Monday, March 23, 2009

Book Review – The Non-Designers Design Book

NonDesignersDesign-WilliamsThe Non-Designer’s Design Book, Design and Typographic Principals for the Visual Novice by Robin Williams (not to be confused with the comedian) is an easy to read book about page layout. While most of the book discusses the traditional print media (i.e. business cards, flyers, brochures, mailers etc) there are many references to Web layout. I also think many of the design principals discussed can be applied to application user interfaces.

The book opens with the premise that once you know  what to look for you will begin to see it all around you. Therefore by learning good design principals you will be more able to describe why something has a good design. We already intuitively know whether a design is appealing or not but perhaps we can’t pin down exactly why. By learning the design principals in this book we can learn how to avoid poor design in our own creations.

Ms. Williams breaks down design by introducing the four basic principals of design; Contrast, Repetition, Proximity and Alignment. The author leaves it up to the reader to invent their own easy to remember acronym for these principals. Each principal is discussed in its own chapter. I found myself experiencing several “ah-hah” moments while reading through these chapters. There are many examples throughout the book first with poor design and then a re-design based on the principal being discussed. As they say “seeing is believing”

Although these principals seem rather straight forward they are not always applied. Contrast is not simply the use of colors (i.e. black on white) but the use of size, weight and font. The key to using contrast is to be bold. If you pick a different font for your titles make sure that it is a distinctly different font. When changing size ensure that the difference is obvious so that attention is called to the point you are trying to make.

Repetition in design is not about repeating yourself it is about providing a consistent look throughout your design. This can be easily seen in magazine and newspaper articles. Each article has a headline and a body and the pages demonstrate a consistent layout throughout the publication. This can be applied in your applications as well. If you have several forms throughout your application try to make sure they have a consistent look. For instance: if your data entry forms have a toolbar, use the same toolbar for all data entry forms.

I have been guilty of misusing alignment quite often. Ms. Williams feels that centered text is used too often and generally distracts from the message you want to convey. Essentially pick an alignment and stick with it to improve consistency. Her suggestion is to take a look at your professionally designed business card and notice how all the information is aligned.

Proximity is grouping related items together. I think proximity is well used by the development community. Just think of all the “standard” controls we have for grouping such as; groupbox, panels, tab controls, etc. Proximity is where we shine as developers. Through our menus, listboxes, comboboxes and other controls we demonstrate proficiency in this principal. The act of grouping things together seems to come naturally to a developer.

Each of these principals work together to provide the overall effect. Alignment can be used to provide repetition, using the same alignment for all your text. Alignment can also be used as contrast, by making one block of text center or right-justified while everything else is left-justified. Similarly proximity can be achieved using alignment or contrast. Repeating the same alignment or font groups ideas together.

There is a very good chapter which discusses the use of color in your design. From an introduction into how colors are created (CYMK vs RGB) to how to determine which colors go together, a color wheel can be a useful tool. I found the discussion of shades, tints and hues to be very useful.

There are exercises throughout the book which help reinforce the concepts of the chapters. There is also a full chapter of hints and tips which illustrates proper use of the four design principals described in earlier chapters. The “do this not that” approach clearly demonstrates how the application of the basic principals makes a tremendous impact on the final result.

There are three chapters dedicated to type which is a very useful tool in the design world. Although our type choices are a bit more limited in the development world, we are at the mercy of the typefaces installed by our users, I still think there is a lot of good information in this section. There is a very thorough discussion of what makes typefaces different (i.e. serif vs. sans-serif) and when each should be used. The versatility of type is demonstrated as each of the four principals can be used with your typeface.

The bottom line: I found this book both informative and easy to read. Ms. Williams gives a very easy to follow introduction into design and demonstrates the four basic principals using many examples. There is good advice on putting together common materials such as business cards, brochures, advertising and web pages. Many of the principals can be applied to the design of your user interface as well.

1 comment:

Chris M said...

Hi Chris,

I agree. I own this book and feel every designer should own it as well. It is good for novice and advanced designers and is a great reference. I linked to your review in a tweet on my twitter page.