20 Design Reminders: #2 -- Communicate; don't decorate.

Second in a series of 20 reminders for graphic designers -- my riffs on "Design Elements: A Graphic Style Manual" (Timothy Samara)

Reminder #2: Communicate; don't decorate.

Or, 'Just Say It.'

Ever see a flyer that looked like a ransom note? Or a poster where you could barely make out what the message was from underneath all the grungy ink marks? Or catch the 'If Microsoft Designed the iPod' video? If you haven't, let's watch it now:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aeXAcwriid0]

Now, with the first couple of modifications to the packaging, it looks like communication is happening: feature descriptions are added, bullet points added, OS requirements… all well and good, yes? But then, something happens, and all of a sudden, what was a clean design becomes a hellish montage of pain and suffering… or at least, of bad design.

That video's an object lesson in what happens when you try too hard to communicate, and end up decorating.

Graphic design went through a phase like this, where a whole cohort of young designers saw David Carson's work, fell in love with it, and then tried to imitate it, resulting in lots of things looking like this:


What the heck is this book about? Unless I know David Carson's work, I have no idea whatsoever. It's about purple marks and white stars on a kinda yellow-and-red background? Spilled ink? Who knows? I can't tell! Carson was best known for his design on Ray Gun, a very edgy and hip magazine. Ray Gun was a great idea, but man, it got tiresome to read, with its cute self-referential layouts, like this one:

Ragun Ferrylong

Yes, that is an entire article set in Zapf Dingbats… just because they could. The horror, the horror.

Careful readers might have noticed by now that I'm not a fan of Carson's work. Cute ideas, good execution, but suffered from overkill. It's the visual equivalent of listening to John Cage's 4'33" nonstop -- after a while, you want to scream, 'I get it already!'

One of the marks of a tyro designer is that their designs tend to be overly decorated for no good reason. Seriously. Think before you decide a design is just begging for some vector swirls. Or photos with distressed edges. Or, really, anything that's 'edgy' just because everyone else is doing it. If you're busy designing a poster for an event put on by a performance artist who slaps meat on their heads while singing Norwegian folks songs and dancing on the back of a bull -- sure! You now have a great reason, so knock yourself out and come up with a layout worthy of that (though the mind reels, thinking what that might be). Another mark is that they try to cram too much into a design (websites are especially guilty of this, as they've got almost infinite pixel space, and no one to say, 'No, there is no more room on the Internet').

Paul Rand said it best in his book, Thoughts on Design: "Ideas do not need to be esoteric to be original or exciting." Decorating instead of communicating is the easy way out -- focus on what your message ought to be, then just say it, as simply as possible.

The Design Reminders series will return next week. Comments and questions are welcome. If you enjoyed this, take a minute to Digg or Propel it. Or, hit up my tip jar and buy me a cup of coffee!

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