A free e-book on the theory, practice and tools of graphic design.
If you’re bootstrapping or freelancing, this book is for you. Scroll down ↓ for download instructions and a preview of the contents.
20,000 words, 96 pages, 4.8mb
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The book is divided in Theory, Practice and Tools. Below is an intro to all chapters. Tap the [+] buttons to expand each section:
If you asked Michelangelo how he painted the vault of the Sistine Chapel, he’d say he did it with a brush and a scaffold. That’s not very insightful, but it’s true. If you focus on the tools of design before you understand how it works, you will only skim the surface of what you can learn from it. My personal approach to design is based on three fundamental ideas:
— Design is not important
— You should do your own design
— Graphic design is not art
You don’t need to agree with me. Big ideas are there to expand your mind, giving you the necessary space to receive new knowledge. They are the vault.
Graphic design was born of the Industrial Revolution. The term itself only appeared at the end of the 19th century, because there just wasn’t much to sell before that: back then, food made up half the expense of the average household (as opposed to just about 10% today), but it was sold as a commodities in local markets—think tomatoes in jute sacks—rather than products. That changed quickly, however: while Europeans were busy killing each other on the continent, the US were busy manufacturing the modern economy and it was the job of graphic designers to sell it. The number of products, services and niche markets that exist today makes graphic design a complex machine, and using it effectively requires a set of seven keys:
Some unlock better work, others a better you.
What makes something beautiful? Many have tried to answer this question, from Pacioli and Da Vinci’s 1509 book Divina Proportione to the Gestalt principles of the early 20th century. The truth, obviously, is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But while each of us do have different taste, we also share a common biological makeup. Thus, answering that question requires the consilience of science and art. That’s what neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran achieved in his 1999 paper the science of art, where he outlined his theory of aesthetic experience in ten principles:
— Peak Shift
— Perceptual Grouping & Binding
— Perceptual Problem Solving
— Abhorrence of Coincidence
— Repetition, Rhythm & Orderliness
Ramachandran’s principles bridge the gap between theory and practice by drawing on evolutionary biology and behavioural neurology. Applying them to your work will remove the element of guesswork from your design. Like human emotions, they are universal; your viewer may not like your design, but they will be positively influenced by it.
HOW TO START
Graphic design is an industrial process. As such, it just doesn’t work without the necessary moving parts. This makes your job easier. When beginning any new project, the first things you do are always the same:
— First, make a list
— Second, make it visual
— Third, establish a hierarchy
Human eyes are not cameras. They don’t take in whole images—they can’t. Human brains, by the same token, are not computer screens. As strange as it may sound, you don’t really see what you see. The three main types of visual stimuli—colour, shape and motion—are processed in separate areas of the brain, each forming a micro-consciousness. Because the processors of colour, form and movement are located in different parts of the brain, they’re not all perceived at the same time. Your brain takes these information packages separately and combines them into a unified mental image. I call these the three phases of sight:
Understanding this dynamic will make you more systematic when approaching design choices.
HOW TO FINISH
Creative Block Scenarios
If beginning a design is a mechanical job, finishing the job is the opposite of it: it requires creativity. It’s in the nature of creative pursuits to hit creative blocks. Scientists such as Jonathan Schooler and Mark Jung-Beeman, who studied how insight happen, have shown that hitting an impasse (ie a creative block) is an obligatory stop on the way to an insight. The good news is that not all designs are so complex that they require creative insight. Creativity is hard, but it needn’t be unnecessarily so. Understanding how inspiration works is a first step; the following ones are getting out of your own way, and removing artificial obstacles. Some of these hurdles are easily identified:
You should always begin your design on paper. You can jump on Photoshop anytime you want, but if you do it too early, you risk wasting time decorating instead of problem-solving, to quote Jeffrey Veen. You don’t need any particular kind of paper, pen or pencil. The beauty of sketching is the immediacy of it; handwriting has been repeatedly proven to improve creativity and idea generation. Specific neural pathways are activated when we physically draw out our letters. There is a direct link between your brain and your hands, and it allows you to explore your options without being hindered by software.
