How do you make yourself heard in a loud room? BY YELLING! And when it comes to design, that’s often the approach used for drawing attention to elements. LOUDER! BIGGER! FASTER!
But there’s a better way.
Imagine yourself in that loud room again. Now imagine that instead of yelling to get above the noise, you could just turn down everyone else. Instead of shouting at the person you’re talking to and ending up with a strained voice, you’ll be able to have a nice, thoughtful conversation with them.
While it’s hard to turn down the volume of a room, it’s easy to quiet the background noise in your design and let the important parts speak clearly. Let’s take a closer look at this idea.
Below is an example of a composition where everything is shouting at you. The big red headline at the top is trying to assert itself, but so is everything else, which means, in the end, nothing stands out.
So let’s turn down the volume. You have to decide what you’re trying to communicate and how to say it in a clear and concise way. This will drive your design decisions. In the example below, we’ve established a clear hierarchy between each bit of text. The headline still dominates, but we’ve toned down the other text so that your eye moves comfortably and naturally from headline, to subhead, to body text.
Let’s try another iteration that makes more dramatic use of white space. I tell students in my workshop that white space is the secret ingredient in design. Effective use of white space can transform a mundane design into something that feels elegant and timeless.
In this example, I’ve made the headline and subhead the same size as the body copy. I’m relying on white space to create the hierarchy, isolating the elements within the composition so they can establish their presence without competing with surrounding elements. Think of that loud room again. Not only have we quieted the voices in the room, we’ve moved everyone to their own corner so they can talk without distraction.
When thinking about how to create emphasis, don’t be so quick to turn up the volume. Think about how to use hierarchy and white space to communicate your message without shouting it at your audience. You’ll create something more elegant and respectful that still accomplishes your communication goal.
I’ll be teaching more visual design principles and strategy in my workshop, Design for Developers, which is running Feb 27–28 in our Boston office.
I’ll be teaching the next session of our Design for Developers workshop on December 7th & 8th at our Boston offices.
The workshop is aimed at developers (as well as non-developers) who know HTML and CSS, but feel like they don’t have the graphic design skills to make something that looks good enough to show customers and clients. I want to ease the pain of developers who feel like this:
I’m a developer who is a HORRIBLE at design so I don’t even know where to start.
I have the technical skills but my designed sites and interfaces are always awful, I know how to build a site technically and I know when a site looks bad, but I’m rarely able to do anything about it.
The workshop is heavily focused on hands-on instruction, so that you can start to see immediate improvements in your ability to layout pages, pick and use typefaces, and work with color.
Visit the workshops site to learn more and register.
On the Monday and Tuesday before this workshop, we’ll also be running our Advanced HTML & CSS workshop. This workshop provides a solid foundation in HTML and CSS fundamentals. We’re running these workshops back to back to give folks the opportunity to get a crash course in the full stack of skills you’ll need to design and build great pages.
If you’d like to find out more about either workshop and figure out which one might be right for you, drop us a line.
After our first Design for Developers workshop in December, we shared a few examples of student work we especially liked.
The next Design for Developers workshop is just a few weeks away, and I thought it would be interesting to highlight some common problems our first group of students had while working on their projects, specifically around grids.
We asked all students to use the 12 column, 960 grid when designing their pages in order to focus their work. However, it was very common for students to build unnecessarily complex grids instead of taking advantage of the simplicity that the 960 grid offers. Let’s look at four examples of problematic grids, along with strategies for improving them. As you’ll see, the solutions are straightforward: make it simpler!
The first two examples have a similar problem: they are confused about whether they want to be a 3 or 4 column layout.
In the first example, the three columns on the left group together nicely. But the column on the right doesn’t feel coherent with the rest of the layout.
My solution? Stick with a uniform 3 column grid. The wider, more regular columns create a better rhythm across the page, and also give you more room to work with. The student who built this page was using the small column on the right for a navigation list. But it would be better to move that elsewhere on the page, and let the content on the left fill the width of the page. Often times using the grid correctly means re-thinking the placement of elements on the page.
The second example is similar, but has even more problems. The three columns on the right stray from the grid in an attempt to fit themselves into a space that is probably too narrow. The contrast with the correctly sized column on the left is awkward.
In this case, a uniform 3 column grid would also work, as would a uniform 4 column grid. Because a 12 column grid system can be equally divided by both 3 and 4, these column sizes are the most reliable choices when working with the 12 column 960 grid. They will create equal divisions of the page that are wide enough to fit most content, and as we’ll see below, they look good when matched with each other on the same page.
The next two examples suffer from awkward mixing of column groups.
The first example starts with the right approach, using three equally sized columns through the center of the layout. The problem comes with the columns above and below. When mixing columns with different widths, the goal should be a harmony between all elements on the page. Unfortunately, in this example the columns clash with each other.
The solution is to use column groups that have a more harmonious relationship to each other. We achieve this by matching the 3 column group in the center with a 4 column group below it, and letting the header run the full width of the page. As we said above, 3 and 4 column groupings are often the best choice when working with the 960 grid. The intervals are more regular and we reduce the clash of irregular columns.
In our final example, the middle group of columns is again well defined, but the columns at the top and bottom again clash. The one unit of white space at the top of the page is especially troublesome, as it stops the eye and disrupts the flow of the page.
Again, the solution is to use a simpler, more consistent approach to the column groups. We want the columns to sit next to each other comfortably, and the lead the eye down the page naturally.
There are of course other solutions to the problems I’ve highlighted. But the best approach is often to remove any complex grid structure in favor of groupings of 3 or 4 columns.
If you browse through the example sites on the official 960 grid site you’ll notice that many of them are using a simple 3 or 4 column layout. A straightforward approach to the structure of your page doesn’t have to limit your design. Instead, it provides a solid base that will introduce clarity to your layout. And that’s always beautiful.
We encourage developers who are looking to learn more about grid systems and other fundamentals of visual design to sign up for our next Design for Developers workshop, taking place Feb 21 through 23 at our Boston office.
We ran our first Design for Developers workshop this week. Kyle and I had a great time teaching it and were really pleased with the quality of the work the students were able to produce by the end of the workshop.
The main project the students worked on was a page for a fictional furniture company. We gave them a completely unstyled page and asked them to slowly transform it using grid systems, refined typography, and effective color schemes. The students sketched out their ideas on paper, then worked directly in HTML and CSS to implement their ideas. At the end of the last night, we had a group presentation of all the pages, where the students talked through their approach and we offered our critique.
We asked a few students to let us share their work with you.
This page was designed by Javan Makhmali (click for full-size image):
And this page was designed by Chuck Vose (click for full-size image):
At the end of the workshop, students walked away with a solid grasp of some fundamental principles of design along with practice building a well-structured, good looking web page.
If you’re a developer who wants to improve your design skills, consider taking our next Design for Developers workshop, which we’ve scheduled for Feb 21-23.