Practical design is design that works.
Years ago in design school, I had to lay out a poster and print it on an offset press. So I made a nice-looking design (or so I thought), converted it to printing plates, filled the ink rollers, loaded the paper, and fired up the press.
It ran for about 4 or 5 seconds and then: inky disaster.
Turned out, my design required more ink coverage than the press could handle. The paper got stuck and the press chopped it up into tiny bits of soggy, ink-soaked papier-mâché. I spent the next several hours cleaning the press, bit-by-bit and part-by-part.
I also learned how to design highly practical graphics that a press can actually print.
Today, if your job involves purchasing or evaluating graphic design, you need to be equally pragmatic. You need to understand how design works so you can:
- Recognize graphics that will achieve your goals
- Choose the best design for the job at hand
- Request changes that will improve the final results
What’s the real purpose of graphic design?
So if we’re being eminently practical, we need to identify the real purpose of graphic design. If we understand that purpose, then we’ll know why we need design in the first place. And why one design seems ‘better’ than another.
Let’s start with this as our first principle:
The purpose of graphic design is to prepare information
for consumption by viewers or readers.
That’s it. Nothing about making it pretty. Nothing about the color or the type or the pictures. Those are just tactical issues. But first and foremost, practical design is strategic. That means it serves an identifiable objective, such as:
- Helping someone do something they really need to do
- Engaging someone in a relationship that might lead to participation or a sale
- Building trust so someone might try something new
About 99 percent of the time, the strategic goal of a design is to deliver information so someone will take action. So the job of the designer is to make information as easy to consume as possible.
Making Information Easy to Consume
“Consume.” That’s kind of a weird term. We use it because the alternative is worse, a long-winded explanation spanning awareness, perception, understanding and a bunch of other jargon.
But for now, what we mean by consuming information is simply that readers, viewers and users can determine if a bit of information is useful or interesting, get the gist of it and put it to use. For our own purposes, we hope that information will motivate consumers to take some sort of action, even if it’s just to save the information to look at later.
Now if we want to encourage the consumption of information, shouldn’t we make consuming it as fast and easy as possible? Good design does that. Bad design makes consumption harder by reducing readability and comprehensibility.
Take almost any magazine and I’ll bet you find the ads in the front look better than the ads in the back. What’s the difference?
Look at the ads in the back first. There are many different ad sizes but the elements in them all tend to be the same size. Smaller ads might actually be well organized but they’re competing with similarly sized elements in the adjacent ads. The result is noise. You don’t know what to look at first, second or third. If you’re like me, you can hardly stand to look at any of it at all.
Now look at the ads in the front of your magazine. Excepting the ones that are unintelligibly ‘creative,’ the ones toward the front are designed to facilitate consumption.
They use the size of elements to clearly indicate what you should look at first to get the general idea, second to help you quickly evaluate the message and last, if you want the details. Big picture. Big headline. Smaller subhead. Smaller text. The size of the elements corresponds to the outline of the information. So you can drill down to your level of interest.
Designers have many tools for facilitating the consumption of information. That’s where color, type, pictures and other elements come into play. Your job as a design customer is make sure your designer is using his or her entire toolbox to accomplish your strategic goals.
Image courtesy Flickr user Cushing Memorial Library and Archives