Designer's Corner: Building Blocks

Do you know “the secret”? Have you heard about it? Since this fine magazine is in your hot little hands, then you must have! I’m talking about the secret to great graphic design, of course, not a recent episode of Oprah.

The secret of graphic design, or secrets rather, are four tried-and-true principles brought down the mountain by Robin Williams, a brilliant author who published them in a book called The Non-Designer’s Design Book in 1994. I bought the book when I went back to art school, and I still refer to it every now and then to refresh my ever-fragile (and aging) neural pathways.

If you’re a seasoned pro, then prepare yourself to be refreshed. If you can’t remember driving past an art school—much less going to an actual design class—you’re about to learn some really cool stuff which will enable you to create layouts both visually pleasing and easy to read.

We’ll cover each of Ms. Williams’ principles—proximity, alignment, repetition, and contrast—then put them to use on plain-old text, a business card, and an ad.

Proximity, Part 1

Principle number one is that of proximity: Group related items together. Bits of information that have nothing to do with each other should not appear close together on a page. Use spacing to visually convey what information is related and what is not. This helps create structure and organization, and gives the reader a visual clue as to where one piece of information stops and another starts.

To illustrate, let’s take a flyer I designed for Apple, Inc. a couple of years ago to promote their User Group program. Without proper spacing, the text is a mess and really tough to read. However, by adding a little extra space above each subhead, the relationship between subhead and body copy becomes clear at a glance.

Credit for the photo on the left in the top row: SARAH FRIEDLANDER

Proximity, Part 2

Now let’s take a business card designed by a local print shop. At first glance, how many times do your eyes stop? Mine stop five times: once in the middle and once at each corner. Because there’s information in the top two corners (why do they always do that?), the natural reaction is to check if there’s something in the other corners as well.

When I apply the rule of proximity and group related information together, the design improves (even though I centered everything). How many times do your eyes stop now? Three times max.


The act of aligning items in a like manner creates a visual connection for the reader, and when done properly, gives readers a hard edge for their eyes to follow. This edge forms an invisible line that connects the items on a page, making them stronger, cleaner, and more dramatic. With alignment, each item on the page has a visual connection with another item on the page.

In her book, Ms. Williams states that, “The strength of the edge is what gives strength to the layout.” Maybe you’ve never thought about it that way before, but it’s true. To illustrate, let’s use the same business card and apply a right alignment to the information that’s related. The design is better still, but we’re not finished.

Now let’s apply all this to a truly uninspiring cat clinic ad. It’s not the worst ad I’ve ever seen, but it’s close (use of proximity is its only saving grace). [on left]

By applying a left alignment to the text, we introduce a bit-o-harmony in the design. It’s also easier to read because instead of following text on a curve, our little eyeballs have a single hard edge to follow. Suddenly the ad seems a bit stronger.


Repetition is a fun one; just find an element in your design and repeat it throughout the entire piece. It can be as simple as a text style, font, color, or a graphic element. Repetition does wonders for creating a feel of consistency through a design.

On the Apple flyer, I picked up the teal color from the color blocks at the bottom of the page and incorporated that into the subheads. On the business card, I duplicated the star from the logo, enlarged it, screened it back slightly, and floated it off the bottom right of the card. I also incorporated the blue from the logo into key pieces of text.

In the pet clinic ad, I repeated the font, sampled the orange from the cat art, and used it for the phone number. Finally, I duplicated the curve in the cat’s tail, enlarged it, screened it back, and floated it off the bottom right of the page.

As you can see, repetition gave all three designs a more cohesive feel.


Contrast is my favorite of all the design secrets. Ms. Williams states that if two elements are similar, then they should be different—very different. Contrast is really important because not only does it create visual interest, but it draws readers’ eyes. Think about it: In almost every ad situation you have approximately five seconds to catch readers’ attention. If you don’t, they’ll never read your copy. Be brave!

Back to the pet clinic ad. We have a few choices for introducing contrast. One idea would be to pick out a word and make it really big and bold. Because I really want to make a statement, I scaled down the cat illustration and added a really big close-up of an angry cat face.

Adding contrast isn’t all about adding stuff either; you can also introduce contrast by taking something away. For example, in this version of the pet clinic ad, I moved the text to the bottom right of the page and introduced a huge area of white space, along with the repetitive paw element. The negative space coupled with the rather small block of text creates contrast.

Final Word

So there you have it: four little secrets that have the power to make or break your designs. Sure there are other things to think about when creating a design, but these principles of proximity, alignment, repetition, and contrast lie at the very heart of everything you create. They are the foundation upon which your entire design will be built. Commit them to memory straight away and be sure to pass “the secret” along to others. They’ll be glad you did.