Push and Pull the Pieces Together

by Richard Mantel
Designer’s block arises at the most inconvenient times. The next time you’re stuck, nudge your creative process by considering the two qualities inherent in all good graphic design. First, it must engage you visually; it must grab your attention. Second, it must further the editorial principle at the core of every assignment.

These two qualities should be considered simultaneously in the design process. Aspects of each of them overlap, support and enhance each other in critical ways. Hopefully, through some combination of conceptual thinking, wit and the element of visual surprise, the designer can push and pull all the pieces together in a way that will advance the viewer’s understanding of the essence of the material.

Take book cover design as an example: First, look for a visual hook in the book’s title. The title, and its interplay with the cover image, is the most obvious and direct way to connect the viewer, and potential customer, with the content of the book. Consider the genre of the book: mystery, romance, scholarly treatise, biography, etc. Learn to capture the mood and spirit of these different genres to help shape the reader’s emotional and intellectual response to your design. Consider also the time frame (contemporary, 1950s, turn of the century, Victorian, etc.) and the setting of the book (America, Russia, the Far East, etc.) Learn to use typography in a way that’s appropriate to the time frame and geographical setting of the book. Considerations like time, place and genre will bring individuality and specificity to your design.

These same approaches and considerations are applicable, with some contextual variation, to all graphic design. Take CD cover design as another illustration of this. Is the music rock ‘n’ roll, classical, jazz or country? These very diverse musical genres embody their own emotionally and aesthetically varied visual traditions and iconographies. But the same design methodology applies here, as well.

Editorial design (magazine layout, book design) demands that the designer implement principles that don’t need to be considered in one-off designs like book and CD covers, posters, etc. Editorial design needs to create a continuum of visual and informational rhythms from page to page, spread to spread, beginning to end. Think of each individual element of editorial design like headline, subhead, body copy, pull quotes and captions, metaphorically, as musical notes. Some are loud and some are soft. Think of a grouping of elements as chords. Some are major and some are minor. Think of the empty spaces between the notes and chords as pauses in the music, some long and some short. So, compose a design melody. And remember to crash the cymbals for appropriately paced dramatic impact.

Invitation to a children's expo, using type as image
The key to the design solution is inherent in the letterforms; you just have to find it.

Image courtesy of Richard Mantel

Quick Tip
Look to Get Lucky: When searching for a design solution that relies on typography, examine the natural configuration of the letterforms to help you formulate an idea. I’ll share an example of my own work (image above): For a “Kids Expo” invitation design, I wanted to do a typographic design that was whimsical and appropriate for an audience of children. While playing with the letterforms of the word ‘EXPO,’ I realized that a lowercase ‘e’ and an uppercase ‘X,’ ‘P’ and ‘O’ configured perfectly to form the figure of a child standing on the seat of a unicycle. Then, because the arms of ‘X’ seemed to be reaching upward, I put the word ‘KIDS’ in position so that the figure seemed to juggling the letters. The key to the design solution was inherent in the letterforms; I just had to find it.