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Design Better with CRAP

Design Better with CRAP
Basic Design Principles

    The power and ease-of-use of today’s computer applications has raised the bar drastically on the quality of design expected in the documents we produce. As recently as ten years ago, it was typical to produce business letters, memos, and other documents using a courier-like, monospaced typeface, often with only underlining available for emphasis of key passages or section headings. The only options for correcting typos and other mistakes were white-out, pencilled-in marks, or re-typing. Our documents looked boring, but they were expected to look boring.

    Today that’s all changed. Word processing and desktop publishing software are everywhere, and offer dozens (if not hundreds) of fonts ranging from the simple and elegant to the downright bizarre. Style sheets on the web and easily accessible styling options in our desktop software allow us to easily create section headings, pull-quotes, bulleted lists, and text columns — giving us the potential to greatly enhance the layout and delivery of information.

    The result, of course, is more likely to be a mish-mash of difficult-to-read fonts, seemingly random italics and boldfaced text, extraneous sidebars, and awkward layouts. In unskilled hands, the tools available to us can very quickly produce messy, over-designed documents that are far less readable than the plain typewritten documents of old.

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    Applying a few basic design skills can help avoid those mistakes, instead allowing the features we often regard as “extras” to take their rightful places as means of enhancing the readability and impact of our work. While design is a skill — equal parts art and science — that can take years to develop to a professional level, the core ideas are quite simple, and applying them can produce a marked improvement on your day-to-day work.

    All design starts from four basic principles, abbreviated as CRAP (they come in no particular order, so the more squeamish can rearrange them to form “CARP”, if you like. I’d advise against “PCRA”, though…). These are Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity.

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    • Contrast: Contrast refers to any difference of size, shape, or color used to distinguish text (or other elements, though here we’re focusing on text) from other pieces of text. The use of bold or italics is one common form of contrast — the difference in shape makes the bolded or italicized text stand out from the surrounding text. Increasing the size of headers and titles, or using ALL CAPS or smallcaps are other ways of distinguishing text. These techniques only work if used sparingly; a document typed in all capital letters has less contrast than one typed normally, so is harder, not easier, to read.
    • Repetition: Repetition in your text is bad; repetition of your design elements is not only good but necessary. Once you’ve decided on a size and typeface for second-level headers, for instance, all second-level headers should look the same. For most documents, two or maybe three fonts — leaning heavily on one for all the body text, with the other two for headers and maybe sidebars — are enough. The same bullets should be used on every bulleted list. Information that appears on every page should appear in the same place on every page. Design elements — like horizontal rules between sections or corporate logos — should appear the same whenever they are used throughout the document. Repetition of design elements pulls the document together into a cohesive whole, and also improves readability as the reader comes to expect text that looks a certain way to indicate certain qualities (e.g. the start of a new section, a major point, or a piece of code.
    • Alignment: Alignment is crucial not just to the cohesive appearance of your document but to the creation of contrast for elements like bulleted lists or double-indented long quotes. Your document should have a couple of vertical baselines and all text should be aligned to one of them. Unaligned text floats mysteriously, forcing the reader to figure out its relation to the rest of the document. Centered text is particularly bad (and is a novice’s favorite design trick). One immediate step you can take to vastly improve the appearance of your documents is to remove the “center” button from your software’s toolbar (or, less drastically, just ignore it). It is rarely self-evident what centering is meant to communicate, and too much centered text creates a sloppy, undisciplined look.
    • Proximity: Pieces of information that are meant to complement each other should be near each other. One great offender here is business cards and ads in local newspapers, where the name, address, and phone number are all scattered around the ad or card (for example, in the corners). Your reader shouldn’t have to seek out the next logical piece of information; rather, use proximity to make sure that the next piece of information a reader sees is the next piece of information they should see.

    None of these principles stands alone. Repetition and alignment together create the “normal” state that allows changing the shape or position of a piece of text to produce contrast; repetition and proximity go hand-in-hand to create useful formats like bulleted lists — the repetition of the bullet adds force to the proximity of the points. In fact, the bulleted list above uses all four of these principles to work: it contrasts with the body of this article by being aligned to a different baseline than the rest of the paragraphs; each principle is in boldface, providing contrast, and is also directly followed by its explanation, providing proximity; the bullets, the boldfaced text, and the alignment are repeated in each new point on the list.

    Almost all design builds on the foundation laid out above. Asking yourself how well each element of your layout satisfies these basic principles is a good way to make sure your work remains readable to your audience while also communicating a bit of your organization’s or business’ character. You may already unconsciously use these principles in your work, but knowing the principles and recognizing their use will help you make better, more conscious decisions in the future.

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    Ultimately, the goal is for the work you put in to designing a document to disappear, to become invisible, leaving your reader or viewer with unfettered access to the points you are trying to convey — both directly in your text and, ever-so-subtly, in your choice of design elements. In this respect, it’s a thankless job, because only rarely will anyone comment on (or even notice) the quality of design — but they will notice, and act on, the message. And that’s what’s important, isn’t it?

    NOTE: The principles outlined above are developed in full in Robin Williams’ excellent book The Non-Designer’s Design Book, which I recommend to anyone who wants to further develop a solid sense of design to improve their day-to-day written work. This post is intended as an introduction to Williams’ concepts and deeper explanation of their use.

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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