We’re not artists. Far from it. But I’d like to channel a little Pablo for this article.
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
I read somewhere that you shouldn’t lead with a quote, but we’re talking about anarchy here, and hey, someone has already said it better. After all Picasso also said ‘great artists steal’, and I’m down with that. So was Steve Jobs apparently. Infact both of those quotes should resonate with anyone who wants to innovate in their chosen field.

Any designer worth their salt has learned the usual design ‘rules’ – use a grid, what justification works best for legibility, what colours ‘go’ etc… You can’t intentionally break the rules without knowing first what they are, although our intent should be grounded in communicating a message more effectively, not just making it look good. Through experience a good designer can recognise the opportunity to push boundaries, by understanding the client enough to gauge how much creativity they are open to. Immersing ourselves in the brief, and working in collaboration with clients means we have a well informed approach to the problem, to which there are always multiple solutions. It’s our duty to explore various options and deliver the strongest. We tend to group our executions into varying degrees of creativity:

Safe: Solid concepts, well within the client’s comfort zone.
Pushed: Unexpected solutions, potentially challenging the client’s tastes, with sound reasoning.
Disruptive: Smashing boundaries, again with justification of how the message has been enhanced.

Great design comes when designers push both their own limits, and the client’s. But disruptive design doesn’t necessarily mean presenting ideas that have never been done before. The past provides a wealth of inspiration, which we can either revisit or rebel against. In the early 20th century the Dada movement was the first to really go nuts with typography – David Carson did it again in the 90s. Russian Constructivism used montages and angled images/typography – Punk did it again in a raw/lo-tech way. The Arts & Crafts movement revolted against the cold, sharp graphics of the industrial revolution, in a similar way the recent resurgence of hand lettering and printing press is a response to the highly polished, impersonal computer typography of the modern era. You can understand an idea has been done before but have the opportunity to make it your own, or use it somewhere it hasn’t been seen before.

It can be difficult to make clients (and indeed designers) see past Industry trends. In a world saturated with lack-lustre brands – our aim should be to create work that is atypical and stimulating. We need to ask ourselves if everyone is doing the same thing for a valid reason or if we should be changing the game. For example, if you look at fragrance advertising, it’s almost become a parody of itself – sexy models, blue steel poses… but every once in a while something like the Kenzo World ad comes along. Spike Jonze directed a film heavily influenced by his own ‘Weapon of Choice’ promo for Fatboy Slim 15 years prior. By taking an old idea and reimagining it for a new audience Kenzo created a unique piece which propelled them out of the pedestrian and expected space which that industry occupies. Check it out here.

In her book ‘Creative Anarchy’ Denise Bosler outlines some universal truths of design. I find it’s good to take a step back and remember some of these fundamental principles when being creative. It helps us break out of our own bubble and think with a new perspective. Here’s my take on those rules:

Pencil Before Mouse

We are living in an ‘instant-gratification’ culture where fast-track success is often the prerequisite, and it takes a good deal of discipline to slow down. In the same respect we all are guilty of shooting down ideas while we are still in idea-generation mode. At this stage there is no such thing as a dumb idea, quantity breeds quality. It’s important to give our brains and subconscious space to breathe before we jump on a computer and begin to style things up.

"Style acts as the coating for an inner working engine, like the paintwork of a car. While the coating might get scratched or repainted, the engine will keep moving forward as normal. Learn how to build engines."
Radim Malinic

Learn what works for you – some folks favour mind maps, others a simpler brainstorm or list. People tend to remember images better than words so mood-boards are a useful tool. We’re also all guilty of jumping straight into the usual design books and blogs, and forget to look elsewhere for inspiration, in art, music, fashion, nature, history, science, etc…

Kill Your Darlings

This is something my university typography teacher Henrik Kubel used to say (rather morbidly). He was referring to the idea that we often develop an attachment to our own ideas, and when someone critiques them, it feels like a personal attack. But unlike art, designers shouldn’t leave a signature, we work behind the scenes, anonymously. We have to learn to talk through our ideas to obtain clear direction and make educated design decisions. This means checking our ego at the door.


