Graphic Design Rules That Are Made to Be Broken
Graphic design is both an art and a science.
Nailing the perfect poster design or interface prototype can be a real challenge, but there are a few fundamental principles of design that creatives can use as a guide. From typography dos and don'ts to color theory guides, design rules offer creatives a kind of cheat sheet that they can follow.
These rules help graphic artists make designs that are clear, legible, and fit for purpose. But let’s face it—it’s fun to break the rules sometimes.
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No one was ever remembered for sticking to the rules. The most famous graphic designers and artists from history were total rebels and pioneers of change.
And even today, there’s a growing Anti Design movement of contemporary creatives who are going against the norm and claiming graphic design as an expressive art form. They use clashing colors, ignore alignment, and choose jarring typography combinations. The striking style purposefully rejects traditional design principles, but it still takes talent to pull it off. Plus, you have to follow the rules before you break them.
Feeling rebellious? Here are 6 graphic design rules to break.
Use a Grid
In design, using a grid is a tried and tested technique for achieving an organized layout.
It helps designers place their elements and text neatly, evenly spaced, and aligned to sequenced columns and rows.
There are many grid systems out there, but one of the most famous was first introduced by 13th-century architect, Villard De Honnecourt. He came up with a grid system merged with the Golden Ratio to create a famous page layout diagram with margins of fixed ratios. The method empowered designers to create “harmonious” designs, and De Honnecourt’s grid system soon became the industry standard in print design.
The grid system is a helpful starting point, but some designers feel that it can limit creativity.
American graphic designer David Carson is one example of someone who’s known for ignoring grids altogether. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, he experimented with distorted, fragmented, and overlapping typefaces that were almost impossible to read. Nonetheless, his innovative work was groundbreaking at the time, and his style defined the “grunge” movement (he’s now known as the “King of Grunge”).
If you’re inspired to literally think outside the box, why not create designs that defy the grid system?
Forget guides and rulers—use your creative instinct to play around with the layout and create something extraordinary.
Grids can also help designers maintain balance in their designs.
From typography to color, each element has its own visual “weight” which—according to traditional design theory—should be balanced by other graphic elements. Traditional types of balance include symmetrical, asymmetrical, radial, and mosaic.
Symmetrical balance occurs when the visual weight is distributed evenly down the middle of the design.
Asymmetrical balance happens when a design has different visual images on either side, yet those unequal visuals still balance each other.
Radial balance is achieved by placing objects, colors, or textures at equal distances from the center of a design (think about the structure of the snowflake or mandala).
Mosaic balance, or crystallographic balance, results from balanced chaos. A Jackson Pollock painting is a good example of mosaic balance since his composition lacks distinct focal points, but the visual elements (or paint drips) share a uniform emphasis.
Want to break the rules of balance? Discordant balance is a term used to describe a design with no balance at all. These types of designs are intended to evoke a sense of unease in the viewer and encourage them to stop and think.
Italian Futurism founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti became known for shaking up the restrictive rules of balance and typography when he published his first book, Zang Tumb Tumb, in 1914. The poet and graphic designer visualized his experiences during the Balkan War of 1912 by arranging words to look like the sounds of gunfire, grenades, and other weapons. He captured the chaotic sound of war by using multiple typefaces in different scales, with words scattered seemingly randomly around the page. The lack of organized balance visually captures the disharmony and violence of war.
Use a Typographic Hierarchy
Whether you’ve been to design school or you’re self-taught, you’ve probably heard about using a typographic hierarchy.
This is a system for organizing type within a design so that designers can effectively communicate a message.
Traditionally, there are three levels of type hierarchy—primary, secondary, and tertiary.
- Primary type has the most visual weight and is usually used for headers. Typically, designers choose large and bold fonts.
- Secondary type refers to subheadings, captions, and any part of the design that isn’t quite a heading, but not the main body either. It’s designed to create order and guide the viewer through the flow of the design.
- Tertiary type refers to the main body copy. Readability matters here, so a sans-serif font is best.
