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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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    Last Updated on September 28, 2020

    How To Study Effectively: 7 Simple Tips

    How To Study Effectively: 7 Simple Tips

    The brain is a tangled web of information. We don’t remember single facts, but instead we interlink everything by association. Anytime we experience a new event, our brains tie the sights, smells, sounds and our own impressions together into a new relationship.

    Our brain remembers things by repetition, association, visual imagery, and all five senses. By knowing a bit about how the brain works, we can become better learners, absorbing new information faster than ever.

    Here are some study tips to help get you started:

    1. Use Flashcards

    Our brains create engrained memories through repetition. The more times we hear, see, or repeat something to ourselves, the more likely we are to remember it.

    Flashcards can help you learn new subjects quickly and efficiently. Flashcards allow you to study anywhere at any time. Their portable nature lends them to quick study sessions on the bus, in traffic, at lunch, or in the doctor’s office. You can always whip out your flashcards for a quick 2 to 3 minute study session.

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    To create effective flashcards, you need to put one point on each flashcard. Don’t load up the entire card with information. That’s just overload. Instead, you should dedicate one concept to each card.

    One of the best ways to make flashcards is to put 1 question on the front and one answer on the back. This way, you can repeatedly quiz yourself into you have mastered any topic of your choice.

    Commit to reading through your flash cards at least 3 times a day and you will be amazed at how quickly you pick up new information.

    As Tony Robbins says,

    “Repetition is the mother of skill”.

    2. Create the Right Environment

    Often times, where you study can be just as important as how you study. For an optimum learning environment, you’ll want to find a nice spot that is fairly peaceful. Some people can’t stand a deafening silence, but you certainly don’t want to study near constant distractions.

    Find a spot that you can call your own, with plenty of room to spread out your stuff. Go there each time you study and you will find yourself adapting to a productive study schedule. When you study in the same place each time, you become more productive in that spot because you associate it with studying.

    3. Use Acronyms to Remember Information

    In your quest for knowledge, you may have once heard of an odd term called “mnemonics”. However, even if you haven’t heard of this word, you have certainly heard of its many applications. One of the most popular mnemonic examples is “Every Good Boy Does Fine”. This is an acronym used to help musicians and students to remember the notes on a treble clef stave.

    An acronym is simply an abbreviation formed using the intial letters of a word. These types of memory aids can help you to learn large quantities of information in a short period of time.

    4. Listen to Music

    Research has long shown that certain types of music help you to recall information. Information learned while listening to a particular song can often be remembered simply by “playing” the songs mentally in your head.

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    5. Rewrite Your Notes

    This can be done by hand or on the computer. However, you should keep in mind that writing by hand can often stimulate more neural activity than when writing on the computer.

    Everyone should study their notes at home but often times, simply re-reading them is too passive. Re-reading your notes can cause you to become disengaged and distracted.

    To get the most out of your study time, make sure that it is active. Rewriting your notes turns a passive study time into an active and engaging learning tool. You can begin using this technique by buying two notebooks for each of your classes. Dedicate one of the notebooks for making notes during each class. Dedicate the other notebook to rewriting your notes outside of class.

    6. Engage Your Emotions

    Emotions play a very important part in your memory. Think about it. The last time you went to a party, which people did you remember? The lady who made you laugh, the man who hurt your feelings, and the kid who went screaming through the halls are the ones you will remember. They are the ones who had an emotional impact.

    Fortunately, you can use the power of emotion in your own study sessions. Enhance your memory by using your five senses. Don’t just memorize facts. Don’t just see and hear the words in your mind. Create a vivid visual picture of what you are trying to learn.

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    For example, if you are trying to learn the many parts of a human cell, begin physically rotating the cell in your minds eye. Imagine what each part might feel like. Begin to take the cell apart piece by piece and then reconstruct it. Paint the human cell with vivid colors. Enlarge the cell in your mind’s eye so that it is now six feet tall and putting on your own personal comedy show. This visual and emotional mind play will help deeply encode information into your memory.

    7. Make Associations

    One of the best ways to learn new things is to relate what you want to learn with something you already know. This is known as association, and it is the mental glue that drives your brain.

    Have you ever listened to a song and been flooded by memories that were connected to it? Have you ever seen an old friend that triggered memories from childhood? This is the power of association.

    To maximize our mental powers, we must constantly be looking for ways to relate new information with old ideas and concepts that we are already familiar with.

    You can do this with the use of mindmapping. A mind map is used to diagram words, pictures, thoughts, and ideas into a an interconnected web of information. This simple practice will help you to connect everything you learn into a global network of knowledge that can be pulled from at any moment.

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    Learn more about mindmapping here: How to Mind Map to Visualize Your Thoughts (With Mind Map Examples)

    Featured photo credit: Alissa De Leva via unsplash.com

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