I often wonder how other designers or creative directors explain their jobs to ‘normal folks’  Short of embarking on a detailed explanation outlining the nuances of brand creation and user experience, sometimes it’s easier to reduce our offering to ‘yep, I do logos’. Maybe this perpetuates the view that we just make stuff look good, which is obviously part of our job, but it creates an overly simplistic perception which, in the end, devalues our craft. In the spirit of distilling design into a nutshell, what we do is essentially ‘communication’, where function is equal to form. But try telling uncle Gary that.

Part of our remit is to simplify the message so we can communicate more effectively with the consumer, because simple ideas are the most powerful. At top level, we streamline brands so that their complexity is made accessible. At the grass roots we remove unnecessary language and embellishments, and take the user on a journey. Hierarchy allows us to control what the viewer sees, and the order we want them to digest it in. Bad hierarchy, e.g. poor use of empty space or giving equal prominence to two or more elements, will inevitably result in the user being overwhelmed and abandoning the experience without getting all the necessary information. Hierarchy isn’t always about size – there is no reason the smallest item on the page can’t hold the most prominence. Don’t be afraid of space.

Get Back to Basics
Tone: Different contrasts evoke different responses. High contrast will draw the eye and feel energetic, low contrast may convey calmness and sophistication.

Texture: Often an afterthought, texture adds depth and character. Scan, photograph, draw, print, use a computer, select stock… Visual or tactile textures can be equally compelling.

Shape: Experiment with geometry and fluidity, overlay stuff, create space and depth. Explore iconography, for example, the arrow is one of the most powerful symbols ever created.

Line: The humble line is the basis for everything we see. Think about the ‘quality of line’ – could you use anything other than a computer to make it? How will it support your message?

Think Format
We often revert to conventions for various reasons. Print work can be dictated by preset materials, budget or postage. Websites have to be responsive to different devices. These limitations needn’t hold us back, there are options at our disposal. Think about modifying the stock, cutting it, folding it, doubling up as an envelope, or using different binding methods. Some of these decisions may be more cost efficient, but if cost is incurred, look for compromises – e.g. print 2 colours instead of 4.

Certain formats become frowned upon in the ever meandering digital world – if you are scrolling horizontally these days you better have a good reason for it (correct at time of publishing). People want intuitiveness in their tech, so how can you make the user experience memorable without requiring too much learning or confusion? Consider your navigation, could it be more unusual and still user-friendly? Think about rollover states, animation, the other senses, hearing and touch. But always ask why. Is the navigation on this app interface making it harder to use? Does this hipster beer really belong in a jam jar (I think we all know the answer to that one).

Crucially we can consider the surroundings our designs will occupy and make use of external influences where possible, like material, light and distance.

Play with Colour

Colour is massively subjective, but there are scientific considerations to employing it. The human eye causes warm colours to advance and cool colours to recede. Equally a blue advert in a sea of red will stand out more, so again, we have to be aware of the environment we are designing for. Colours on opposite sides of the colour wheel are ‘complimentary’ when used side by side, but vibrate when overlaid, whereas colours next to each other on the wheel create harmony or unity. Certain colours have psychological effects, e.g. blue is used in nature to signify toxicity and consequently shuts down appetite (hence why it’s often used for bleach products). That’s not to say you can’t throw out the rulebook and make it work by considering the surroundings and using it in moderation, like Kelli Anderson did for Russ & Daughters Cafe in New York.

Geek Out on Type

David Carson famously said “Don’t mistake legibility for communication”. He was talking about engagement. Choosing the right typeface and deciding how to display it is akin to selecting the appropriate voice. If there is disparity between the visual tone of voice, and what it’s saying, it will be misunderstood. We have to decide if it’s appropriate to fit into the space that our competitors do, or shift direction, knowing that there may be validity in both options.

A single typeface used in print or online can sometimes be hard to navigate, so we tend to mix two or more together, commonly a sans with a serif or slab. The trick is making sure those fonts have synergy, which we can do through selecting faces with the same geometric qualities, or contrasting characteristics. Fonts that are too similar or disparate will create inconsistency. But what’s common can be the enemy of progress, if you think it’s justified, use 1 font, or 10, use your instincts, and whatever you do, pay attention to detail: line endings, widows & orphans, kerning & leading, em dashes, hanging punctuation etc… or your creative director will be angry (and you don’t want to see them angry).

