One of the most impactful aspects of visual communication is graphic design. Graphic design is a learned skill that requires tremendous practice—often yielding the finest results through subtle work. Styles and techniques vary widely among graphic designers; this variation is further amplified by the tools that designers choose to use. Traditionalists might insist on pen & paper as principal tools while many modern designers work exclusively with digital tools from start to finish.
Designer, Robin Williams, created a deceptively straight-forward set of principles that answers the technology dilemma among aspiring graphic designers; she calls describes these principles with an acronym: C.R.A.P.—contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity. Williams’ book, The Non-Designer’s Design Book, includes discussion of these principles in addition to further examples of considering graphic design from a principles-approach rather than one based on tools alone.
Contrast in a graphical sense is the difference between elements; this difference can include the qualities of color, position, and shape among other characteristics.
In the same way that contrast in the overall treatment of visual design is used to create and control tension, contrast in graphic design can be one of the most powerful tools in controlling the attention of an audience within a design. It can establish emphasis, motivate action, and harness emotion.
Repetition is simply repeated content in cadence, shape, color, theme, and/or theme. The technique is often used to identify intent in a graphic design.
When used judiciously, repetition of elements can emphasize a message; excessive repetition can undermine a design by diminishing the value and uniqueness of a form.
One trick with repetition is using it to creates coherence among potentially disparate elements. Repeatedly showing disparate components together creates a unity through frequency.
Alignment is a critical tool in demonstrating intent with form: elements that are aligned communicate coherency. Aligned elements appear deliberately “alike” and communicate some aspect of intent because of that fact.
Mis-alignment is an excellent tool for emphasizing difference among elements: this difference leverages the other principles of contrast (different position) and repetition (misalignment is a break in visual cadence).
Proximity, or nearness, is a tool for identifying groups. The nearness of elements can suggest similarity among elements—even elements disparate in visual qualities of shape, color, and size.
Proximity achieves a similar effect as the principle of alignment by creating visual coherency among elements.
Proximity is an excellent tool for conveying action, such as cause and effect. Nearness might vary among elements suggesting that an action occurred leading to the visual result.
Andy Rutledge has a parallel discussion of the impact of Proximity at his website.
Each of these principles is excellent not only for creating visual designs, but also for deciphering the work of others. When you encounter a new poster, billboard, graphic, or cartoon, try using C.R.A.P. to break down the elements in understanding the overall message. Also, the next time you create something, whether it be graphic or text, run C.R.A.P. check before you send it off.
The Non-Designers Design Book: Design and Typographic Principles for the Visual Novice by Robin Williams (Pearson Education, 1994)