Wouldn't it be nice if there was some unified theory of design that could just give you a single approach that would work in every single situation? Do this with the fonts, that with the alignment, and another thing with the colours and done! If you're a newbie to visual design, this "one design formula to rule them all" is the kind of solution you might hope to find.
Unfortunately, the sheer number of variables at play means... well... that's never going to happen. And to be honest, it's actually one of the fun parts of design once you get more experienced with it - the challenge of looking at a design problem and considering what the best approaches for that unique request might be.
But if you're new to visual design, no worries. There are thankfully some stable concepts you can consider to help simplify your thought process as you narrow down what the best design options might be. And one good concept to start with is to think about the context for what you're about to create.
Lucky for all of us, I bumped into a fine example of how context impacts design a few months ago on the Toronto subway. We start our story with a sign about a temporary closure on the line.
At first glance, this sign probably strikes you as smartly designed. They've pared everything down to just the information you need and nothing more, so it's not overwhelming you with details. The text looks large. The colour choices are simple. There's a handy little graphic to help you better understand which stations exactly are going to be effected by the closure. There's also a ton of whitespace around everything, so the sign doesn't look cluttered. In theory this seems like a solid design and you have to believe it looked pretty smart on someone's computer screen.
But when you take into account the context of where and how people will be viewing it, that's where things start falling apart.
Up close, the sign is great. But because of where it's displayed, it's not something most people are going to see at that distance. Instead, they're going to see it from way down a hallway as they follow that orange arrow I added to show you the traffic patterns of how people scurry around this corner to get down to the subway platform. When it's in your sightline, it's VERY unclear what the sign says (let alone that it's communicating important information) and as soon as you get close enough to actually read the thing properly almost everyone's eyes have shifted to the right towards the stairs. What's an effective design up close just doesn't work so well in the situation it needs to be used in.
Thankfully, our subway system figured out a simple, yet effective, solution: they added a second sign.
Sign number 2 is even simpler. It's goal isn't to communicate all the information you need - it's to get your attention from far away.
n.And this pairing works rather well. The sign on the right grabs your attention from far away and tells you something important: there's going to be a subway closure this weekend on part of the line. Subway closures are a complete pain, so this is likely to make people want to know more. You get closer and then you have the sign on the left with the additional details you'll need to plan your life around this (still, thankfully, presented in a simple manner)
Is it perfect? Probably not. Personally, I think the black background on the right sign doesn't help it stand out enough and I do wonder why the two signs weren't swapped given that English reads left to right, but generally speaking it's a good solution that takes into account the context of where the design will live and how people will move around it in order to accomplish its goals.
No matter what you're designing, you always want to consider context to ensure what you've made actually functions the way you want it to in the real world.
What's This Blog about?
This blog, like Clever Raptor, is all about the intersection of learning and design - and there's a LOT in that intersection. You'll find everything from practical design tips, technology reviews, presentation ideas, conference posts, thoughts about how learning connects to other fields, my own working out loud, and more.