Structure Not Straightjacket

Grids are drilled into us at design school, so much so that they can sometimes become dull and dictatorial. We forget to have fun with them. A grid doesn’t have to consist of equal margins, columns and gutters, hell it doesn’t even have to be vertical, or straight. Grids give layouts their personality. But don’t be afraid to break them to make visual statements and drawn the viewers eye.

"Grids do not exist in a vacuum. They exist in relation to the content. We never start with a grid. We start with an idea which is then translated into a form, a structure."
Linda van Deursen

Create Consistency

Consumers want integrity and continuity. They want to know if they click this button, it still feels like they’re on the same website, that the traits of the product are reflected in the packaging, or that the look and feel of a magazine is a continuation of the style promised by the cover. To elicit any form of reaction we should first understand how humans perceive visual stimuli.

A group of German psychologists in the 1920s put together a bunch of theories, some of which describe how we organise visual elements into groups. This was called ‘Gestalt Psychology’ which means ‘unified whole’ – and stems from the same idea that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts’. It includes the following principles:

Similarity: This occurs when objects look similar to one another and become perceived as a group or pattern. It allows certain objects to be emphasised by making them different to the rest (anomalies).

Continuation: When the eye is compelled to move through one object into another.

Closure: Plays on the brain’s ability to fill in the missing information when an object is incomplete or a space is not completely enclosed.

Proximity: The idea that when various elements are placed in close enough proximity they are perceived as a group, rather than isolated objects.

Figure & Ground: The relationship between foreground and background is mutually exclusive – neither can be perceived except in relation to the other, and you can’t change one without affecting the other. There are 3 types:
Stable: (e.g. a black circle on a white page) – it’s obvious which is figure and which is ground.
Reversible: (e.g. equal black & white stripes) – figure and ground have equal prominence, creating tension.
Ambiguous: (e.g. see Amnesty graphic above) – figure and ground are hard to determine, leaving the viewer to decipher the design for themselves.

"White space is to be regarded as an active element, not a passive background."
Jan Tschichold

Symmetry & Order: Humans are drawn to symmetrical balance and order, although like in nature symmetry doesn’t necessarily mean perfectly identical on both sides. Other types of symmetry include ‘Random Balance’ which is more erratic but has overall balance, ‘Asymmetry’ which can feel more kinetic and edgy, and ‘Radial Balance’ which is based on a circle or spiral with the design extending from the centre. The goal is to be structured and equally engaging.

Movement: This is about tying together these principles and structuring them throughout a piece of design. This can be done through ‘Repetition’ – using the same principle in succession to create strong continuity, although this can also become monotonous if overused, or ‘Rhythm’ which is about creating flexible visual devices that are used in a less uniform and dynamic way.

A great example of disruptive design and consistency in action is a website to promote a book by Miranda July. While most authors opt for a slick and sexy website, MJ took it somewhere else by using surfaces in her kitchen to write on and create a simple lo-tech click-thru site. She created a coherent experience with principles of similarity throughout, using different ‘anomalies’ as well as some clever copywriting to retain engagement and direct the users eye to important calls-to-action. Click here to check it out.

Learn to Disrupt

Disruption is about challenging the traditions in which things operate, in new and effective ways. I think it’s rooted in our ability to think laterally, which is a term developed by Edward de Bono in 1967. It depicts the notion of solving problems using reasoning that isn’t obvious or based on traditional step-by-step logic. We were given a simple test one day at Uni to try and determine who could think in this way. This test was also used in the 70s by management consultants, and it’s where the phrase ‘think outside the box’ is thought to derive from. It consists of 9 dots and the participant has to connect all of them with four (or less) straight lines without lifting their pen off the paper. What we weren’t told was that your lines could go, you guessed it, outside the box. Now while I was successful in solving it, most didn’t, and there was an element of shame that came with that failure. I find the test a little deceptive and subscribe to the idea that everyone can think laterally as long as they know all the pertinent information. This only comes with a mindset that constantly questions and tries everything. That’s how we begin to disrupt the norm.

Further reading:
Creative Anarchy by Denise Bosler
Second Sight by David Carson
Book of Ideas by Radim Malinic

Other Stories

Back to Top