Add some sprinkles
In design as in baking, you need to bake the cake before you add the sprinkles. Let me elaborate. Design is a science and, as in every science, it obeys a set of basic principles.
Here’s how I personally translate those principles into practical pieces of advice.
1. Be mindful about content and typography
Unless you are a pure illustration artist, there is a good chance that you’ll be working with text. The amount of copy you have to work with will often play a big role in your design. Too much copy, and the design can feel overloaded. Work with your UX/Copywriting partner to cut out or reframe content. Also — Typeset matters, educate yourself about it.
2. Create visual breathing room
Whether you’re working on illustrations, web pages, or banner ads, consider creating ‘visual breathing room.’ Defining the space between elements is important when creating a structured layout. Generally, if the elements are too tight, the composition will be too cluttered and hard to read. Margins and padding on a page should be even, to establish visual harmony. Make sure to include them in your codebase or visual framework or get them from your existing system.
3. Consider color, contrast, and hierarchy
Always consider color theory when you design. Colors have meaning, and humans have different reactions to different colors, mostly on an unconscious level (think of traffic lights, warning or danger signs, etc.). Color can create contrast to improve a design’s readability, or help to establish an element’s hierarchy. Aside from color, the importance of an element is mainly determined by its size, shape, and placement. An eye will naturally be attracted to the biggest, most irregular part of a composition. A centered element will almost always appear more important.
4. Add accents and control the flow
Every design should have a flow line which guides the eye through it. This line will define the way the design is read, as well as the alignment of its different elements. Humans tends to follow lines when they travel in a clear direction. Knowing this can help you add movement to your compositions. Adding accents and steps can help create rhythm. Use pattern and repetition to create flow (think: page numeration), and add accents to break the flow. Pay special attention to breaks in general; they’re here to catch your attention.
5. Maintain balance, or not
Balance in a composition is influenced by how symmetrical or asymmetrical the elements in a design are. Generally, a symmetrical design is balanced and easy to read. An asymmetrical design can create interesting attention-grabbing breaks, but will make the layout harder to scan. Randomness or total lack of symmetry can sometimes be a way to create an impactful design. Also consider grids. They are one of the most fundamental tools in design and allow to create structure easily.
We are not machines; our creative process is messy, and sometimes the environments we work in aren’t conducive to success. Even though I just said that design is a technical science, nailing the craft will only enable you to be “good”. By good I mean capable of solving most problems in a conventional way. Which is enough for most jobs. But eventually your craft and experience will give you a comfort that will allow you to develop a personal style and vision. That’s where it get interesting, it’s long journey.
There you go bud, you have a good cake — now, the sprinkles?
I recently had the chance to talk with Mitchell Geere. He shared his design vision with our team, and explained something that I used to have a hard time verbalizing:
“Design should be as simple as possible: system-wise, product-wise, brand-wise. You want to invest in the moments of delight.”
I now apply this principle to my daily work. Not every page is a masterpiece. I keep things simple and reasonable. But when the occasion arises, I add sprinkles. Sprinkles are my metaphor for small, but meaningful, touches of delight.
If those challenges appeal to you and you’re looking for a gig, check out our jobs page. Opendoor is reinventing the experience of buying and selling homes, and we are hiring designers, researchers, and writers. Come play with us.
Thanks to my awesome crew for their editing and feedback on this post: