Four Elements of Design

My first real job was a co-op position with the Georgia Power Company back during my university days. The company bought us all Macintosh computers (Mac IIs), and I was introduced to desktop publishing with the Aldus PageMaker application (which, today, is known as Adobe InDesign).

I started using PageMaker and the office LaserWriter to prepare and print documents for school — reports, essays, anything really. Like most desktop publishing novices, my documents attempted to use every font, sizing, coloring and positioning option the program offered. The resulting documents were technically amazing (given the common technology of the day — monoface font editors and dot-matrix printers), but somehow were nauseating to look at.

I always wondered what was it that made professionally designed documents look so much better, and then I came to discover the realm of design. I bought two books by Robin Williams (the author, not the actor): “The Mac is not a Typewriter”, and “Design for Non-Designers”. These books changed my life! It’s amazing how simple concepts can have such powerful, dramatic effect.

After reading these two books, the aesthetic quality of my documents improved dramatically, and I soon discovered that a well designed document, even with weaker content, could achieve better marks than a difficult-to-read document, with stronger content!

Anyway, in the book “Design for Non-Desigers”, Robin introduces the reader to the four simple cornerstones of design — known as the “CRAP” principles — which, when applied, almost always produce a better looking document, layout or screen:

  1. Contrast. Strong/weak, big/small contrasts create emphasis and flow.
  2. Repetition. Repeating design elements supports consistency.
  3. Alignment. The eye likes to find lines of alignment.
  4. Proximity. Related things should be grouped together.

Today I was reading a book Alex ordered, “Designing Interfaces”, by an interface designer working at the Mathworks (makers of Matlab). It was very interesting to read about some of the psychology principles underlying UI design. In particular, the work of the Gestalt group theory psychologists, who concluded — interestingly enough — four principles:

  1. Closure.
  2. Similarity.
  3. Continuity.
  4. Proximity.

I find it interesting, and exciting, to see such common denominators between disciplines.

Agree? Disagree? What do you think?