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The Non-Designer's Design Book

If you’re aching to learn design skills but don’t have the time–or the confidence–then check out Robin William’s The Non-Designer’s Design Book.

The approachable, unassuming, and humorous book explains basic design principles in a way that anyone can grasp–from grandmas in Scranton to art directors in New York City.

So what are these basic design principles? It’s C-R-A-P (Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity). Here’s how Robin explains them in her own words:

  1. Contrast
    The idea behind contrast is to avoid elements on the page that are merely similar. If the elements (type, color, size, line thickness, shape, space, etc.) are not the same, then make them very different. Contrast is often the most important visual attraction on a page–it’s what makes a reader look at the page in the first place.

  2. Repetition
    Repeat visual elements of the design throughout the piece. You can repeat colors, shapes, textures, spatial relationships, line thicknesses, fonts, sizes, graphic concepts, etc. This develops the organization and strengthens the unity.

  3. Alignment
    Nothing should be placed on the page arbitrarily. Every element should have some visual connection with another element on the page. This creates a clean, sophisticated, fresh look.

  4. Proximity
    Items relating to each other should be grouped close together. When several items are in close proximity to each other, they become one visual unit rather than several separate units. This helps organize information, reduces clutter, and gives the reader a clear structure.

With the cleverly crude mnemonic and the ample examples in the book, how can you not remember those principles? Even after 10 years since reading the book in high school, I still remember C-R-A-P.

Now, a caveat: designers trained by high Modernist standards will likely scoff at the book’s humble design. It sure ain’t Swiss Modern. Fortunately, the book’s not for them. As the title says, it’s for non-designers–those who have no clue about design but are eager to learn, without being looked down upon.

True, the book will not turn you into the next Paul Rand. But it’s a damn good start.

Special thanks goes to my English and Journalism teacher, Madelyn Pyeatt, who recommended the book to me when I was just handsome young lad. I would not be here without her encouragement.


  • Brett

    gravatarApr 22, 2008
    7:04 am

    Dude, if you had any idea how many times per week I tell people “man, I wish I knew the first damn thing about graphic design…”. Thanks for this, I’ll be ordering it straight away!

  • Erin

    gravatarApr 22, 2008
    9:43 am

    I’m actually a former graphic design student (and now interactive multimedia student) at Ohio University, and this book was actually required reading for several of my Visual Communications classes! It’s an excellent beginner/non-professional book, and I know I’d be ridiculously happy if more people did a little more reading on graphic design, especially from this book (the steps are so simple but they make a HUGE difference) before attempting to design something on their own.

  • Alan

    gravatarApr 22, 2008
    4:07 pm

    I have to thank my former boss for helping me get on the right track and telling me to get this book. It taught me more than a few “design classes” I took at a local college. Although I’m a web designer, these principles can still apply to doing web layouts as well. I’m still a newbie so I always refer to its 4 principles whenever I lose my focus. I definitely recommend it for anybody just starting out!

  • Dave

    gravatarApr 24, 2008
    2:24 pm

    I’m curious about this book, but the only thing I’ll be designing going forward is powerpoint presentations. Is it useful for that?


  • Chanpory Rith

    gravatarApr 24, 2008
    9:31 pm

    Erin, I’m glad it was required reading in your program. It wasn’t required at my alma matter, but it totally should have been.

  • Chanpory Rith

    gravatarApr 24, 2008
    9:32 pm

    Dave, the book’s great for helping someone approach any type of visual design. For Powerpoint Presentations, however, you might check out Presentation Zen, by Garr Reynolds.

  • Benus

    gravatarApr 25, 2008
    8:57 am

    This is an absolutely great book! I bought it a few years ago and have read it several times.

  • Lila

    gravatarApr 25, 2008
    12:35 pm

    I always recommend her books to non-design folk.

    Robin is also one of the nicest ladies too! My friend and I had the best time talking to her at MacWorld!

  • Dave

    gravatarApr 26, 2008
    9:17 am

    @ Chanpory: Thanks!!

  • Dena

    gravatarApr 26, 2008
    8:33 pm

    This book is a classic! I don’t have formal design training but have worked for several years with graphic people at our university. It is amazing how they don’t know about these basic design principles, and don’t care to know about them :-( We Williamites, call these graphic artists…”amateurs”.

    If everyone could be taught these principles, the world’s ads would be so much more pleasant to digest.

    We shall suffer on.

  • ephi

    gravatarApr 28, 2008
    8:50 pm

    Oooww… we have this book in my office, I work in instructional design area. The book is a very good investment. :)

  • juliemarg

    gravatarApr 29, 2008
    8:53 am

    I used this book 12 years ago to teach myself ad design. It’s essential.

  • planetjune

    gravatarMay 3, 2008
    7:20 am

    Agreed – this book is fantastic! The principles are simple but they make a huge difference.