If you’ve been tasked with designing a new brochure for your boss or a brand identity for your own business, take a moment before you dive in headfirst. It can be tempting to unleash your pent-up creativity in full force, but even creative disciplines like graphic design need a basic manual.

These ‘ten commandments’ of graphic design are the rules which pro designers never break. Follow these to the letter and you’ll have a failsafe foundation for creating professional-standard design work every time.

1. Start with a brief

design rules brief

It doesn’t matter whether you’re working for a client, putting something together for your coworkers, or simply creating something for yourself, you should always start with a brief.

A brief will help focus the project and result in a better design. A brief doesn’t need to be overly detailed, but it does need to cover a few key things, including what the client/you wants the design to achieve, what their/your aspirations are for the design, and more practical aspects, such as the deadline and budget for the project.

Specific design projects will also need extra items tagged onto the brief. For example, a rebranding project might take into account what elements of the old brand should be kept or dropped, as well as information about the brand’s target market. When designing a business card you’ll need to consider the costs for adding printing extras like embossing and foiling, before you even draft the design. A client may provide you with an extremely (if not overly) thorough brief, but they might not be used to dishing out design briefs, so help them along with a questionnaire to fill in.

No client? No excuse! Even if you’re creating something just for yourself, such as a business card, website or letterhead, writing up a short brief will help to set yourself goals for the project and keep you in check as you work. No designer can create in a complete vacuum, and taking just 15 minutes to put something on paper will be well worth your time.

2. Choose the right software

design rules software

Perhaps you feel more at ease using Photoshop over Illustrator, but that doesn’t mean creating a logo design in a raster program is the right thing to do. Opting for the right software for your project from the outset will avoid headaches down the line, and help you to realize your ideas to their full potential.

Choosing the right software for creating your design doesn’t need to be difficult. Identify the type of project you’re tackling from the list below and you’ll find the perfect software to use.

Layout Design

Examples: Magazines, books, brochures, posters, flyers, business cards, letterheads, and other print items that tend to combine graphics and type. Digital publishing like EPUBs (eBooks and eMagazines) also fall under the layout category.

Software: Publishing programs like Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress are perfectly suited to layout design, and allow you to adapt the design for either print or digital formats.

Photo Editing

Examples: Retouching or recoloring images, creating advanced image effects or creating image-dominant designs like advertising posters or social media images.

Software: Raster software is suited to photo editing, and Adobe Photoshop is still the pick of the bunch. GIMP is a great free alternative. For cataloguing photos and performing minor edits, Adobe Lightroom is a fantastic tool for more serious photographers.

Vector Illustration

Examples: Logos, illustrations, and scaleable media (vector software allows scaling without distortion). If you want to create your own font or text-based logo, you’ll also need to use vector software for type design.

Software: Vector programs like Adobe Illustrator and InkScape allow you to create vector-based graphics. Consider investing in a graphics tablet to help you get the most out of this sort of program.

Once you’ve identified the type of project and software required, you’ll also need to ask yourself a few extra questions to set up your design correctly from the outset. Designing for print is a very different than creating designs for on-screen viewing, and you’ll have to set up your document or artboard with this in mind before you begin designing. Ask yourself whether your design will need a bleed — most layout projects will require this. You’ll also need to set your workspace up to work in a CMYK color mode for print projects (as opposed to RGB for web).   

3. Always use a grid

design rules grid

Take a look at any printed media you have on hand. Whether it’s a magazine spread, a newsletter or something as simple as a report, they’ll all be structured around some kind of grid. A grid divides a page up into organized sections, splitting the content across rows and columns of various dimensions. It will also take margins into account and help the designer to decide where the largest and smallest items on the page should sit. And it’s not only printed materials that use a grid as a foundation—you’ll notice that websites use grids too, albeit ones which are designed to adapt flexibly to different screen widths.

Grids come in various forms, which are designed to guide the eye around your layout in different ways. The main purpose of the grid is to reduce strain on the viewer’s eye by leading them uninterrupted from A to B around the page.

Grids go hand in hand with another key design concept called hierarchy. This rule holds that multiple elements on a design must be placed in a hierarchical sequence from most to least important. For images this is often dictated simply by the size of the image and its position on the page. The most important image might therefore be placed at the top-left of a layout at large size, where the eye will naturally land first. For text elements, hierarchy is determined by both size and appearance. The largest heading may be distinguished by its large font size, as well as a bold weight and/or a distinct font style, such as a display font. Body text will be pushed down the hierarchy by setting the type at a smaller size and in a more discreet font and weight.

