Graphic Design Basics Every Professional Should Know

I’m a firm believer that everyone should know the basics of design as it significantly helps in creating professional and polished digital or print materials. Even if you aren’t the one doing the creating, this knowledge is still beneficial should you ever need to critique or analyze someone else’s documentation or graphics. In addition, even for us experienced graphic designers, it helps to revisit the basics for a quick refresh. The following includes three foundational areas of design with a brief description and some guideline.

Typefaces & Fonts

A typeface is a set of glyphs that share the same design - an example of this is Arial. The font is the size, weight, width, and style of the typeface. To clarify, your entire document may be in Arial typeface, however your headings could be 16 point, bold font where your paragraph font is 12 point without bolding. Fonts should be determined based on hierarchy. Meaning, titles and headers should be larger and bolder than paragraphs.

Principles to Choosing Typefaces:

  • Legibility: Your number one concern is that the typefaces and fonts that are chosen are readable and do not distract from the information given.

  • Appropriateness: The target audience and industry will largely determine the typefaces used. Professional, uniform typefaces are most commonly used to portray a sense of reliability. Trendy typefaces, like slab serifs, are used to attract interest.

  • Combination: When using two or more typefaces, there is a general rule of thumb, which is to use a neutral serif and sans serif combination. This principle is very flexible as there are a lot of typefaces that work well together regardless of being serif or sans serif. An example of what works well together can be seen here with the fonts that Google makes available.

  • Limitation: The number of typefaces should always be limited to a maximum of three. However, one to two typefaces are highly recommended in order to create a less chaotic look.

Color Theory

When choosing the color scheme for a document or graphic, a color wheel is the best source to reference. There are now a few apps that can aid in choosing colors, like Adobe Color. Essentially, the color wheel provides different methods in finding colors that work well together. Here are some of the color scheme methods to use:

  • Analogous - groups of colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel, with one being the dominant color, which tends to be a primary or secondary color, and two on either side complementing, which tend to be tertiary.

  • Complementary - pairs of colors which, when combined, cancel each other out, creating either black or white.

  • Monochromatic - all the colors (tints, tones, and shades) of a single hue.

  • Triad - three colors equally spaced around the color wheel.

Space and Balance

Using the area you have to work with wisely can be a challenge. Often times, there can be a tendency to add too much content to a single canvas. In the past, it was fairly popular to use an overlapping technique in order to fit more. However, the trend today is to use a grid. Using this method will help ensure that everything is organized, consistent, and easy to consume from the reader or viewer’s perspective. You will also want to establish a form of balance. The most basic way to do this is through placement of text or graphic using one of the following methods:

  1. Symmetrical - perfectly centered compositions or mirror elements, horizontal or vertical. Using symmetry can evoke a sense of calmness or seriousness.

  2. Asymmetrical - unequal or staggered elements. Using asymmetry allows for a dynamic and open approach meaning that it can convey a wider range of emotions, like anger or quirkiness.

The next time you have to create any kind of document, presentation, or visual aide, be sure to remember or reference these essential basics. In the end, your text, color, and layout will come together as a cohesive, visually pleasing product.