Design – more than just making it pretty

Have you ever sat in a really uncomfortable, ugly chair, too low or too high for the table? Would a coat of paint and a brightly coloured cushion make much difference? Maybe briefly, superficially – but not fundamentally.

Good design is more than skin deep. Good design considers how the structure and function of the item being designed will meet the needs of the user. The finished appearance is an integral part of the creation of the item from the outset, not an afterthought, with every choice serving a purpose or solving a problem.

When it comes to designing a publication or website, good graphic design considers and supports the structure and presentation of the content. A designer should ask ‘what is the key message that I want my audience to understand?’ and ‘what does my audience most want from this content?’. The answers to these questions – they may or may not be the same! – should be the focus of the design process, and all decisions should corroborate and manifest the purpose.

The choice of specific design elements such as fonts, colours, graphic elements, illustrations, white space and layout of content on the page will all convey something about the publication. A conservative typeface such as Helvetica or Garamond teamed with blues and straight lines, with the text neatly packed into two columns, might convey a serious corporate message of steadfast reliability. In contrast, scattered text in Comic Sans or Chalkboard fonts in bright, playful primary colours with lots of white space and cute, cartoonish drawings would almost certainly be interpreted as youthful and fun.

So, the visual design of your publication or website is as important as the writing of the content in helping your audience understand its purpose and key messages. Do you need your publication to be a comfy reading lounge or an efficient desk chair or a funky bar stool? Good design must be fit for purpose, not just about making it look pretty.

The handbook Biotext designed: Tomato, capsicum, chilli and eggplant: a field guide for the identification of insect pests, beneficials, diseases and disorders in Australia and Cambodia is a great example of a publication that needed to be detailed and authoritative but simple to use for farmers in Cambodia. We used a single sans serif font throughout for best legibility, multiple sets of variable icons to code information visually, colour and variable sidebar text for navigation through different sections, and lots of neatly arranged photographs – 232 pages of highly technical information packed into a very user-friendly, wire-bound, water-resistant book.