Typographic hierarchies are important when designing informational systems, online or in print. However, when it comes to artistic graphic design, there’s room for creativity.
Art director Rudy VanderLans and type designer Zuzana Licko produced the award-winning Emigre magazine between 1984 and 2005. They created some of the first digital layouts and were known for breaking the rules of typography. VanderLans and Licko embraced new technology—specifically Apple’s first Mac computer—to design printed essays and interviews that comprised overlapping typefaces in various sizes, distorted letterforms, and text columns that collided and sprawled across the pages. The entire magazine was printed exclusively in custom Emigre fonts that many designers still love today.
The groundbreaking Emigre magazine offered readers a new and playful way to experience printed content. And it’s still a huge influence on graphic designers today who want to break and bend layout rules.
Use Complementary Colors
As a rule of thumb, most graphic designers are taught to limit their color palettes to two or three complementary colors.
Traditional color theory claims that complementary colors create visually appealing and memorable designs. However, combining “discordant” colors can sometimes be a way to make a stronger impact.
Colors that are jarring can actually draw a person to a visual design, rather than repel them. American graphic designer Milton Glaser didn’t conform to color theory rules, and his daring designs are some of the most famous in history.
In 1966, Glaser designed a poster that was featured in Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits album. It comprised a simple, black silhouette of Dylan’s profile, inspired by a Marcel Duchamp self-portrait. However, rather than leave the composition minimal like Duchamp’s, Glaser added a series of Art Nouveau-style curls in multiple colors and a custom typeface. The psychedelic shapes not only captured Dylan’s iconic hairstyle, but the “free-flowing” forms and clashing color palette captured the freedom and high emotions of the era (which Dylan also captured in his music).
Although Dylan himself didn’t like the illustration, the album sold millions of copies and the poster became one of the most popular to ever be produced.
Use White Space in Moderation
White space, or negative space, is the empty area that surrounds the images, text, and other elements in a design.
It doesn’t have to be white—it could be black, a color, or even a texture. The point of “white space” is to create gaps in between motifs and guide the viewer's eye around a design. White space helps build a visual hierarchy and makes the text more readable, and as a rule, designers are often told to use it in moderation to create balance.
Rather than use white space as a tool to divide information on a space, we suggest using space as a design element in itself. Excessive empty space in a design can actually make a powerful statement, create a mood, and draw attention to certain areas.
Twentieth-century art director, Helmut Krone (for ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach) was a pioneer of using white space in unexpected ways. In his campaign for Volkswagen, titled Think Small, he used white space to almost entirely engulf a tiny image of a Volkswagon Beetle in the top left corner. Additionally, the fine print text at the button of the page listed the advantages of owning a small car. The Think Small campaign still brought attention to the Beetle but emphasized its compact and simple design. This style of car advertisement was the first of its kind since others at the time focused on providing as much information as possible.
Krone’s clever use of white space was a huge success. The campaign, “did much more than boost sales and build a lifetime of brand loyalty [...] The ad, and the work of the ad agency behind it, changed the very nature of advertising—from the way it's created to what you see as a consumer today.”
Designers are often under a lot of pressure to keep up with trends.
But what would happen if you simply stopped chasing the next big thing and spent time exploring your own ideas? The design world would probably look a lot more diverse and interesting.
We recently published an article on the corporate illustration style and discussed how flat design characters seem to be everywhere these days. This trend is one example that seems to be causing frustration among design enthusiasts who want to see something different.
We implore you to break free from following trends and go your own way in your next design project. You might be surprised to find that you have some pretty unique ideas, and you could even be the pioneer of a new trend!
Did We Convince You to Break the Rules?
Design rules are undoubtedly important, but we can't deny that amazing things can happen when a designer bends and breaks them.
If you're inspired to defy the grid system and shake up color combinations, Vectornator is a fantastic tool for creating innovative vector-based designs. From typography and illustrations, to posters and interface layouts, you can create pretty much anything your mind can imagine with our intuitive tools.