Make It Smaller

Aspiring to master the “design basics”

Justin Kemerling
Apr 15, 2014 · 3 min read

We’ve all heard it. A client just asked you to “make the logo bigger.” Or maybe you were the person doing the asking. But I think we all know deep down it’s not about that. If it were, the designer’s job would be a hell of a lot easier. Just plop the logo down on the page, increase size 200%, then print. Done and done.

I recently presented to a room of 75 non-designers who work with design in some capacity at their nonprofit organizations. Sometimes it’s working with an internal designer on a piece of communication. But it’s also doing the design work themselves. I had an hour, but really there are five points I wanted to stick. Five things I wanted the room to take with them when they’re wearing their designer hat. It’s these five things I’m calling the design basics.

Elements of design include line, shape, direction, size, texture and color. The principles are balance, proximity, alignment, repetition, contrast and space. Understand these and you’re certainly ahead of 80% of people out there who claim the title of designer. But even in this photoshopped age of easy-access software and make-it-bigger-faster-shinier attitudes, there are the fundamental basics I think all the craftsman out there hit on every level of every project.

Whether done for challenging clients or partnerships with all the creative freedom in the world, there are design basics that exist in the work created by the design torchbearers. They are fought for tooth and nail because they are the magic makers.

So what exactly are these design basics?

The overarching, guiding principle is this. Keep it simple.

Before any designing begins, the concept must be firmly established. That’s not to say it’s set in stone, as once the doing begins, things can adjust, revise and change. But always start with thinking and ideas, then designing and executing.

Respect the process of design. It doesn’t come easy. It isn’t instantaneous. Solutions don’t present themselves magically. It takes work. The time has to be put in.

Set out with a clear goal to solve a problem. That’s what design is supposed to do. And along the way, when problems are solved well, opportunities are created. And some of the results can be absolutely inspiring.

Is it delightful? Does it feel inspired? Is it unique or unexpected, living and breathing with purpose? Or does it die a slow, meaningless death in the corner of the room in silence because no one can hear its frighteningly quiet little whisper in the chaos of the world? The right line, the right color, perfect contrast and alignment don’t mean anything if they don’t mean anything.


These design basics are for you. For you to make how you deal with design as rewarding as it can be. Solve nothing? Wishy-wash the process? Over complicate some fluff? Or the logo still needs to be bigger? Then keep up the practice on these five things in every project you take on no matter where you’re at in the process. Designer and non-designer alike, keep aspiring.

Aspiring is certainly a good place to be. It makes you sweat. Makes you stick it out a little longer. Burn that midnight oil for just a few more moments. And it makes the work better, from everyone involved. Concept by concept, little by little.

Thanks to ktkemerling.

    Justin Kemerling

    Written by

    Independent designer, activist, collaborator, citizen. Essays from the middle of America. http://www.justinkemerling.com