September 21, 2000 / Design / Fall 2000

The 10 Rules of Basic Design

Written by David Zinsmeister

You are the lucky recipient of a preliminary layout sheet (from this point on we’ll call them what they really are – dummies – the layout sheet, not that kid that sits behind you in math class). You may be asking yourself at this point – “What do I do with this ‘dummy’?” You are in luck. Not only does the exciting and fast-paced opportunity of designing await, but in your hands you now hold a key to solid beginning design – a guide (not that I can be here every step of the way, but at least some rules to remember as you embark on your journey).

First there is one thing you should understand. Everyone was once a beginning designer, so though you may be struggling at first while that advanced staff member seemingly designs at will – you too will progress to that point. Be persistent, be creative, but most of all be consistent. Oh, and one word of caution – while these rules appear fairly simplistic and maybe even somewhat easy, implementing them will require a lot of practice and attention to detail. Once you understand “the rules” you can expand on those, but first things first…


Two Pages are Better than One Always Design as Double Page Spreads

You don’t look at just one page so why design that way? This improves linkage from one side to the other.


Don’t Fence Me In – But do use columns

Columns give the spread structure, so once you commit to the number of columns, keep it for that spread and section of the book


The Shape of things to Come

You have three shapes to use – horizontal rectangle, vertical rectangle and square. Don’t create design problems by using odd shaped or circular elements – there’s time for that later. For now, keep it simple.


Bigger and Better – Start with a Dominant Photo

Placing a quality photo that is twoÐthree times larger than the next largest photo will give the eye a place to start on a well designed spread.



Design from the Gutter Out Want to get rid of that trapped white space next to the gutter? Work from the center out and add the subdominant photos from the gutter out.


Another Brick in the Wall -Maintain a Consistent Internal Margin

Having one pica of space between all elements will keep the eyes on the photos and copy, and away from distracting white space. Just like a brick wall has a consistent amount of space between bricks and what you notice are the bricks, not the mortar separating them. Think about that same wall if one brick had been left out and just filled with mortar -what would you notice? The entire wall or the missing brick? Your reader will notice that additional white space too.


‘White’ Open Spaces

Leave some white space in the corners and keep all white space to the outside. This creates a diamond shape on the spread and also creates better balance. It also keeps the reader from being overwhelmed by too much stuff.


Bleed Only Once in Each Direction

Too much of anything is too much. Bleeding elements are effective when used with discretion, but too much takes away the impact. Use it once and use it wisely.


Where are Those Captions?

The captions should be next to the photos they identify – and stack no more than two. Your reader should be able to easily tell which caption goes with each photo.


What am I Doing Here?

Never surround text with photos. It creates unwanted areas of white space and limits the amount of text that can be placed inside of it. Keeping text to the outside of the spread will allow the writer more flexibility for captions and copy.

Good Luck!
Like anything else – it is the practice that will make you a competent designer. So be courageous as you embark on your new exciting learning opportunity. And remember, everyone on staff was once a beginner just like you, and look how good they are now. Who knows, that just might be you one day.

One Response to “The 10 Rules of Basic Design”

April 06, 2010 at 4:54 pm, Laura Shaw said:

Why can’t I find you on fb. Do you still in the USA?

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David Zinsmeister