Start small: these initial sketches should be as small as possible, while still retaining the distinguishing features. You can simplify complex objects by using placeholders, such ascrossed boxes for pictures and lined boxes for text.
Grids are the hidden anatomy of design. If you don’t use one, you’re basically placing elements randomly. Grids can be as simple or as complex as you want. For this book, I used a classic medieval structure modified for display: since it’s meant to be read on mobile devices, the left margin is left constant to account for continuous scrolling.
This chapter analyses the three main types of grid:
— Column grids
— Grid fields
— Custom grids
Typography predates both graphic design and the printing press. Adobe Trajan (known colloquially as the world’s oldest typeface) was designed in 1989 by Carol Twombly for Adobe, but it was inspired by the inscriptions at the base of Trajan’s Column in Rome, and first appeared in 43 bc. It’s known as capitalis monumentalis, or Imperial Roman capitals:
Roman type, inspired by the Trajan inscriptions, evolved into some typefaces that you may be more familiar with: Garamond (based on the cuttings of Francesco Griffo in 1495), Baskerville (designed by John Baskerville in 1750) and the now world-famous Times New Roman (designed for The Times in 1931). As you can imagine, this centuries-old heritage makes typography very complex. Its nuances can (and do) fill entire books. Nothing will make you a better designer than studying typography: it is, after all, the original form of design.
Although you could spend years studying typography, the good news is that you don’t need to know a lot to use it effectively; just the right things. As Bringhurst himself noted, some of the best typographers who ever lived had no more than one roman font at a time. Knowing what’s in a typeface is a start; learning how certain faces have been used historically in particular industries will teach you what’s right for the job. This chapter contains an introduction to the building blocks of typography:
— Fine print
As first discovered by Newton in 1672, colour isn’t inherent in objects. A red apple isn’t really red: the pigments on its skin absorb all light, except for the wavelengths we perceive as red. That’s why black clothes are a bad idea in the summer: they absorb all light, and the heat that comes with it.
In design, colours are obtained through colour models (such as CMYK and RGB) and colour matching systems (such as Pantone®). This chapter covers the basics of working with colour:
Learning how to use design software is beyond the scope of this book. Arguably, it’s beyond the scope of any book: Adobe Photoshop Classroom in a Book (the official guide) is 416 pages long, but there are books of the same length focusing entirely on layers or masks. Learning software takes time and practice, and I can’t practice for you. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are more tutorials than you could possibly need on the Internet. But before you jump into a Photoshop tutorial, you should make sure that’s what you need. As we covered in the chapter on creative block, using the wrong software can be as damaging as not knowing how to use it. This chapter breaks down the four kinds of static 2D graphics and the software based on them:
— Vector (Adobe Illustrator)
— Raster (Adobe Photoshop)
— Publishing (Adobe InDesign)
— Prototyping (Adobe XD)
Despite appearances, I’m not paid to promote Adobe. I focus on their software for two reasons: first, most tutorials online (as well product support) are based on it. Second, I’ve never used anything else. There are many free alternatives such as GIMP, Inkscape, Scribus and Figma, but I can’t promote one over the other because I’m just not familiar with them.
Below is a preview of two book chapters. If you want to jump straight into the whole thing, click here → Otherwise, read on:
Brief 1In design, the ‘brief’ outlines the scope of the work. This is the introduction of the book.
People don’t think about this, but graphic design was born long before computers. As late as the 1980s, even a simple flyer involved the concerted work of cold typesetters, markup specialists, repro operators and photostat operators. 2If you’re curious what graphic design looked like before computers, check out the 2016 documentary Graphic Means: A History of Graphic Design Production by Briar Levit. These seemingly obscure professions were highly specialised, and the equipment was expensive. Compared with today’s reality this may not look like a pretty picture, but it was this division of labour that created some of the best design and advertising in history.
