Sometimes it's hard to put your finger on it—there's something just not right about your layout. It's too dull, too fussy, too bare or too busy. These three quick fixes will help you transform your designs, and make your page look spectacular, not so-so.
1. Always Remember the Grid!
If your layout is looking more 'meh' than marvellous, it might be lacking an underlying structure, or as graphic designers call it, a 'grid'. This grid is not instantly obvious to a viewer, but it has the magic quality of making your layouts look instantly more appealing.
Applying a grid to your design gives the layout visual balance and harmony. Working without a grid usually results in either an overly crowded design, lacking a main focus, or a bare-looking layout, which lacks visual interest.
Let's look at how to create a grid, and how you can structure elements on your design.
You can create a grid in any design programme, such as Quark, CorelDRAW, Illustrator or Photoshop, simply by pulling guide-lines out onto the page. Here I'm using InDesign to demonstrate, but the process is very similar for other software.
First up, I create a fresh layer (Window > Layers, then select New Layer... from the panel's menu) and rename this Grid. This keeps the grid lines separate, and you can lock the layer while you work on the rest of your layout.
If your software allows you to create Master pages, click to activate the Master and bring it up on screen. Placing your grid lines on the Master page will ensure that the grid will be applied to as many pages as you like (i.e. however many pages you apply the Master to).
You can create a huge number of different layouts using just one simple modular grid. For a standard portrait page, like the A3 document pictured below, you can divide the page into around four columns (in InDesign, go to Layout > Margins and Columns, and increase the Number of Columns to 4).
Working on the Master page, or simply on the Grid layer if you're working on a one-page document, make sure the rulers are showing (in InDesign, go to View > Show Rulers).
Click on the ruler running along the top of the screen and drag a guide down onto the page. Click and drag another, to create a pair of guides positioned closely together.
Drag your mouse over the pair of guides to select them, and Copy and Paste. Continue to paste pairs of guides onto the page, and arrange them until you have divided the page up into square sections, as shown below.
Congratulations! Your modular grid is ready, and you can return to your layout and start to experiment with arranging elements on the page. Try structuring blocks of text into the columns on the grid, and filling areas denoted by a group of squares with images.
As long as you stick to the structure of the grid, there aren't many combinations that will look dreadful. Play with balance, and try to avoid two competing main focusses on the layout (e.g. two equally sized images).
2. Think 'Contrast' and 'Complement' With Color
Sometimes a lot of color looks right on a layout, and sometimes it's just too overwhelming. But why does one layout with bold, liberal use of color look great, while yours looks messy and, frankly, an eyesore?!
The rule of thumb for using color successfully on a layout is to aim for the two golden Cs: contrast and complement.
This means that whatever color combination you apply (whether that consists of two, or a number of colors) should have tones which both contrast against one another and complement one another.
Two colors which look too similar, either in pigment or level of darkness/brightness, can merge together visually and create a design that either lacks punch or appears unattractive to the viewer.
To increase contrast, pair colors together that are pale/dark, cold/warm. And note that black and white layouts often have more visual impact than ones with color. Why? Because black and white are two colours with as much contrast as you can get.
If you don't have one already, get yourself a color wheel pronto!
Complementary colors, i.e. colors that pair well together (or are often situated opposite each other on a standard color wheel), relax the viewer—if the colors naturally go together well, they soothe the eye and make your designs look less jarring.
Use your color wheel or swatch book as inspiration for finding the best colors for your designs, or try using a group of colors which sit close together in a color spectrum (e.g. pair greens with blues, or team up yellows with oranges).
3. If in Doubt, Avoid Novelty Typefaces
There are so many fonts available out there on the web, many of which are free for commercial use. While this range of choice is great for designers, it can be all too tempting to use that 'great' free font you found somewhere on Behance which has a grungy texture and jaunty baseline.
If your typography's not up to scratch, it will let down your whole layout. Choosing a font that you know is going to look great in most contexts is a guaranteed way to ensure your designs are going to look the best they possibly can.
So if you suspect your design might be suffering from a 'font-crime' (definition: overuse of novelty fonts), switch up your typefaces to something more classic and timeless. Looking for inspiration? Try out Futura (see it in action on the contents page below), Gill Sans, Adobe Garamond Pro, or Baskerville, all of which you're likely to find in your InDesign font list.
Take note of these three quick tips for transforming your designs instantly, whenever you feel a creative block!
- Layout looking messy or unattractive? Go back to basics, and introduce a grid onto your page.
- Colors not looking quite right? Aim for contrasting, complementary tones to avoid a color headache.
- Is the typography letting your design down? Strip away novelty fonts, and replace them with elegant, classic typefaces for timeless appeal.
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