I’m a big proponent of the phrase “Communicate, don’t decorate.” All to often I see designers get all artsy-fartsy with their work, making choices based purely on whim or mood.

In my professional opinion, that’s not very professional.

You wouldn’t expect your doctor to prescribe a particular treatment because he felt like it. Nor would you expect your mechanic to do something because he was in the mood for it. Nope, you’d want the doctor to fix your ailment and the mechanic to fix your car — because that’s their job.

A designer’s job is to collect information and employ it in such a way that encourages people to act. It’s business. It’s sales. It’s commerce.

In the old days, graphic design was called commercial art, a term that somehow became pejorative and fell into disuse.

Yet design is all about commerce. The specific goals of each project may differ, but the overarching goal is to instigate action of some sort. The action may be to buy something, or to support something, or to simply remember something.

So in practical terms how would one design in such a way that communicates better? I’m so glad you asked. The thing to do is ask what practical goal is this “thing” supposed to achieve. This “thing” could be a website, a logo, a book, or a menu.

I think it’s a good idea to start “vanilla” and design around the content. It’s similar to a website wireframe approach in that the overall functionality is more important than how “pretty” it is. Once you’ve established a hierarchy and made the content important, you’re free to start adding “flavor.”

Then there’s the other extreme: go all out and be as expressive as possible, just go nuts. Then strip it down to its essence.

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Try this: if you look at your design/layout with fresh eyes and start thinking it based solely on appearance, you’re doing it wrong. You’re designing, not communicating. If you look at it and get it, you’re doing it right.

Ask yourself: What’s the call to action? Is there a call to action? What do you want me to look at first? Second? Third? What’s the takeaway?

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