Design Hygiene: A Handy Design Checklist


Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis

Please don’t tell your physician this came from me, but here it is: hospital doctors, even the most seasoned ones, don’t automatically wash their hands before caring for someone.  In 2001, Dr. Peter J. Pronovost, medical director of the Quality and Safety Research Group at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, who, on his quest for safer patient care, developed and instituted a checklist for Hopkins’ healthcare providers, which includes the no-brainer “wash your hands.” What could be more basic than hand washing hygiene?  In 1846, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis promoted the idea that clean hands save lives, although no one would listen to him until Joseph Lister adopted the practice almost 40 years later, after the proofs of the Germ Theory of Disease by Louis Pasteur.

Hand hygiene, among other checkpoints on Dr. Pronovost’s now famous checklist, is one of the most important ways to prevent the spread of infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Once Dr. Pronovost implemented the checklist, infection rates plummeted.


What does this have to do with graphic design, you say?

Just as physicians struggle with complexity in medicine, graphic designers have a lot to think about during the design process—you have to ensure you’re thinking about all the assignment’s objectives as well as the fundamental design elements and principles as you go. For the sake of design hygiene, I’ve devised a checklist of fundamental design principles that’s easy to remember. Just like a pilot’s checklist, this is handy under normal circumstances as well as when you’re under pressure. Dr. Atul Gawande, who wrote a book titled The Checklist, tells the story of a group of test pilots who in 1935 got together after the tragic crash of a Model 299 test plane due to “pilot error,” to create a pilot’s checklist, with step-by-step checks for takeoff, flight, landing, and taxiing. They believed new planes were too complex to be left to a pilot’s memory.

Being Mindful

Working on screen, we tend to have a centered focus as we do when we watch TV, where we are thinking about the illusion of what’s happening on screen and may forget the format’s structure, which means being mindful of the screen’s boundaries and midline as we compose, whether we’re designing for a small mobile screen or a huge public screen, a business card or poster.

If you divide the page or screen vertically down the middle, you realize there’s a midline, just like a person’s spine. That midline along with the boundaries of the page or screen that form the perimeter are players in any composition, ones we need to be aware of along with all the principles of design that we learned in college.

To ensure your design is deliberate and each graphic component (images and type) is thoughtfully and deliberately positioned, consider employing these four reminders, which will aid awareness of how you position graphic elements in relation to each other and to the format.

Have You MENT It?

1. M = midline

Consider all graphic components in relation to the format’s midline.

2. E = edges

Consider all graphic elements in response to the format’s edges.

3. N = negative shapes/space

Consider all negative space.

4. T = transitions

Consider all transitions among graphic elements.

And here’s another checklist for maintaining design hygiene:

Basic Compositional Checklist


Though most of us compose intuitively and spontaneously reminders of design principles are beneficial. Even for those who are seasoned, whether a physician, pilot or designer, checklists keep us mindful. So practice good design hygiene and always heed your mother’s and Dr. Semmelweis’ advice—wash your hands.

Checklists excerpted from Robin Landa’s Graphic Design Solutions, 5th edition (Wadsworth, 2013).

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