The simplest way to apply a grid to your layout is to split your page into a chequerboard of square sections, dividing the design up into rows and columns. You can then group together squares to create larger sections on your grid, where you’d like to place larger elements. Most design programs have a built-in grid or ruler function that you can switch on and off as you work.

4. Prioritize legibility

legibility readability

What differentiates graphic design from art is its functional purpose. Graphic designers are certainly creative, but the work they produce often has a commercial goal, whether it’s enticing audiences to see a movie through an artful poster or encouraging people to buy a product through packaging design. With this in mind, the function of your design becomes incredibly important — it’s no use designing something creative if it doesn’t fulfill its commercial purpose.

Striking a balance between form and function should be at the forefront of your mind while you design, and ensuring your design is legible and readable plays a major part in nailing that equilibrium. Make sure you keep a check on these three things as you work to ensure a legible end result:

  • Font size – It’s a design sin to make your text too small to read comfortably. Print off a sample at true size before you go to print and hold it at the distance a viewer will engage with it. Can you read the text without squinting? If not, the font size is probably too small.
  • Leading – This is the amount of space between lines of text. Increasing the leading a little can make large bodies of text easier to read and look less squashed.
  • Appropriate font choices – Observe the law of one display font maximum per page, and never set body text in a difficult-to-read style that’s really designed for headers. If in doubt, always opt for clean sans serifs or classic serifs, which are almost always a pleasure to read.

6. Always Observe Basic Laws of Typography

design rules typography

Typography is a vast field of design in itself, but anybody can format their text to a professional standard if they observe a few key rules. If you feel your design looks a little off, but you can’t put your finger on exactly why, it’s likely that some of these type tweaks have been neglected. While you’re formatting your type, observe these basic rules to keep your text looking fantastic:

  • Pair your fonts wisely – A couple of different fonts on a layout can make for a great pairing, but there are a few tried-and-true combinations that always work best. Pair a high-impact display font with a more subtle sans serif or serif body font for a high-contrast combination that works perfectly for media that needs to grab attention, such as posters and flyers. For more formal media like reports or books, stick to two serifs from similar font families for a classic, elegant look. Teaming sans serif headers with serif body text is also a lovely combination that brings both modernity and classical design to the table.
  • Pay attention to the details – Take some time to perfect the seemingly small details that add up to the overall look of your typography. Tweak the leading, tracking and alignment to see an instant difference. And don’t neglect the more niche formatting options, such as indentation, uppercase/lowercase characters, drop caps and kerning.
  • Mix your weights – A lengthy layout set entirely in Regular or Roman type can look a little dull. While setting the majority of your text in Regular is a good call, it doesn’t hurt to mix it up with a dash of Italic, Bold, Light or Condensed for added interest. Try pulling out quotations in an Italic weight, set your headings in Bold, or pull out the first few words of a paragraph in a Condensed weight for contrast.

7. Choose colors that complement

complement color

Unless you’re working within a brand identity that has an existing color palette, you’ll need to create a color scheme for your design. Color is often one of the last things people think about when they’re designing, and as a result it can be added as an afterthought. However, color has the capacity to be the most impactful element of your design and is remarkable in its ability to give a design a distinctive personality and mood.

As well as having some awareness of basic color pyschology, the main thing you need to be aware of when applying color to your design is that some colors work really well together…and some do not. Clashing colors might make a statement but they’re incredibly difficult to pull off. When colors clash, they stress the eye, and can make elements on your page either difficult to read or retreat into the background.

Complementary colors will not only have a calming effect on the eye, but make the viewer much more receptive to your design. Here are three ways you can combine colors well:

  • Choose colors that are tonally similar, such as a palette of blue tones or a palette of red tones.
  • Choose colors that sit opposite each other on the spectrum
  • Choose colors that are either warm (such as reds, oranges, yellows and pinks) or cool (blues and greens) to use a wide range of colors without the risk of clashing.