Today, most design is created by practitioners: people who are designers by necessity, rather than by trade. The vast majority of small business owners, entrepreneurs, freelancers and artists who don’t have a design budget can either make do on their own, or they can outsource. The main issue with outsourcing is not the quality; it’s the inherent risk of choosing someone whose work you can’t evaluate, the inefficiency of communicating with them and the risk of becoming dependent on a middleman who doesn’t care about your product. Ultimately, the market economy of outsourcing websites inevitably drives prices down, and quality follows suit.
Doing your own design (as I argue you should in this book) goes against the gospel of specialisation that has been preached since Adam Smith, but the tide is changing: generalists are not dismissed as jacks-of-all-trades anymore. 3David Epstein makes the best possible case for a generalist skillset in his 2019 book Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World T-shaped skills are becoming valuable, and as you’ll learn, a broad base of reference is one of the most important assets you can have as a designer. Besides, if you’re bootstrapping or freelancing, you’ll know that your only resources are your time and skills, and expanding your skillset is something that will pay off sooner or later. So, what are the options if you want to learn design?
The myriad tutorials available online cover pretty much anything you could ever want to learn—but they don’t tell you where to start. Books, on the other hand, are often too long and tend to focus only on the technical aspects of design. The legacy of specialisation is partly to blame for this. Design software is amazingly complex; Photoshop has been accumulating features for decades (it was released exactly 30 years ago, in 1990) and, for the most part, new versions make the assumption that you’ve been using the previous ones.
The problem of focusing on the technicalities is that you can miss the forest for the trees. Graphic design is like sales: it’s not easy, but it can be simple. In fact, as simple as making a list and moving the items around on a piece of paper. If you don’t believe me, scroll ↓ to the preview of the Practice chapter, and I’ll show you what I mean.
I wrote this book because I couldn’t imagine not being able to design; it would be like being blind—having to rely on middlemen to communicate my ideas. When I was 13 and began thinking about what to do with my life, for some reason I saw it as a binary choice: it was either programming or design. I went with the latter, and it served me well. I was able to raise hundreds of thousands for several entrepreneurial ventures, in no small part thanks to my design skills.
Design has a chimeric nature: it exists at the crossroads of commerce and art, and (to the uninitiated) is indistinguishable from either. Some of its rules are borrowed from art; others are unwritten. But as you’ll learn, there are no secrets. As painter Chuck Close said, inspiration is for amateurs: the rest of us just show up and get to work. Behind great work there’s a lot of practice. Underpinning all practice is a theoretical framework where you can put new tools as they come in, which is where the book begins.
How to start
FIRST, MAKE A LIST
In design, you never really start from scratch: all designs have working parts that need to be there for the design to work. Let’s say you’re designing a website; surely it’s going to have a few basic elements such as a logo, menu, headlines and so on. Just jot these down on a list as they come to your mind—or better yet, look at similar websites and make a note of their working parts. At this stage, they can be in any order:
You should use this process for any kind of design, especially the complex and the (deceptively) simple ones. You really, really don’t need to do this on computer. Any piece of paper is fine, even a napkin. Milton Glaser drew his world-famous I❤️NY logo on an envelope ripped in half.
SECOND, MAKE IT VISUAL
Now you need to make your list visual. You’re basically moving pieces of paper around—top design agencies do just that. You should use a canvas with the right aspect ratio. Since it’s 2020, let’s assume it’s mobile-first: most smartphones have a 1:2 ratio (at this stage, a rough estimate will do). You can start making minor design choices: in the example below I’ve wrapped the headline and CTA in boxes to make them more prominent and I’ve spread the features over two columns:
This your prototype. You can and should do some initial testing now, before moving to software.
THIRD, ESTABLISH A HIERARCHY
Once the prototype makes sense, you can replace the placeholder items with actual content; this is the right time to start using prototyping software such as Adobe XD or Sketch. All your design choices, from this point forward, have the goal of establishing a visual hierarchy within your design.
Hierarchy is effective when viewers see the elements of your design in the right order. What’s the first thing you notice when you look at my pizza website?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Antimo Farid Mire is a graphic designer based in Cambridge, England. He studied sequential art at Scuola Romana dei Fumetti and 2D graphics at the Quasar Institute for Advanced Design. He’s been working as a freelance designer since 2006.