Graphic Design For Beginners – 5 Basic Principles

This article references my experience in magazines, but the principles apply equally to other media in both web design and print. No matter what software you work on, or what industry you're in, these guidelines are universal. Understanding them and practicing them will pave you a rock-solid foundation for a successful career. The rest is up to you!

There's no question some people have a gift for graphic design, but even the most talented novices need some mentoring in order to learn fundamental design basics when they're starting out. Without such guidance, many gifted designers will fall short of their potential. I've seen experienced Art Directors do high-impact magazine covers and creative feature openers filled with eye-popping typography and complex Photoshop collages. But the pages that follow are littered with unforgivable design flaws. Here are five basic principles - not necessarily in order of importance - which well help you become a better designer from day one.

1. Comprehension precedes typography

We've all seen designers do amazing things with type. Pulling words apart and manipulating individual letters to reflect the context and meaning is one of fun things about designing. Before you get that far, however, one simple prerequisite: read the copy and understand it! For people whose job it is to work with type, many designers have an aversion to reading. Before you can go and play with the text, you must understand exactly what you're being asked to present visually. Know which words - if any - need to be emphasised; understand the hierarchy and stick to it.

2. Good typography

Once you're ready to bend the type to your will, remember it's not always necessary to waste hours looking for the perfect font. Try instead using a plain font and do something creative with it. This is a good place for an inexperienced designer to test their typography skills. If you can produce creative typographic designs with classic fonts such as Helvetica, Times, Garamond, etc, then you'll be well prepared to explore and design responsibly with the more exotic fonts available. Bonus tip: if you're combining fonts, the key is there must be contrast between them, otherwise you may as well just use the one (or the variations thereof). This can be done using size, weight and colour, but also consider the style of fonts themselves. Rarely will it be a good idea to pair up two decorative fonts. Alternatively, the combination of exotic and plain fonts can yield fantastic results.

3. Understanding hierarchy

The laws of hierarchy apply equally to text, graphics and images. Without them, your artwork trips on the first hurdle. List in your head (or jot down on paper) your design elements in order of importance, then design and assemble them so that the viewer immediately recognises which part he/she should be looking at first. Start with the most-important, then second-most, and so on. Rarely will you need more than a three or four-tiered hierarchy. Again, use size, weight and colour to affect the outcome, but it is important that this hierarchy is at the beating heart of your design, not a last-minute adjustment. Once you've finished, have a good look at your work. If the hierarchy isn't obvious to you, chances are it won't be obvious to anyone else.

4. Combining colours

You'll either have a feel for colour or you won't. Mostly true, however, a beginner can't be expected to have the same balanced sense of colour as an industry veteran. So where to begin? Obviously, you'll need to consider what kind of design you're doing, and who it's aimed at. But whether you're working with vibrant primaries or a stylish earthy palette, there are ways to ensure you're combining colours that don't jar or vibrate against each other. Take a nice earthy purple: 50C/45M/15Y. Instead of grasping blindly for a complementary colour, try sliding the CMYK channels against one another, keeping at least one the same. If we slide only the Magenta down so we get 50C/10M/15Y, you'll find a nice turquoise that works perfectly with the purple. Or perhaps you want a warm combination. Go back to the original purple and assign the same numeric values to alternate colour channels: 15C/50M/45Y. Now you've got an earthy pink - same values; different channels. Again, it works well with the purple (in fact, they all work together). Naturally, there's nothing saying you need to stick rigidly to this rule, but it's a good starting point for a novice designer struggling with the tricky concept of colour. And don't forget to make sure your monitor and printer are calibrated to display accurately.

5. Is your design the best possible solution?

Graphic design is of course subjective, and there are a hundred different roads leading to the solution. You need to find the best. Once you've finished your work, ask yourself this: is this the best possible outcome? The measure of what kind of designer you'll become will rest greatly on the extent to which you push yourself with this very question. Don't settle on something if you're not 100% convinced it's the best-possible design outcome. If there's even a sliver of a doubt in your mind, change it or try something new. Your client wants to see the best you can do. That's exactly what you should be delivering every time.

The above-listed principles should be lesson 1.01 for any upcoming graphic designer. A successful, experienced professional works to them without ever pausing to think about it. Creativity without order is contemporary art, not graphic design. Never forget your client. They're paying you to be creative, but working with these guidelines in mind will help build structure to your art so that it's true to its purpose and sells exactly what it's designed to it glamorous or not-so-glamorous. After all, that's precisely what we're employed to do.

Martin Vine is a 37-year-old Sydney-based graphic designer with more than 18 years' industry experience, including roles as Art Director and Editor. This versatility has given him a unique opportunity to see graphic design from both an editorial and artistic perspective. Throughout his career, Martin has been called upon to implement and oversee major magazine redesigns, write comprehensive briefs for relaunches, as well as produce logo/masthead designs and cover-to-cover mock-ups to accompany them. In February 2008, Martin left his long-time magazine career behind at ACP Publishing to set up his own one-man graphic design business. For more information, please visit

Author: Martin Vine
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