Design Principles

“Design matters. But design is not about decoration or about ornamentation. Design is about making communication as easy and clear for the viewer as possible.”  Garr Reynolds

25 Principles

I couldn’t wait to crack open my course textbook: Universal Principles of Design (Rockport Publishers, 2010). Authors William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler identify 125 ways to enhance usability, influence perception, increase appeal, make better design decisions, and teach through design.


The textbook is a reference for designers ranging from architecture to graphics to user-interface. It teems with 125 design principles, some with captivating names like Rosetta Stone or Fibonacci Sequence. Others sound like they are named after the discoverer: Ockham’s Razor or von Restorff Effect. There’s the exotic Wabi-Sabi and wacky Five Hat Racks.

I randomly selected 25 principles that caught my eye. Over the next several weeks, I present each design principle together with an illustration. The principles are grouped into five categories featuring five design principles each.

Designs in Nature

  1. Biophilia Effect
  2. Desire Line
  3. Fibonacci Sequence
  4. Golden Ratio
  5. Wayfinding

Biophilia Bee

Instructional Design

  1. Advance Organizer
  2. Recognition over Recall
  3. Rosetta Stone
  4. Storytelling
  5. von Restorff Effect

Golden Ratio storm clouds

Marketing Design

  1. Anthropomorphic Form
  2. Archetypes
  3. Baby-Face Bias
  4. Colour
  5. Red Effect


Product Design

  1. Aesthetic-Usability Effect
  2. Contour Bias
  3. Horror Vacui
  4. Ockham’s Razor
  5. Wabi-Sabi

Biophilia Tulip

User-Interface Design

  1. Alignment
  2. Chunking
  3. Comparison
  4. Five Hat Racks
  5. Operant Conditioning

So let’s explore this series of principles beginning with Part 1 – Designs in Nature.

Related articles


Got Gridlock? Webpage Grids

Creating an eye-catching page layout takes an artistic touch.

Joshua Johnson is a web designer with some well-tested tricks in his toolkit. If you encounter designer’s block, consider Joshua’s 10 Rock Solid Website Layouts. Keep these alignments on your drawing board when you are stuck. Or before you get stuck.

  1. Three Boxes
  2. 3D Screenshots
  3. Advanced Grid
  4. Featured Graphic
  5. Five Boxes
  6. Fixed Sidebar
  7. Headline and Gallery
  8. Featured Photo
  9. Power Grid
  10. Full Screen Photo

Basic principles:

  1. Choose an alignment
  2. Design to include whitespace
  3. Highlight important elements through sizing and positioning

To familiarize myself with his layout concepts, I searched the web for samples of my own to share with you.

Three Boxes

The three boxes layout features one main graphic area followed by two smaller boxes underneath. Each box can be filled with a graphic, a block of text, or a combination of the two.


3D Screenshots

Provide a headline and descriptive text, then add stylized previews of your application using 3D effects.

3D Screen Shots

Advanced Grid

Similar to the three boxes layout, use one primary graphic heading followed by a uniform grid of thumbnails. To add interest, merge some of the thumbnails to create areas of differing shapes. These areas can contain graphics, blocks of text, or a mix of both.

Advanced Grid

Featured Graphic

Sometimes you don’t have enough images or you want to highlight one icon, photo or symbol. An effective solution is to feature one strong graphic.

Featured Graphic

Five Boxes

The five boxes layout expands on the idea of the three boxes layout to accommodate the inclusion of more distinct content. Of course, the secondary boxes become smaller.

5 Boxes

Fixed Sidebar

Fixed vertical navigation features a strong vertical column on the left or right side of the page. The fixed element stays in place so that navigation is accessible from any point on the site. Design the rest of the page incorporating any of the other layout options.

Fixed Sidebar

Headline and Gallery

A gallery page is very visual. Use a headline, an optional sub-head, and then showcase a solid, uniform grid of images. Make the headline big and bold.

Headline and Gallery

Featured Photo

Feature one large image showcasing your design, artwork, or photography, then add a navigation system.

Featured Photo

Power Grid

For pages that contain a variety of related content, the power grid may be an effective solution. Define a large container to hold a series of shapes formatted in a strong but varied grid. In the example below, a defined container holds columns of variously-sized content boxes.

Power Grid

Full Screen Photo

Use one large, attractive graphic as a background to display a limited amount of content. Content laid over a background image can be difficult to read, so ensure that navigation is clear. Perhaps use an opaque horizontal bar to hold navigational elements.

Full Screen Photo

Hope these layouts inspire your next design project!

Related articles

Why am I doing this anyway?

I was wondering how to approach the planning of a blog.

