7 techniques for graphic design

Contents

  • Intro
  • Subject/Concept
  • Techniques
    • Format
    • Form
    • Layout/Composition
    • Motion
    • Colour
    • Typography
  • Systems
  • Conclusion

Introduction

Consider graphic design as visual communication, analogous to verbal communication.

Verbal communication is about passing information from one person to another through spoken or written words – it employs verbal techniques like language, vocabulary, slang, volume, body language, figures of speech, sentence structure etc. 

Experts in the verbal transmission of ideas could be – singers, actors, and comedians. A graphic designer is an expert in the visual transmission of information.

The below techniques are comparable to (and often integrated with) the above verbal techniques. Here’s an introduction to basic techniques which will be considered in almost any graphic design project.

Context/Concept

Defining an audience for your graphic design is a hugely important (if not the most important) part of any brief.

You need to know your audience, knowing what cultural reference points they will know and respond to, or that you can introduce them to. What connotations can you lay into your work to position your information in the correct context for your audience to receive it as intended?

What idea is going to hook your audience, what will surprise them, delight them or shock them into action? This will give direction for what you do with the above techniques…. this could be written before anything visual is made, or it could develop throughout a project.

Format / material

What is the best mechanism to deliver the information that’s being transmitted? 

A design shouldn’t only start with visuals, it should also start with where those visuals are going to be applied: A book, a leaflet, a poster, a space/experience, a video, something printed, something digital, a painting, a performance etc.

Each will hold the information differently – each communicates its own set of connotations.

A magazine feels different from a book, and an email feels different from a letter. A designer will consider what is communicated by the format as well as what’s on the format.

Form

Form is the shape of something, and its physical appearance. 2D forms are created by three basic elements: point, line and plane. 3D forms also include volume.

Think of these basic elements as musical notes, you can play the same melody on a flute or an electric guitar and they will take on a different timbre and therefore a different meaning.

You can impart ‘timbre’ on the visual elements too: are they rough, smooth, distressed or glossy, does it feel analogue or digital, is it solid, is it granular, defined or fuzzy ethereal, bold or light, is it realistic or cartoony. 

The form can come from the creation process of the visual ie. a wood print on paper vs a vector graphic on a screen.

The form could also be created by imitating the results of a manufacturing process, eg. a film photograph vs a 3D render. Designers should consider the connotations of the creation technique, does digitally imitating an analogue creation technique add a layer of meaning about authenticity or trickery – you wouldn’t want to land in Uncanny Valley if it’s not intended.

Typography

Type is language made visible. Typography is the design of letters, words and their arrangement. Typography has a large overlap with form, layout and system however it deserves to be pulled into its own category. 

Similar to form the letters and words can exude meaning without even being able to read them… sometimes they say more without being legible at all, do they allude to anything in culture ie. script created with a calligraphy pen could be appropriate for decadent occasions or drawn with a brush it could make you think of a local chippy.

This can get subtle, real subtle, I’m talking down to the way the little leg on a capital R flicks off at the end, each subtlety can push a project further towards a certain audience or cultural reference.

Layout/Composition/Space/Sequence

At what point and in what way does the viewer receive parts of the message. Do they need to receive it all at once, maybe a short message like STOP or Danger, or does it have multiple layers the reader should work through.

Breaking things into digestible chunks of information makes it easier to remember, ordering these chunks by relevance to each other and hierarchy of importance leads your audience through the information in a nice logical way. Positioning things logically also inherently looks pretty good. (Breaking the rules can look even better.)

To establish a hierarchy designers may consider: location on a page, size, groupings of elements, weight of type, opacity, colour etc. etc

Layout in and of itself also communicates as it creates a form of its own: busy, sparse, balanced, symmetrical asymmetrical. The holistic and atomistic should work together to deliver the message.

Motion/Gesture

Similar to layout you can create a hierarchy in time, what point should you introduce a piece of information, how long should it stay on screen and how do you draw the appropriate amount of attention to it.

If a visual message is in motion what does the overall movement communicate – this could be comparable to body language. Think of someone gesticulating while telling you a story about a night out or delivering very important information before a test, or an actor delivering a line. The gestures they use with their arm and hands and the pace and volume they speak do they move fast or slow, does it feel friendly or urgent, aggressive or peaceful. 

Motion can also allude to different objects, things or subjects in the world, a robot vs a river, a roadrunner cartoon vs space odyssey. The motion of each can be infused in a piece of design the skill of a designer is in pulling in the right motion to enhance your message.

Colour

Colour is one of the first things your viewer will encounter in a design – colours can hold a huge amount of connotations, they can inspire emotion, symbolise different ideas and mean different things to different audiences, especially from country to country.

Red – Stop signs, or sex or violence.

Yellow – Sunshine or construction site

Blue – Summer sky or Yves Klein

Green – All-natural or rich heritage

They can also be heavily associated with a particular brand – this is important when positioning your brand does someone else dominate that colour.

Purple + gold – Cadbury’s

Red + white – Coca-cola

Systems

A system is a scalable and repeatable method of creation, this could be digital or analogue and involve some or all of the above techniques. Predominantly applied in branding to maintain consistency, it could also be used to generate interesting variation in images, in a series of posters, for example. 

Take your brand, you’d like to communicate a consistent image and personality to your audience, creation of two systems could help you do this over time – a brand strategy and a visual identity. The brand strategy is a verbal system, an agreement on certain messages you’d like to communicate, and a visual identity is (you guessed it) visual, it could include specified things like typefaces or colour each giving a framework and tools to use when defining and communicating your brand.

Conclusion

Each of these techniques communicates something holistically and atomistically – the designer’s job is to use them subjectively to code a message appropriately for a specific receiver. Overlap and ambiguity of code can create interesting work but must maintain enough familiarity for an intended audience to grasp.

Graphic design is not simply the logical application of all of these techniques, the sum is greater than its parts. What is important is the individual’s way of moving with and applying these techniques, there is no mathematical and purely objective way to do graphic design, just like different comedians deliver their jokes in different styles.

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