.. Your Daily Design Dosis

Design Rules: Words of Wisdom? (Part1)


We like to think design is a field of unfettered creativity—an industry that abhors the proverbial box. In actuality the world of design is flooded with a apparently endless list of rules. Think of  ‘Less is More’, ‘Form Follows Function’, ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’ and the list goes on and on. But, what do they mean and what is the origin of these rules?

Most of these rules are familiar sayings that some designers consider to be valuable words of wisdom, which serve as a guideline and source of inspiration. Of course there are always designers who think these rules are more or less restrictions: design dogmas that need to be bended, twisten or broken.

Rules can have a life of their own; over time their meaning can change or the rule could be adopted by a whole new group of followers. For instance, the classis term ‘Make it Simple, Stupid’ started out as an literary guideline but has found its way into other creative fields.

In this first part we take a look at 10 well-known design rules:

“Good designers copy, great designers steal”

This rule is generally considered to be taken from Pablo Picasso‘s famous remark: “Good artist copy, great artists steal”. But in a case of life imitating art, Picasso allegedly took the saying from Igor Stravinsky (Russian-born American composer, lived from 1882-1971) who in turn is thought to have taken it from T.S. Elliot, an American-English poet, dramatist and literary critic (1888-1965).

“Design is thinking made visual”

Even if you think you don’t know the quote or the man quoted, you will definitely know the man’s work. The title sequences that American graphic designer and filmmaker Saul Bass (1920-1996) designed have lit up the silver screen. His designs for film posters have become part of popular culture. His ‘design is thinking made visual’ comment has become something of a design mantra.

“Keep It Simple, Stupid”

The K.I.S.S. principle aka ‘Keep it Simple, Stupid’ aka  ‘Keep It Small and Scalable’ aka ‘Keep It Short and Simple”‘  means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, depending on the field of industry they work in.

The rule is generally believed to be a variation of William of OckhamsPluralitas  non est ponenda sine necessitate (‘Plurality should not be posited without necessity’), meaning that the simplest explanation of a theory is always preferable.

When it comes to design, simplicity is also key or so the rule goes ..

“Never Use more than Two Typefaces”

The unwritten rule of Typography is that a document should never feature more than two typeface families, although some draw the line at three. Anything to avoid a cluttered look!

“Never stretch a Font”

In the world of typography legibility and readability reign supreme, and rightly so! After all, you want people to be able to see and read the words in front of them. Speaking of reading, the third volume of Indie Fonts notes that there is nothing wrong with “compressing (or streching) a font within its capacity.”

But stretch it any further and you’re in trouble: “The problem arises when a font has been compressed [or stretched] beyond its ability to retain a pleasing and readable effect.” ~ You have been warned!


“Minimalism is Dead”

In his study of Minimalism Edward Strickland summed it up perfectly: “The Death of Minimalism is announced periodically, which may be the surest testimonial to its staying power.” Minimalism is dead, long live Minimalism!

“A Picture is Worth a thousant Words”

Back in 1921 the advertising trade journal Printers’ Ink ran an ad which read: ‘One Look is Worth a thousant Words.’ The ad Fred Barnard talked about the benefits of advertising on street cars. According to Barnard, the ad’s headline was taken from a ‘famous Japanese philosopher’.

Six years later Barnard would use the sentence in another ad, this time slightly changing it into:’One Picture is Worth Ten Thousant Words.’ A cliché was born.

“Use a Grid”

The Grid: a staple in the toolbox of designers and graphic artists or designers alike, providing the framework and underlying structure for their designs.

“Make it Pretty”

Many a designers has heard the words ‘make it pretty’ uttered by their client or sales rep. As annoying and frustrating as this little sentence might be to the creative, it does point to the importance of aesthetics in design. In the end, French-born American industrial designer Raymond Loewy (1893-1986) said it best: “Ugliness does not sell.”

“Practice makes Perfect”

This well-known proverb dates back to the mid-16th century, but still sounds good today!


Evidently, creativity knows no bounds and therefore it seems rather ludicrous to restrict that creativity by following  some old-aged rules. However, in most cases the rules seem more like basic principles that every designer should love, honor and obey.

– § –

Whichever side you find yourself on in this rules-debate, I hope you find this serie a source of inspiration, joy, comfort or just good old fun!


Author: Jan Rajtoral

Jan Rajtoral AKA Gonzo the Great is the Founder of and Designer at gonzodesign, providing design services across the full spectrum of Brand Identity, Graphic Design, Print and Advertising Design & Website Design.


on this article: “Design Rules: Words of Wisdom? (Part1)”