Do the pros plan a month in advance? A quarter? A year? Or do bloggers wait for inspiration to strike? For life to happen?

Darren Rowse runs ProBlogger. A video blog by Rowse describes a full-day planning meeting held with a core team of four colleagues to discuss the upcoming schedule for 2013.

Firstly, the team reviewed the past year’s activities in 2012 and the blogs’ current position based on four critical areas:

  1. Content: reviewed publication frequencies and types of content, including feedback received via comments. Assessed survey results about content.
  2. Community: reviewed quality of comments and signups. Assessed whether people joined forums and engaged in social media channels. Gauged quality of community interaction.
  3. Stats: reviewed analytics on traffic quality and quantity, visitor types, and traffic sources. Assessed balance of new and repeat visitors and whether they arrived via search engine or social medial referrals.
  4. Monetization: reviewed their income generation and evaluated opportunities where they could capitalize on their established brand. This area is critical since the company desires to be sustainable over the long haul.

The review also examined areas for improvement as well as ways to further develop successful ventures. Unsuccessful initiatives were evaluated for improvement or elimination. Throughout, they brainstormed.

Secondly, they listed activities such as product launches and scheduled events; then slotted them into their annual calendar.

Thirdly, they reviewed their goals and sought ways to achieve those goals, scheduling them into their annual calendar. This allowed them to break down the process to milestone those goals and engage in project planning. Some initiatives were penciled in for trial. This way, they could launch a trial and assess it before committing it more permanently in their annual calendar.

Once the calendar was complete, they reviewed the entire year and scheduled new initiatives in the gaps. This creates momentum for the year, and the framework provides clear direction for the next 12 months.

For new bloggers, Rowse’s video suggests that planning an entire year ahead is critical to success.

For solo bloggers whose operations are smaller and less formal, planning is still mandatory. There may be prolific seasons followed by fallow seasons. Write while the well is deep to shore up those dry spells!

For this new social media-ist, before dashing off to brainstorm a list of bloggable topics, I need to re-examine my reasons for entering the blogosphere. Yes, I am aware this is an effective delaying tactic…

WordPressVanGoghWhat is the main purpose of my blog? Who is my key audience? What are they interested in learning? What am I interested in researching? What are my niche areas of expertise? What is the tone of my blog? How can my personality better permeate my writing? How can I attract more traffic to my blog? How can I build community?

All good questions that demand great answers.

Related articles

Snake Oil over Ramen Noodles

My colleague Helen is a data analyst and researcher at the University of Toronto. Daily, she mines volumes of data about graduate education.

Most of her reports feature black and white charts with texts and numbers. The reports are robust with comparative data. Whenever I need to check a graduate program’s data set, her reliable annual report is my ultimate go-to resource.

However, we both agree that traditional statistical reports can use a shot of pizzazz!

Helen is also a foodie, so I love dining with her. Today we find ourselves lunching at Kenzo Ramen.

We are discussing a Ted Talk by data journalist David McCandless titled “The Beauty of Data Visualization” (July 10, 2010). An information designer, McCandless talks about visualizing the connections between data so that relational concepts are better understood when presented graphically.

With the emergence of data visualization and infographics, the future is beautiful. Information is beautiful. His recent project, Snake Oil?, presents comparative scientific data on popular health supplements.


By presenting research in such an engaging way, information is accessible to the public. Scientific data is not languishing on dusty shelves or in rusty filing cabinets. (OK, maybe no one but me files paper in physical cabinets any more…)

In fact, consumers are flocking to buy infographic posters as much for their informational significance as for their visual appeal.

McCandless explains, “The eye is exquisitely sensitive to patterns in variations in color, shape, and pattern. It loves them, and it calls them beautiful. It’s the language of the eye. If you combine the language of the eye with the language of the mind, which is about words and numbers and concepts, you start speaking two languages simultaneously, each enhancing the other. So, you have the eye, and then you drop in the concepts. And that is the whole thing – it is two languages both working at the same time.”


Indeed, information is beautiful!

Data visualization empowers us to readily examine complex data to develop our own interpretations. When data is understood, it can be better analyzed which, in turn, can lead to informed change. We no longer depend on someone else to parse the patterns. We can visualize it for ourselves. Secondary bias is eliminated. We can comprehend concepts unfiltered – on two cognitive levels – the eye and the mind.

Not into supplements? How about a serving of vegetables from Over 400 Vegetables on One Incredibly Healthy Poster (Pop Chart Lab).


Add a little ramen to the mix, and now we’re cooking! Or noodling…

Related articles

Entering the Blogosphere

I am a novice blogger.

Celebrities and status-seekers write blogs. Corporations with social media strategies write blogs. Unconvinced that the blogosphere offered much to significantly impact my life, I consciously steered clear. Until now.