8. Be a trendsetter, not a fashion victim

ideas inspiration design

Browsing apps like Pinterest and Instagram to find inspiration for your design can be enlightening, but it can also lead you to a very tired, trendy look. While this is a great way to feel contemporary, it means you’re creating cookie-cutter design, which can have a numbing effect on a viewer who’s seen similar styles elsewhere.

Really good design always feels relevant, but it also brings something new to the table. This may sound like a big challenge if you’re not a professional designer, but it’s actually an incredibly helpful lesson. Aiming for a beautiful design, and not simply a design that echoes what everyone else is doing, will make your design more authentic, unique and better as a result. It’s also a fast-track to creating a memorable design, which is essential if you’re designing for a commercial purpose.

Many clients want designs to look exactly like someone else’s, such as a competitor’s, but if you follow this route you won’t be doing them any favors. The best approach? Make observations about what makes the design feel current, whether it’s a certain font or color palette, and mix these up with some unique elements and more classic elements, too. It’s this potent mix of references that will help your design to stand out from the crowd and avoid becoming white noise. Who knows, you might even start a design trend of your own!

9. If in doubt, keep it simple

eraser simplicity

It’s easy to spot work that has been done by somebody relatively new to design. It will tend to look fussier than a professional’s work, and this is often because new designers are often to throw all their ideas at the page in a bout of enthusiasm – or simply in sheer panic. Pro designers are practiced in the art of restraint, and their work often looks much more elegant and professional as a result.

Simple designs are always appropriate, whether it’s for formal or casual purposes, or in print or online. If you’re still building your design confidence, try restricting the number of elements you place on a layout, keep the color palette very simple, or limit yourself to only two fonts. It’s much more difficult to edit a design down and take things away than it is to slowly build up your design with careful thought.

This is one of the most useful design rules to know, and almost every good designer will opt for minimalism over maximalism because they know it works well for so many purposes.

10. Export your design correctly

layout design export

Even professional designers can get a little nervous when it comes to exporting design work. You spend so much time working on the creative aspects of your design, but when it comes to hitting the export button it can all feel intimidating and technical. Exporting your design doesn’t have to be scary, though. With a few simple tips you’ll have artwork that’s ready for printing or circulating online.

If you’re exporting your design for professional printing, you will need to ‘preflight’ your artwork before exporting. This process flags up any outstanding issues or errors in your document, such as missing fonts or RGB colors. Most design software will have a preflighting or proofing option, which you can usually find using the Help search bar. When your preflight’s complete and you’ve combed your work for spelling errors, you can head up to File > Export to create a print-ready PDF.

It’s also good to know a little about the print process that happens after you’ve sent your PDF to the printers. Variations in paper stock can affect not only the appearance of your printed work but also impact on your budget as well. Most paper stocks come in either uncoated (matte) or coated (which can be matte, satin or gloss) finishes, and in a variety of weights (which is measured in GSM, ‘grams per square meter’). Heavier weights (i.e. higher GSM) are suited to media that require sturdier card-like stock, such as business cards, packaging or book covers.

You can also apply ‘post-print’ effects to your designs, which are done at additional cost after the actual printing is finished. Laser-cutting, metallic foiling and UV coatings are just a few of the post-print extras you can ask for to jazz up your designs. Ask your printer to show you some samples, and seek out advice on how to set up your artwork appropriately for these effects.

Exporting your design for digital use is a little less complex than exporting for print, but there are still a few things you should be aware of to make the most of your digital artwork. If you’re intending to upload your design to a website or social media page, you’ll need to consider the file size (larger file sizes can make for slower page loading times), image resolution (a minimum of 72 dpi, or dots per inch, will ensure your design doesn’t appear pixelated on screen), image dimensions (which should be determined in pixels, px), and look at exporting the design in an RGB or Hex color mode.

Follow these rules for great design

These ten design rules are not intentioned to limit your creativity; but instead should be seen as a helpful foundation for creating your own professional-standard artwork. Keeping a check on these few key principles while you work will help you to think like a professional designer and give you direction for creating designs that look truly fantastic.

Looking for more inspiration and advice before you get started? Check out these articles:

Color Theory Explained for Marketers and Small Business Owners

25 Design Techniques from Brilliant Print Ads for Your Next Campaign

25 Excellent Flyer Designs to Inspire Business Owners

Get More Out of Your Digital Advertising with 30 Examples of Brilliant Banner Ads