The client says the logo is too small.

 The client wants more bullet points.

 The client says there’s room to put a little snipe across the top that says XYZ.

Graphic designers and creative directors all over the planet just twitched and rolled their collective eyeballs skyward. I know this because that was me talking, back in my ad agency and marketing firm days.

One day, the creative team had had enough. They called a meeting. Uh oh. Creative people hate meetings. I made a note to arrive early and clear the room of Exacto knives.

It was one of the more memorable meetings ever. Not due to histrionics or creative tantrums. It was memorable because the guys shared the method behind what some consider subjective creative madness. Effective marketing and advertising is so much more than words and pictures.

Five Elements to Every Design. Whether you’re creating an ad, HTML email, 1-sheet, post card, brochure cover, business card, flyer, or poster for your child’s fundraiser, you have five elements to work with:.

  1. Headline
  2. Visual
  3. Body Copy
  4. Logo/tagline
  5. White space

Many people, albeit untrained in the graphic arts but with just enough scrapbooking experience to think they know something about layout, try to balance all five elements, the creative director told me. (See why I removed the sharp objects?)

Those people are wrong. Balancing all five elements is bad.

Balance vs. Emphasis.  Pick ONE element to be the focal point, the art director said. It should dominate the design. You don’t want to “balance” all five elements, because if you try, nothing will stand out. The ultimate result will be boring and blah. (That’s me talking.)

Sometimes you’ll have a secondary focal point. Kind of a one-two punch. Perhaps it’s a large visual (primary) with a bold headline (secondary). Your body copy had better be short and sweet, in that case. Your phone number, call to action, url are part of body copy, not individual elements to be juggled, they told me.

White space really got the creative team going. There should be some. Plenty of it. Just because your page is 8 x 10 does NOT mean you have to fill it from edge to edge, they ranted.

In fact, white space makes an excellent focal point, especially when your message is competing for attention. When is it not? (That’s me talking again, and, no, I didn’t verbalize that in the meeting. Someone could have smuggled a blade in.)

Picture this, they said, in a way only creative visual types can say. Think of a bulletin board full of flyers. A conference goody bag full of colorful sales sheets. An exhibit table covered in brochures of all sizes. Typefaces, photos, colors, blocks of body copy every where. Oh, my.

Now, imagine there’s one piece that is so simple, clean and clutter-free that your eye can’t help but be drawn to the visual “hole,” or negative space. Oh, yes. What’s this?

“I’ll tell you what it is,” a copywriter yelled. “It’s the first thing people are going to read!”

Gotcha. I did say that out loud.

But what about the logo? They saved the touchiest subject for last. Your logo does one thing. It tells the reader who’s “talking.” That’s it. It should “sign” your ad, the way an artist signs a work of art. If your headline and visual grabs their attention, draws them in, they’ll want to know who it’s from. They’ll look for your logo.

And don’t worry, they’ll find it. Because they want to. Not because it jumped out an grabbed their eyeballs in a hey-look-at-me-over-here-do-you-like-my-logo kind of way.

Focus is an attraction factor. “Attract” means more than “draw the eye.” You want to please it, as well. The more there is that dances in front of the eye, the more there is to randomly distract it. Perhaps even repel it.

Find your focal point. Then minimize the number of distractions by subtracting or minimizing elements. What you remove might just make it more powerful. More readable means better response.

Less. Is. More.

Tell your graphic artist or creative team you want that. You’ll get the best they have to give. Maybe even a hug.

4 Responses to “What a layperson needs to know about great graphic design.”

  1. Amy Fahey


    This is great! It will help me work much more effectively with my graphic designer. We can talk each other’s language now! Thank you, Amy

    • Terrilang

      My pleasure, Amy. As you go through your day today, take note of all the visual input you’re exposed to, and then pay attention to what grabbed you. Which of the five was the focal point? If you come across any where white space was the clear winner, and you can snap a pic to share–I’d love to see it/them. TGIF.

  2. Martin Morgan


    I’ve never seen this described in such a clear, easy to understand way. This provides a great framework for much more effectively focused design discussions for our organization.

    Much appreciated!

    • Terrilang

      Here’s one more. I didn’t say this, and whoever said it to me didn’t know who said it, but we both agreed we liked it. The definition of great design is knowing when to stop. I’ll end on that note. Enjoy!


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