When my writer friend Elaine moved to Hong Kong, she started to blog about her travels as a way to record her impressions and to inform her friends back home that she was safe and having the adventure of a lifetime. A cracker jack journalist with an engaging writing style, her prolific blog chronicles her excellent adventure.

I followed her online. I trailed her to this temple, that market, and that historic site, learning about the people and politics of Asia along the journey. Her travel blog is a journal that kept us connected.

As I ponder my project for a Visual Design course, the creation of a design blog, I got to thinking about the actual definition of a blog. In order to create a blog, I need to define it!

 My search for an answer led me to two promising resources:

  1. the archives of the ProBlogger website where blogger Darren Rowse answers the question, and
  2. a YouTube video by Brian Brown at Pajama, the Business Blog Authority.


So what is a blog?

BlogShort for web log, a blog is a type of website that takes the form of an online journal written about a particular topic. A blog allows authors with little or no technical knowledge to update and maintain a blog, thus making this type of communication accessible to a broad audience. So now, people with something to say can do it online without tripping over the technology to accomplish it.

Yes, that’s for me!

Blogs contain current content, so the author (blogger) updates the blog regularly to capture and hold audience attention – and to maintain currency. Blogs can feature content from multiple authors or guest authors.

Well, this is a required class assignment, so I’d better be the sole author!

RosieBloggerAn entry on a blog is known as a “blog post” or “post”; blog posts appear in reverse chronological order with the most recent content appearing first.

A blog comprises text, hyperlinks, images, and links (to other web pages and to video, audio, or other files).

Aha! So a blog is the perfect medium to explore visual design and display of information. 


Comment feature

Blogs are written in a casual style and document the author’s research or opinions on a focal topic. Some blogs are monologues – the author presents information for site visitors to read. However, many blogs are conversational and invite reader response through a comment function.

The comment option takes site visitors to a form where they can leave their name, email, and link their own blog. Visitors can also leave feedback, comments, critique, or questions about the blog topic.

I am not sure if all feedback is posted or whether there is a filtering or monitoring process that weeds out offensive or unrelated submissions. I’d better check that out!

Archive feature

Besides the comment functionality, blogs feature an archive. Successful blogs have lots of content that needs to be organized for easy retrieval. Archives can be searched by category or by date.

Subscribe feature

A subscribe feature allows readers to sign up so that every time a new blog post is available, the reader receives an email. This makes it easy for readers to follow a blog.

Hmmm…well, I am not expecting many followers, but now that I understand the basics, it’s time to choose a blog topic.

Wish I were writing about travels in Asia.

Related articles

Hello visual design class! (Anyone out there?)

I am extroverted.

I enjoy relating to people face to face, and I am energized through human interaction and external stimuli. So I never pictured myself sitting at home alone taking an online class about communication. I much prefer to sit in an actual classroom with real people – talking in real time. You know, communicating about communication. However, here I am, registered in my second e-learning course.

Extroversion aside, I admit that learning online has its advantages. During the course, I can tune in and out on my own schedule. Because students connect virtually, I am studying with learners from abroad with global perspectives.  And no one is judging me when I show up on a bad hair day wearing pajamas.

This semester, I am studying Visual Design and Display of Information. Instructor Julian Hunt writes, “This course will allow students to think about online delivery with an emphasis on visual and non-visual communications.”

I am excited to unearth more about the strategy of visual communications, so I ventured online to investigate.

Hewlett-Packard offers a four-page PDF titled The Power of Visual Communication.

Formal research studies indicate that communication comprising a visual component is far more effective than oral or non-visual communication. However, visual combined with non-visual communication (oral and action) is even more effective.

“Psychologist Jerome Bruner of New York University has described studies that show that people only remember 10% of what they hear and 20% of what they read, but about 80% of what they see and do.

Interestingly, while purely visual communication is more effective than solely verbal communication, the most compelling communication combines both visual and non-visual content. “

Presentation designer Chiara Ojeda explores visual thinking. She presents a thought-provoking slideshow and YouTube video that inspires presenters to rethink the approach of their next visual presentation.

So why am I telling you all this?

The final assignment for the Visual Design class is a design blog that captures my learning activity over the eight-week course. I have always wanted to blog. Here’s the perfect opportunity. In fact, you are reading my very first blog post!

During the course, through active research and learning activities, reading, and “listening”, I am hoping to retain much of that estimated 80% to which Bruner refers.

I invite you to audit Visual Design and Display of Information through the headset of my mindset. Listen in over the next several weeks. I’ll be blogging. Communicating. Maybe you will communicate back.

Related articles