Artemy Lebedev

§ 99. Laws of design

January 26, 2003

Laws are what design doesn’t have. Never had’em. Never will.

What does exist are recommendations, tips, lists of life experience cases. There are “10 major mistakes” and “7 golden rules”. But no laws.

If design were a science (it is as much a science as chess is a sport), one could speculate about things that can only be this way and no other. But design, just as any other art or means of creative expression, as any way of communication between different people, or language, or thought—is apt to get around any laws.

So there is a point in talking about limitations applicable to this or that case. The alcohol industry rarely depicts lushed-up bums reclining under a bench. Similarly, mobile operators don’t advertise their users’ exultation at the sight of the Network Busy notification on the screen of a mobile phone. But each of the industries can make use of the scenario spurned by the other: a) a scene at a bar, he’s got a Network Busy warning on his phone, which makes him as happy as a clam and he gets tanked up; b) bums are lying under benches, babbling away, enjoying a cheap calling plan.

It’s pretty easy to take any rule and show how it can be disregarded just like that. For example, according to popular belief, it’s better to use only one font in page layout. But it’s not the case.

We can definitely assert that even if only one font is used, you can’t help changing its face one way or another. There’s nothing bad about combining two, three, four fonts on one page. Beginner designers often use versatile fonts to make up for their lack of expression means. But rejecting design purely on a ground that several different fonts are present would be a rigid formalism.

If samples of thirty-five faces of twelve typefaces are printed on a page, it really looks lovely:

Yefimov, V.V. (1985). Fotonaborniye shrifty: Katalog-spravochnik (Vyp. 2). Moscow: Kniga

If the same fonts are simultaneously printed in a usual magazine article, it’ll look awful. Or it won’t—depending on the kind of the magazine and article you’d be looking at. There’s an odd exception to every knotty rule.

Below is a shortlist of “laws” off the top of the “Mandership” author’s head which he oftentimes hears both designers and customers enunciate:

  • serif fonts are easier to read than grotesque (non-serif) fonts;
  • a color scheme should consist of one or two colors;
  • there are incompatible color combinations;
  • black has a negative (mournful, somber) feel to it;
  • white text on black background is hard to read (reverse in general is hard to read);
  • Photoshop standard filters must not be used;
  • on a page (a box, a poster) there mustn’t be more than seven significative objects, since a person cannot keep more than seven items of whatever in his mind at a time;
  • a logo should be placed on the right hand side at the bottom of the page (on the left hand side at the top etc.);
  • a logo should be simple and concise in form;
  • design should be simple, text should be brief;
  • words written on posters, packaging, adverts should be short enough to allow a person to read them in one (two, three) seconds;
  • images with a handshake and the globe as well as the colors of the national flag must not be used;
  • illustrations for print should have a resolution of 300 pixels per inch; images found on the internet must not be printed in a magazine;
  • frames on a website is something to be avoided;
  • horizontal scrolling of a window is off limits;
  • women, kids, pussy cats etc. are images conveying positive messages.

It’s not just because there are thousands of examples to refute any of these assertions. The problem is that none of assertions of this sort can possibly be viewed as a general rule. They are right only sometimes.

The knowledge of such “laws” causes designers and customers to suffer. They suffer, because they adhere to limitations that can be applied under certain circumstances, but are no way universal.

So laws are what design doesn’t have. Never had’em. Never will.

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