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Tips for Graphic Design

We live in a visual age. All day, every day, we are surrounded by visual imagery. If you stop and look for a few seconds, you will find that you are immersed in a visual culture: tv, posters, packaging, traffic directions, magazines, billboards, websites.

Visual imagery is a language and, like any language, it has some basic rules that make communication possible. As learning professionals, more and more we are being asked to move into graphic design – designing screens for e-learning, designing slides for our face to face or virtual classroom presentations, designing documents for job aids, and designing e-book layouts for our after course support. But how many of us have had any graphic design instruction? I would wager very few.

Well, firstly you just need to apply the few basic rules of graphic design, you will be amazed at how you do actually have the ability to produce first-class designs every time.

So here they are: just a few basic rules to guide you into producing better visuals.

1: Focal Point

The most important part of any layout is the visual element. This is where your audience’s eyes are drawn to first – it’s the focal point. So rule #1 is have one per screen. Without a focal point, your reader’s eye will not know where to focus. If there are more than one your eyes will wander aimlessly around the layout. You may of course group several items together to form one focal point. Note that the focal point does not have to be a photo, it could be a chart, diagram, or illustration.

When placing photos, follow The Rule of Thirds. If you draw a nine-square (3×3) grid across your screen, you need to place your main subject at the intersection of two of the gridlines. This makes for an interesting composition. Placing it slap in the middle is boring!

The Rule of Thirds

Figure 1: The Rule of Thirds

2: Contrast

Contrast is another vital part of your design. You can employ contrast in a variety of ways: between empty and filled space, contrasting sizes of graphics (one dominating), photos, shapes, lines, and text. Use of colour and value also offer powerful contrast tools. In slides we frequently see text with little contrast to the background making it hard to see.


Figure 2: Contrast

3: Balance

In graphic design we think of balance in terms of visual weight. You want your designs and layouts to be visually balanced, unless of course you want to make your audience feel tense or anxious. Notice in Figure 3 how we have balanced the text with the face.


Figure 3: Balance

4: Movement

The principle of movement goes returns to the idea that good design controls the eye’s flow through the composition. The flow of your layout moves the eye around the screen. You can observe the principle of movement in action by looking at Figure 4 – see how your eyes follow the spotlights down to the singer.

Figure 4: Movement

5: Perspective

Perspective is another kind of movement: the sense of movement into the distance or through the foreground, middle ground or background. For example, imagine a landscape where the horizon line is one third/two thirds (i.e. the sky is one third and the land is two thirds). This provides a real sense of distance, whereas moving the horizon line down to two thirds/one third will decrease the sense of distance. Have a look at a landscape photographer or artist and notice where they put the horizon (hint – it’s never in the middle!).

Figure 5: Perspective

6: Unity

Would you wear a dinner jacket and bow tie with shorts and sandals? Well I hope you wouldn’t! I am sure you would want everything to match and co-ordinate. In graphic design, Unity means grouping items so that all parts of the design work together and everything looks like it belongs together. So look for photos that are similar in look and feel, don’t mix font families, keep a strong colour theme, for example.

Ensure your layouts fit together visually and are consistent throughout your screens. In other words they have cohesion. See Figure 6 to see how this works with our slide.


Figure 6: Unity

7: LOOK!

Perhaps the most useful tip I have left to the end and it’s this – stop what you are doing and take five minutes to look around you. We see things every day and never really look at them. So when you have a moment – perhaps on the tube, or as a passenger in a car or train, or just walking down the street, look at things and how they are designed and try to become familiar with focal points, contrast, balance, movement, perspective, and unity in the objects you look at.

And very soon you will be able to say, I can design a visual.

Some recommended reading

  • Presentation Zen Design, Garr Reynolds
  • White Space Is Not Your Enemy, Kim Golombisky & Rebecca Hagen
  • The Non-Designers Design Book, Robin Williams
  • The Quotations Page


Colin Steed Author: Colin Steed

Colin Steed has over 35 years’ experience in the learning and development field, and was instrumental in founding and setting up the Institute of IT Training.  He is perhaps best known for designing and delivering the hugely successful Certified Online Learning Facilitator course for the LPI.  Colin is the Chief Executive of the Learning & Performance Institute.
Twitter: @Colinsteed

Website: www.thelpi.org