Tenets of Good Design, Part 1


Note: Dan Blanchette is taking the week off. The following is a reprint.

Design is organization. And without organization, we have no plan. We have noise, a cacophony. Let’s cite some examples.

Let’s pick music, for one. When you listen to a tune you like, it’s pleasant to your ears. The blending of instruments and the sounds they make produce something you find easy to listen to. Ever think of music as design? Well, it is. It’s organization of the notes on the sheet of music and the instruments to play that music—musicians call it “orchestration”. But it’s still design.

How about automobiles? There are cars people think of as great looking, others not so much. Why is that? A Chevrolet Corvette is a car most people would agree is a pretty sharp piece of work. A Pontiac Aztec, not so much. This is not comparing apples and oranges here: it’s merely an example of good v. bad design. One is pleasing to the eye, the other not.

How about this one: Let’s say we have a neighbor named Doris who has a bunch of framed pictures on her living room wall that have no purposeful arrangement. There are various gaps among the items, and upon asking Doris how she arranged them on the wall, she might’ve said,”Oh I just put them up in no apparent way. I just hung them wherever.” This is not design. Now we have our neighbor Gina, who has a similar arrangement in her living room. But this arrangement has maybe a close-quarter arrangement or grid pattern to it that makes it a much more pleasing thing to look at. She has a design.

One of the first things you learn in design school is how to compose an arrangement. There are terms like “dominant” and “subordinate” pertaining to shapes in that arrangement; but for the purposes of this article, let’s say you have a bedroom in which to arrange the furniture. You naturally place the bed first (because it’s the largest piece), then the dressers and nightstands follow. That’s pretty much how you design any arrangement. The placement of the most dominant first: that theme that flows throughout the music, the curving contours of that car, etc.

These are examples of cohesion. Good design has cohesion. Cohesive design is something you see, something you hear, even something you feel.

Most people (non-designers) can sense where and when they experience good design. But most people don’t know why they know it. But they feel it.

My cousin is a home builder. He has a good design sense, but he can’t define it. He just knows what “feels” right. And he’ll explain that in his homes that one thing “flows” from another or that the proximity—nearness—of one room or item to the next makes things easier for the prospective owner. To him, this feels like an organized plan. And he’s right. He’s a planner, an organizer.

Design is intentional.

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Observations on Type Design


I love a good type design. What I don’t understand is why they don’t appear more frequently.

So this subject may be a recurring one.

Above are several type designs from national TV news programs. Most are run-of-the-mill designs, practically ignored by everyone in any walk of life. But to a designer, only one of them hits the mark of being an example of typographical thinking on the part of the one who designed it.

In doing type designs, one has to consider a few things about the type itself: 1) the font chosen for the design; 2) the shape of the letterforms; and 3), of course, the impact you want to impart with the overall design. Notice that I said “letterforms”.

In studying typography, any good school will teach just what is important in type design. We can go back and study the history of fonts, who designed them and for what purpose, the processes used to print them, etc. But what’s important more than anything is appreciating the shapes of those pieces of type: a lowercase “g” in Garamond Bold is not the same as a corresponding “g” in Universe Bold. They are the same letter, yes, but not the same letterform. The letters here are different shapes, something a good type designer cannot—or shouldn’t ever—ignore.

Another thing a good type designer should not ignore is that words themselves—groupings of those letterforms—are shapes themselves. And in design, the interplay of shapes is important. Their size, their placement and proximity to one another—all important considerations.

Let’s look at each of the above. “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”  is just an OK design. That black ABC circle is like a big punctuation mark preceding the rest of the design. The designer tried to make “this week” come together by fitting “this” between the left edge of the “w” and the stem of the “k” in “week”. The font chosen for “this week” is not refined enough for a high profile show such as this. It’s a stark design overall, and I suppose the red, white, and blue are somewhat rally points to say that this is an American political news show, which it is. It tries real hard. I’ll give it a C+.

Next is “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer”. Pretty plain, when you look at the placement of the words. The words “Situation Room” are larger than the rest—which is good—but the design has nothing going for it, so the designer relies on embellishments to the design by adding a slight chrome look to the letterforms along with a little 3D depth, then adding stars, and setting it against a background of a flattened image of the earth. Of course, the actual situation room is in the White House, but this show likens itself to that, so the image shown here aligns to that global importance and perspective. That’s just branding. But the type design portion here falls short. The design does have a tightness of assembly, which is good. So this gets a B.

Then we have “Anderson Cooper 360°”. I saw this and winced. I’m thinking right away that the “360°” in the name should’ve afforded the designer a lot of design possibilities, but I looked at several iterations of this design among the ones shown on my Google search, and they all have nothing inventive going with that angle. There’s just three “words” here, and look what the designer did with them: “Cooper” aligns to the right on “Anderson”, but then “360°” is centered on “Cooper”. Really? That’s the extent of it, and it’s not well put together. This gets a C+.

Next up is “Face the Nation”, and this one, despite having only three words again, has a certain alignment among its three parts that works only slightly better than the previous one. The font is OK—it’s plain and very readable—and the type spacing is OK, but it’s that the word “the” is stacked that drives me nuts. Words are meant to be read from left to right (in the vast majority of the world, and certainly in English-speaking countries), and not from top to bottom. You see it every now and then, but at least here it’s only three letters, so it’s not a mortal sin. But the designer didn’t lock it up very well by making those stacked letters fall short of the height of the letter “E” right next to it. This gets a B.

“Meet the Press” is nice in that it does lock up well among its parts. The shapes come together well, marrying the NBC peacock into that otherwise negative space upper-right. The rest is just OK. A-.

The last one takes the top prize among these type designs, and it does it without any frills. It has a tiny embellishment that it doesn’t really need, but that curvilinear contour that shows up in the “11th” is picked up from the background. The main image has everything a good, solid type design should have. And it locks up together well: the shapes of those words fit together like building blocks. And the emphasis is where it needs to be: “11th” is the largest assembled part, with one extra variable—its red color. It doesn’t even need that, but it does make it more noticeable on TV. A+.

You can always tell a good type design right away, because it works all by itself without any outside help from flashy backgrounds, shiny stars, or even motion.

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