Roger Parker's 3 Commandments of Effective Design

Roger Parker has been designing winning packages and advertisements since 1976. He credits much of his success to following some basic fundamentals that are being forgotten now that graphic design is becoming more software-oriented and technical.

We interviewed Roger to get details on the most important of these fundamentals – what he calls The 3 Commandments of Effective Design.

IFD: Over the last 30 years, you've seen a lot of design trends come and go. How did you pinpoint the fundamentals that have remained true through all those changes?

Roger: They come from years of analyzing both successful and unsuccessful designs, and figuring out why some work and others fail so miserably. One of the biggest factors separating the two is that designers often fall into the trap of “designing for themselves” rather than using design to help their clients achieve specific goals.

The key to successful design is simply putting your client's needs first. This benefits your client by helping him reach his goals. And it benefits you by guaranteeing repeat business and enthusiastic referrals.

The commandments I've developed provide a counterpoint to “trendy” or “portfolio” designs that may look good, but don't help clients sell their products or services.

IFD: What are your top three commandments?

Roger: My First Commandment is Be Purposeful. Every design decision should be based on how well it moves the viewer from “interest” to “transaction.” Purposeful design takes planning – evaluating the goals of each project and the medium in which it will appear, such as print ads, Web, billboard, and so forth.

The Second Commandment is Be Readable. Design should be as transparent as possible so the message it supports will be easy to understand. Design fails when the type, graphics, layout, or colors draw attention to themselves and dominate the message they're supposed to be supporting.

The Third Commandment is Be Simple. Clutter is the enemy of good design. The simpler the design, the easier it is for readers to identify and understand the key message. A simple design also helps separate important ideas from secondary supporting ideas.

IFD: What are the worst mistakes designers make today – even the pros?

Roger: First, many designers fail to include subheads in long text passages. Subheads help chunk messages into manageable, bite-sized pieces. And when designers do include them, they're often either too subtle to be noticed or they're too long. Subheads should be set in a contrasting typeface or color, and should be limited to one line only.

Second, many designers fail to notice when extra space has been inserted between sentences. This often happens because they're provided with copy that was typed with two spaces after each period. The extra space causes noticeable distractions, especially when you're working with justified margins (lines of equal length). Use your layout software's “Find” and “Replace” feature to replace every instance of two spaces with just one space.

Third, headlines or subheads set entirely in upper case (ALL CAPITAL LETTERS) are much harder to read than those set in title case (Initial Caps Like This) or sentence case (Initial letter capitalized like this). It's fine to use upper case for the first letter and the proper nouns in the headline or subhead, but not for all the letters.

IFD: Any additional words of advice for our readers?

Roger: Designing to sell is more important now than ever. The days of “trend-setting, creative design” are numbered. More and more clients realize that print and Web design must work together. They're finding new ways to test the results of their advertising, learning from their successes and mistakes, and making changes based on what they've learned. And “creative” designers who ignore the impact of this direct-marketing thinking are skating on thin ice.

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Published: August 24, 2006

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