presence in a design tends to evoke a sense of calm and “rightness.”  


Continued in Design for Non-Designers: Intro to Terms Part 2

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