Unified Design

Forcing elements to relate makes a design powerful

Note: This is an adaptation of a video tutorial made for MediaBistro.com.

“Unified design” blends all its parts to make a single impression. It is more visible and potent than it’s flabby alternative: a bunch of individual impressions.

When you cook, you must know ingredients: what they are, how they behave, what makes them delicious, even what people expect. Fine cuisine requires more than just choosing the vegetables and picking a cut of meat. The vegetables, for example, must complement the meat’s flavor and texture.

When you design, you use just three ingredients no matter what kind of design you do: 1) image, 2) type, and 3) space. The designer’s job is only begun when choosing a typeface or a picture. What matters most is blending the design’s multiple flavors so they work together. That is design unity.

Alex W. White Media Bistro Unity 1smImage, type, and space are the visually unrelated ingredients (left) we blend into a single message by giving them design unity (right).

Unifying the parts

Design’s purpose is to make the message noticeable, and to make its value immediately evident to the uncommitted browser. A single visual statement is more visible and potent than a mere assembly of random bits that have little or nothing in common. The determining factor is not the parts being used, but the quality of the relationships among those parts.

The three elements (image, type, and space) seldom have anything in common in terms of visual form. Clever design is balancing contrasts and similarities among unlike parts. Each part should share some attributes with the others, but retain a degree of useful contrast to provide visual energy.

“Unity contributes orderliness and coherency and a civilized state of things generally. Whereas the contrast family are all savages, more or less.” – William A. Dwiggins, graphic designer and typographer, 1880-1956

Without similarity, it is impossible to create an environment of quietness so that important elements can be seen.

Without contrast, a design will be dull, gray, and almost certainly unnoticed as a visual message.

Alex W. White Media Bistro Unity 2Relating image and type can take many forms. Here, an intentional decision to contrast type and image (left); and placing text with vertical and horizontal baselines around the image makes the type visually agree with the roughness of the boulder-in-the-trunk image (right).

Starting a design

You’re probably starting with thoughts described in words, thoughts described visually, and a blank screen (or “page”).

Problem 1: What pieces to use?

  • Image decisions include content, photo or illustration, color or grayscale or black and white, cropping, size, and position.
  • Type decisions include content, typeface, size, weight, caps or lowercase, color, and position.
  • Space decisions include how much of it to fill in, whether to impose space on the type and imagery through the use of a grid, and if using a grid, whether to bring some of it to the foreground.

Problem 2: These pieces don’t have much in common.

Image is an easier way to convey meaning.

  1. Image takes less work to absorb.
  2. Image is more open to misunderstanding.
  3. Image needs explanation in words: caption, headline.

Type’s purpose is an information delivery system.

  1. Type takes effort and time to read.
  2. Type must be arranged in sequence to make sense.
  3. Type must be reasonably clear to read to fulfill.

Space is the antithesis of the other two elements.

  1. Space is typically overlooked: “I forgot to remember it!” 
  2. Space is often thought of, when it is thought of at all, as the absence of content.
  3. Space is not dead, but is a living opportunity.

The default design relationship is proximity and alignment: “These things are related because they are simply near each other and lined up.” If proximity and alignment are attended to, your pieces don’t have to share any other design attributes.

Alex W. White Media Bistro Unity 3Hand lettering and similarly scratchy drawings unify the type and image of this fishing equipment ad (left). Light unifies the type and imagery of this car ad (right).

Finding similarity and unity

The starting point in design is usually material that doesn’t relate except in meaning. Our job is to make them visually relate, giving the totality design unity, so the message gains visibility and potency.

The quality of the relationships among the parts is more important then the parts themselves. It really doesn’t matter much if you prefer Myriad or Gotham typefaces because they are so similar. It matters much more if you choose Myriad or Preissig, because they are so different.

The choice of imagery is never random but purposeful. The meaning and composition of the image is understood to be paramount. Types must be chosen with similar consideration. It matters a great deal that the type has something in common with the imagery.

  1. Manipulate scale so everything is similar size.
  2. Pull a dominant color from an image between type and image.
  3. Choose a common shape for similarity.
  4. Place elements close together. That is the most obvious unity.
  5. Align elements to link elements.
  6. Repeat elements’ position to create rhythm and unity.
  7. Share a visual attribute such as texture, pattern, or edge treatment. The more distinctive the attribute, the better it works as glue.

Alex W. White Media Bistro Unity 4Type becomes image – is forced into the image – in the two examples on the left. An extensive range of pharmaceutical support materials have image-dominant and limited color palette similarities forced on them for branding consistency (right).

Forcing relationships

The difficulty of technology is that it makes choices just about infinite.

In the absence of limitations, random choices are inevitable — and merely adequate design is often the consequence. Narrow your choices deliberately to force visible relationships. Here are a few to get started. These techniques are arbitrary and serve to focus creativity and thinking. There are nearly an infinite number of ways but they all intend to define a more specific problem and apply a treatment to all elements similarly, so they look like they belong together.

  1. 2/3 Dominance. “Take precedence over” by defining the commanding and submissive elements. Space is seen around and behind elements. Very rarely is space in the foreground, so it is usually submissive to both type and image. Force space into a dominant position over the figures in it.
  2. Bleed image on three sides. “Bleeding” extends image or type to the trim or edge of the “page,” whether paper or screen. It implies continuation beyond the edge. Bleeding on only three sides forces a relationship: the remaining non-bleed side is contained and on the same plane as the image.
  3. Share transparency to allow light to pass through so what is beneath can be seen. Transparent elements reveal relationships by overlapping. It is maximum proximity, because the elements share the same space.
  4. Shared texture with rules. “Texture” is the tactile feel or consistency of a patterned surface and a “rule” is a line, though not necessarily a computer-generated geometric one.

Alex W. White Media Bistro Unity 5Great design has clearer relationships which make the message look predigested. A vertical strip of image has been posterized into green and white to align with the product shot (left). Both image and type have been damaged and bled and overexposed to give them design unity in this ad for an aluminum water bottle (right).

Defining the quality of design

It is determined by the quality of the relationships between the type, image and space, not on the quality of the individual parts themselves.

  • Unity comes from forcing similarity on dissimilar parts.
  • Unity can be forced on type, image, and space by applying an outside idea or a design treatment to all elements.
  • Unity is a result of making design decisions that are consciously “right,” not just randomly “attractive” or “nice.”
  • Unity of design is the difference between something made with random choices and relationships contrasted to something made with precise relationships and similarities.
  • Unity is a condition in which all the parts of a design are made to work together to make a single, powerful, value-added impression on the viewer.

© Copyright Alex W. White