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Everyday Design vs. Cutting Edge

Sticking With What Works Doesn't Have to Be Boring

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Basic Design

Breaking out of the box (or the grid) can work but sticking with the familiar objects already in the box is not necessarily bad design.

Image © Jacci Howard Bear
Do you do the kind of work that makes its way onto Web sites and into books showcasing the best brochures, business cards, annual reports, or Web site designs? Probably not. Only a very few do. But that doesn't mean you're a bad or even a mediocre designer. Cutting edge design is great to look at and get inspiration from but down in the trenches most designers are expected to be able to turn out more mundane, routine designs that still get the job done on time and under budget. Those basics are the bread and butter for most designers. We may not win awards but we keep the clients happy and the paychecks rolling in.

Playing it safe, going with the tried and true, focusing on the classics, extolling benefits over flash -- there's a place for that. In fact, there is far more demand for standard, functional design churned out day after day than for the occasional award-winning, knock your socks off pieces. If you can do both, great. Wonderful. But don't sell yourself short just because you're not making it into the glossy coffee table books or winning praise for the greatest brand advertising of all time.

Get Back to Basics

There's nothing wrong with trying something new, different. But classics are often classics for a reason: they work. Classic ad layouts sell. Classic fonts are legible and suitable for a wide variety of text. Classic or vintage posters and ads reveal to us that what's old is new again.

Business cards can be almost any shape and size and an atypical card can attract attention. But for many people a standard size (perhaps a folded card) is more readily recognized as a business card and is easier to hold onto because it fits into standard business card holders and onto a rolodex (no, not everyone has gone with electronic contact lists). Just something to consider before going for the "oh, that's unusual" effect.

We've all heard rules are made to be broken and some very clever design work does just that. But it takes creativity to follow the rules and still create something effective and functional that isn't absolutely boring. The principles of graphic design could just as well be called the principle of good design.

One danger of trying to do cutting edge or truly unique design is getting so caught up in the visual that you forget the basics like leaving contact information off a business card, not mentioning the product in an ad, leaving photo captions out of a newsletter, or creating a business form that looks beautiful but has fields that are too small to hold the required information.

Related Reading

These articles make similar or related points about simple, classic designs, creative designs that work over designs that are simply creative, and best practices in page layout.
  • John McWade of Before&After emphasizes simplicity in Don't festoon your brand! and admonishes us not to avoid a design style by saying But it's already been done.
    "Design, correctly applied, is not something we dream up; it is the look of the world we live in. So much poor design has been made in the pursuit of “originality,” “creativity,” and “grabbing the viewer” (don’t try this in person). "

  • Robert Bruce, in Traditional Advertising is Truly Dead discusses advertising (especially TV ads) then and now and how today's campaigns need to focus more on "useful, educational, and entertaining content" and less on creative brand advertising.

  • In Top 7 Page Composition Tips I offer you "tried and true elements of page composition" that might not be flashy and are probably things you've heard before, but they work.

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