Creative Anarchy: Design Rules Were Made to Be Broken

“There are no shortcuts to a great design concept. You must read, research, explore, innovate and create.”

A must-have for every designer’s bookshelf, Denise Bosler’s new book Creative Anarchy enlightens the reader on the importance of understanding design rules and knowing when to break them. (If you experienced the barbaric yawp in her 2015 HOW Design Live session—and the response—you’ve had a taste of what’s in store in this book.

The book details the ten rules of design, including, but not limited to: the message is the commander, the computer is only a tool, and remember the basics. The enjoyable tenth rule is to break a rule or two.

“The ability to push boundaries is a respected quality. It shows you are willing to go beyond the expected by demonstrating that you will invest time and creative strategy in a design concept. Boundary pushing proves that you are a thinker and a doer, not a follow-the-leader-er,” advices author Denise Bosler.

A wonderfully informative read, Bosler’s deft writing on design rules results in the effortless assimilation of the core design concepts. Bosler also provides supplemental exercises that reinforce the content, giving the reader another method to fully grasp the material. Also, did we mention that half of the book is upside down?




In “Creative Anarchy,” the first rule covered is: Message is the Commander. Read the excerpt below of the first rule.

Rule 1: Message is the Commander

Communication is at the heart of it all: Brochures, logos, advertisements, posters, invitations, T-shirts, websites, apps, book covers, annual reports, magazines, guerrilla advertising, packaging and branding materials all relay information to an audience. Communication trumps everything, even aesthetics. It’s absolutely part of our job to make things look good—we are designers after all—but looking good with- out offering substance doesn’t serve the client. We must deliver the client’s message. Whether big or little, the audience must understand the message. Communication is our number one priority.


Design is dominated by two types of communication, verbal and visual, working together to communicate the client’s message. Verbal communication is both written and spoken. This part is generally left to marketers and copywriters, who develop information to present to the consumer in order to engage them with the product or service. Verbal communication is enhanced by the visual treatment but doesn’t need it to work. Print, TV, radio and digital advertising are famous for their verbal communication prowess. Some slogans are so recognizable that you don’t need any visual cues at all. People just know them from repeated exposure and catchy phrases: “I’m loving it!” from McDonald’s; “The Breakfast of Champions” from Wheaties; “You’re in good hands with Allstate.” from Allstate Insurance; “What’s in your wallet?” from Capital One.


“In the image, the plastic baby dolls were used as metaphors for the young children impacted by horrific attacks. The letterforms strewn out to each corner relates to the turmoil caused by the event. The interaction of the dolls seen through the type bars was intended to represent their fragility, defenselessness and vulnerability.” —Lanny Sommese

Visual communication, both static and animated, is the domain of the designer. Visual impact has the power to sell a product, launch a brand and generate support by speaking to a wide audience. Catchy advertising slogans aside, visual communication is typically more memorable than verbal communication is. There’s a reason why the often-quoted aphorism is “Show, don’t tell.” The visual speaks to the audience faster than the verbal; a picture of a strawberry will be recognized more quickly than the word strawberry. Designers rely on the viewer’s personal experiences and cultural background when creating visuals. The more recognizable,

the faster the audience will get the message. This rule ap- plies not just to imagery, but all elements—type choice, back- ground, color and layout need to be recognized as well.


The idea of form following function isn’t new, but we credit the Bauhaus movement for pushing it to the forefront of design. Whether it is a chair, teapot or poster, the concept of putting functionality before design is the difference be- tween design and fine art.

I love great commercials, especially the ones that go viral and are talked about nonstop for a few days. These commercials do a fantastic job of generating buzz, but they don’t all function as well as they should. I watch the Super Bowl not for the football but for the commercials. The next day I have a class discussion about the commercials. Inevitably there will be a discussion about an incredibly memorable commercial that starts something like this:

“Did you see the awesome one where the dogs burst through the door?”

“Oh yeah, it was so cool!”
“What was that commercial for?”

Sound of crickets fills the room. No one can remember anything except the “coolness” of the commercial. Form over- whelms function, and communication is lost.

A beautiful Bauhaus example of form following function.

A beautiful Bauhaus example of form following function.

Function gets the better of the form too. Plenty of perfectly functional websites look terrible. They communicate the client’s basic needs but ignore user-friendly aesthetics. What about the Comic Sans-typed note reminding employees to empty the fridge each Friday? Does it matter if the fridge note looks “designed”? That, my friends, is the important question.

Function and form should work as balanced partners, neither one more important than the other, beginning with the concept. Your first priority is maximizing the client’s message, which sets the tone for the concept. Next comes matching the message with the right design elements. The interplay of type, imagery, color and format visualize the concept. Does it attract and inform the viewer? If so, then congratulations: You have struck the right balance.

design-rules“I look at design as the vehicle for communication. Creativity is the fuel to get that vehicle moving. The process gets faster and easier if you practice and ‘refuel’ in fun new ways.” —Kimberly Beyer

An emphasis on functionality doesn’t mean a design can’t be beautiful and vice versa. Smashing, a proposed brand of sparkling iced tea, has a design featuring a humorous Victorian theme with a modern twist. The lovely figure illustrations draw the viewer’s eye down through the center of the label to the detailed ornamental frame. The ornamentation acts both as a decorative element and a bull’s eye, directing the eye to the product name. The hierarchy and unity of the elements work together to build clear functionality in charming form.




Clear hierarchy helps the reader navigate the page.

Hierarchy refers to the creation of varying degrees of emphasis within a design. Hierarchy says to the viewer, “Look at me! Start here!” You control what the viewer sees and when she sees it through the size, position, visual weight and color of the content elements. The viewer needs direction about what information she should gather from the design. If everything has the same emphasis, or if the emphasis is in the wrong place, she will abandon the design before properly absorbing the information.

Help her by determining how much emphasis is needed for each piece of content. Once you figure out the hierarchy, you can determine placement and design attributes. A natural assumption is that the largest element on the page is the most important, and this is true for the majority of design solutions. However, emphasis can also arise from the element’s visual attributes or positioning. The most important element could conceivably be the smallest one on the page.

Visual attributes refer to weight, color and size. Typography’s main visual attributes track within a font’s family. Black and extra bold create heavy visual weight; narrow, light and book weights connote lesser visual importance. The combination of the type weights also confers degrees of hierarchy. Dark, bold or vibrant colors tend to stand out more than soft, dull or pastel colors. Contrasting or complementary colors used together also control emphasis. As mentioned earlier, a large element produces more emphasis than a smaller one. Big, bold, vibrant illustrations will have more emphasis than a small, lightweight, pale head- line. Different combinations of weight, color and size let you emphasize anything you want. A small, bold, vibrant illustration will have emphasis over a large, lightweight, pale headline.

Want to read more? “Creative Anarchy” is currently available in My Design Shop in both hardcover and ebook formats.