The most beautiful designs are the -simplest designs; not the easiest to make, usually, but the purest. A pure design has been distilled to its essence—a word, an image, an idea; to add or subtract a single part will diminish it. As a rule, the stronger the design, the fewer its parts, and the fewer the differences between the parts. Instead of two typefaces, use one. Instead of three sizes, use two. Pay attention to negative space; every image that you place creates an opposite and equal negative space that affects the design. And so on. To illustrate, designer John Odam -created five CD covers for us whose simplicity conveys astonishing clarity. Have a look at how it’s done.
Two squiggly shapes The beautiful piano cover forms an unbroken line from left to bottom, dividing the space into only two shapes, positive and negative. The effect is silent, regal and emotive. Keyboard and pianist are offstage, yet present in the air. One, low-key typeface (Myriad) alone in the white space draws the viewer into the quiet. Note that Solitudes’ color matches the strings.
Where do the words go? In this case, simplicity means one kind of thing—this like that. The invisible left margin matches the right, not precisely but perceptually; they feel alike. Hale Thatcher is flush to the center, which is also the point of the piano cover.
The not-so-simple problem of borders
It looks innocent enough. You start with a square, and onto it place a snapshot-shaped image (6x4), leaving a small -border. Visually, what’s just happened? Your mind says you see a rectangle atop a square, but your eyes see more.
You see the square and rectangle, all right, but what you haven’t noticed . . .
. . . are the four rectangles you’ve added (above left). You also haven’t noticed the phantom lines now “connecting the dots” between corners. Result: Instead of two objects (some viewers perceive only one) you have six, in five different proportions, pulling your eye to and fro unintentionally.
Add a circle to the scene and the accidental shapes increase exponentially; your eyes now trace all kinds of oddball niches and cubbyholes, none of which you can design until you’re aware they -exist.
That’s visual complexity.
Solution? Lose the unintended shapes! Here are the square and rectangle without borders, and what a difference! Two clear objects (three, actually), in harmonious proportions—one-third, two-thirds, three-thirds (square); none are accidental. Note that white is not a passive backdrop, but an active color in the composition.
Two rectangles divide the field into a dark half and a white half. The white doesn’t look empty, does it? It’s playing a very active role. As a beautiful alternative, darken the white half (below), which effectively creates a solid field punctuated by a ragged spot of light in the corner, identical in concept to the piano cover. Although tiny, type on the boundary commands great attention by its isolation.
If WET was not on the edge but above it, the result would be another shape between word and image, adding complexity.
Two squares Beautifully serene, here an inner square echoes an outer. The size difference is so great that the “border” effect does not occur; the eye perceives two distinct fields. In the square, overlays—normally complex—work. Why? Because they’re repeating shapes, the same thing again and again. Circles repeated within the squares complement perfectly.
Convex, concave curves Circular glass divides dark space from light; rim and liquid form more circles. Straight straw is the visual “interrupter;” by splitting the title it creates a “look again” double-take. Artists’ list (note its lowercase setting) turns an attractive but meaningless image into excellent communication; cover it with your thumb and see what it adds.
A crossing line A face in silhouette alters an otherwise symmetrical photograph. To restore balance, the type aligns flush left (note really short lines) on the center axis. Yellow field echoes the sunset and makes a neutral background for the black headline and white subhead.
Designs by John Odam. An award-winning graphic designer, John Odam is highly respected by B&A for his -creative versatility. He understands and meets the artistic demands of visual communication, and he offers multiple solutions. John has -co--authored the books Start with a Scan, Start with a Digital Camera (Peachpit Press) and The Gray Book (Ventana Press), all of which display his distinctive style of simple beauty.
This article is excerpted from Before & After, How to design cool stuff, Issue 34, May 2003, and is reprinted here by permission. Copyright ©2003, Before & After magazine, all rights reserved.