In our visually saturated culture we all notice poor design and can usually point to the main factor or factors that make it bad: an unreadable font, dull or garish colors, sloppy arrangement of text and images, or embarrassingly obvious Photoshopping of a face or a scene.
Elements of Design
But what makes good design? People often stumble trying to describe why a particular sign, poster, or billboard ad is “good” design. That is also part of the reason that, when it comes to working with a designer, the non-designer tends to have trouble finding the right vocabulary to describe the image in their head.
Whether it’s a logo, a banner, or a book cover, certain elements of design come up again and again: type treatment, priority of elements, use of negative space, balance between text and image. You don’t have to be an expert on design to work with a designer and get a result you’re happy with. You just need some basic vocabulary, an understanding of the design process, and a willingness to ask questions and try different approaches to convey your vision for your project.
What’s Your Type?
Let’s start with vocabulary about type. When talking about fonts, it’s helpful to know about some basic kinds of typefaces. (The term “typeface” refers to a family of fonts, such as Times New Roman, and a “font” is a member of a typeface family, such as Times New Roman Italic.)
The two most common groups of typefaces are serif and sans-serif. The letters in a serif font have tails, or serifs, on them. Common serif typefaces you may be familiar with are Times New Roman and Garamond. As for an example of a sans-serif typeface (letters without tails), you’ve surely heard of Helvetica, which is so famous they made a documentary about it!
Generally speaking, sans-serif fonts are frequently used as display faces in print design—that is, for things like chapter titles and subheadings. They are also common in logotypes (that is, the particular treatment of a company name, often trademarked) and anywhere extremely large type appears, such as posters and billboard ads.
Serif fonts are most frequently used for body text (that is, the main text in a piece of writing, such as an essay or chapter) in print because they are usually more legible than sans-serifs in small, dense presentations like paragraphs.
But none of this is to say there are hard and fast rules. Designers often buck conventions when they want to promote a new vision or simply try something for fun. And it can work. I’ve seen sans-serif fonts used successfully in long paragraphs, and I’ve found them legible. But I admit that’s typically been in digital form—as part of a website, for example. It’s been a lot rarer to find a printed page of sans-serif type that was appealing to my eyes. But some of that is simply my taste and what I’m used to.
Likes and Dislikes
And that’s what we all need to keep in mind when talking about design, whether we’re designers or non-designers: there’s always a subjective element. Some people don’t like orange. Some find white backgrounds boring. Some are irritated by asymmetry. If you are working with a designer on your book cover (or logo or poster or whatever), you should be honest about your personal preferences. It will save a lot of headaches down the road—for everybody involved.
In future posts I’ll discuss other helpful vocabulary related to design, what to understand about a typical design process, and how to prepare for a design briefing.