The 12 unwritten rules of design

We gather the knowledge and wisdom of dozens of designers and put it all into one handy article.

From grid theory to the Golden Ratio, there are a set of fundamental principles that are passed down from generation to generation of designers. Every good designer should know them, and any decent design course or instructional book will cover them.

As well as written rules, design has a number of unwritten rules

But as with anything else in life, as well as written rules, design has a number of unwritten rules. Many of us only learn these from bitter experience when breaking them. So to save you the anguish, we asked some top designers to reveal the secrets that can help turn you from a good designer into a great one.

Mark the date in your calendar. This is the day you were let into the inner circle of design know-how. You’ll never work the same way again.

01. Find out what your client really wants

The brief is not the end of the discussion, but its starting point

Never skimp on the discussion stage. You have to dig deeper and understand the brief – or you’ll be revising the work a lot. “What is the client trying to achieve?” asks John Stanyon, creative director at Force24. “Prescriptive briefs are often a client’s ‘design solution’ rather than the problem they wish to overcome.” For more, read 5 things design clients REALLY want (but probably won’t tell you).

02. The client is right, even when wrong

Who do you work for? Your client. Who knows their business better than anyone? Your client. “Leave your ego at the door,” says Adam Morris, senior designer at Made By Many. “It’s the user who is the final judge of whether your design is successful.”

Adds Graham McDonnell, senior digital designer at Stickyeyes: “Design is always subjective and although you might be on the bleeding edge of the latest design trends, your client usually knows their audience better than you.”

03. Agree outcomes at the start

“Agree the level of output up front,” says Ben Woolf, head of creative brand experience at RPM. “It sounds obvious, but so many projects are started in earnest without having this agreed.”

We wholeheartedly recommend Woolf’s advice. The real danger is leaving your client’s expectations so open that they’ll run you ragged. The client is always right. But they should pay for the work you do.

04. Pen and paper first

Pen and paper focuses the mind and frees you from distractions

When you’re developing a design there’s still nothing more intuitive that a fist full of pens and some paper. “It helps focus the mind, frees you from the distractions and encourages you to think about content,” say Michael Ibrahim Heins, designer at Lewis. “Thought hits paper immediately and stops you worrying about which typeface to choose and how big your column needs to be.”

Creatives agree that computers can sometimes be limiting rather than liberating. “Computers limit your vision to what has already been created, not the possibilities of what can be created,” says Ed Bolton, design director at Fitch.

05. Sleep on it

Here’s a rule that’s unwritten because it seems like good old fashioned common sense. Common sense that we sometimes forget. “Taking a break from your design and coming back with fresh eyes is like seeing your design again for the first time,” Rob Sterry, UX design consultant at Foolproof. “Sleeping on it is even better.”

06.  It’s OK to start again

How many times have you carried on with a dog of a design, hoping that you can make it right?  Sometimes it’s better – and less time consuming – to wipe the slate clean.

“If you can’t make an idea work – move on,” says Martin Wells, creative director at one bite. Chris Clarke, chief creative officer at marketing agency DigitasLBi offers a more philosophical perspective: “There is never enough time to do something, but always enough time to do it again”

07. Test your designs across media

In recent years, logos have become simpler so they scale better across different media

Web designers know from bitter experience that pages must be tested on multiple platforms. Guess what? These days the exact same thing applies to graphic design too.

“If your logo design does not work in black and white on a 2x2cm format, it is not a legible design…” says Adrien Raphoz, senior creative at FCBInferno. Designs have to work across multiple media, so you need to look at them on paper, web and mobile – and factor that in too.

08. Know when to stop

A perennial problem in the creative industries is knowing when a job is finished. “The point at which you think it needs a little something extra is the point you should stop designing,” says Rob O’Neill, inhouse designer at FindMeaGift.

Scott Walker, design director at Lewis, goes a step further, saying the last stage of the process should be to strip things back. “When you think you’re finished, ruthlessly strip out the unnecessary bits and you’ll be left with a much clearer and refined piece of work.”

09. Work in stages

We’re fans of good organisation at CreativeBloQ. So much that we think it’s one of the foundations of design. Freelance designer Joe Whitaker feels the same way:

“Working in stages is a great way to keep organised and look back over the progression of a project,” says Whitaker. This practice can help in a couple of ways. It helps you track the progress of a job as you’re doing it. In future, you’ll find it easier to quote for work as you’ll have a better idea how long specific tasks take.

10. Learn to take criticism

Photo courtesy of Tim Parkinson

As a professional designer working with paying clients, people will sometimes tell you that your work isn’t quite what they wanted. Don’t let it hurt your feelings.

“Learning how to take criticism is the toughest part of the job,” says, Ed Bolton, design director at Fitch, “Especially when you’re proud of your work. But without criticism, there’s no improvement… ”

11. Read the brief

This advice from Steven Scott is worth quoting in full. It may seem brain mashingly obvious, but there’s a really easy way to derail any job. “Sounds basic, but always read the brief!” says Scott.

“Read it once through, then once again to highlight any of the key points. Its amazing how many designers will already think they have answered the brief from a verbal discussion.” You’ll find more advice on fulfilling a creative brief in this article.

12. Get paid up front

Photo courtesy of Andrew Magill

We’ll leave the final word to Joe Morris, commercial director at Tonik: “Take cash up front.” Brutal, and straight to the point – but in this age of austerity you have to think about getting paid. Taking a percentage as down-payment on larger jobs shows that your client is serious about making a commitment.

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Max DesignX

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