Principles of graphical design

March 1, 2008 at 8:36 pm Leave a comment

I watched quite a good video on the principles of graphical design, by Steven Wittens, which can be found here.  To try to somehow take credit for someone else’s work, and to help me understand thetopic I thought I’d try to summarize some of the things he said, and develop some of his ideas. Be aware that what I say here is as much me thinking aloud as it is summarizing someone else’s. This means you aren’t allowed  to form negative assumptions about Steven Wittens based upon what I say.

Some philsophical points:


Graphical design is the alteration of presentational features of material leaving the linguistic content fixed.


Graphical design has various goals – these include:

  • To aid the communication of information.
  • To make material aesthetically pleasing – thereby making readers happier and more able to appreciate the text.
  • To manipulate the readers perceptions of your material so that there perceptions and more in accordance with what youwant them to be

It is to be born in mind that some of these properties functions will be not necessarily be noticed consciously.


Graphical design can help communication by

  • Creating graphical relationships between objects that are related semantically, and giving objects graphical properties when they have semantic properties.
  • Creating graphical relationships between objects that are unrelated semantically, e.g creating borders between such objects
  • Adding graphical properties to object that are suggestive of semantic meaning, or importance, e.g highlighting important words in red. Choosing colours that set the mood of the piece.

There are as many ways to do this as there are graphical properties that text can possess. Some properties that graphical objects possess include colour, size and shape. Fonts have the properties of boldness and italicness.

Also certain graphical properties make some activities, like reading things and finding things easier. Distractions (such as motion) can make activities difficult.

Making material aesthetically pleasing

There are certain graphical properties that it most people seem to simply enjoy. These include such things as

  • Crisp focused shapes
  • Similarity between things e.g
    • Shapes
    • Colours
    • Positions
  • Subtle differences between things whilst some apsects remain similar
  • Balance
  • Colour

Further, there are certain things that people seem to fundamentally dislike

  • Clashing colours
  • Excessive brightness
  • Lack of contrast

By giving material the properties that people enjoy, and avoiding those that they don’t enjoy the reader can be made happier

It is to be notes that human perception has several foibles. One is seeking to modify perceived objects, rather that the physical objects. For example, the perceived centre of a shape and mathematical centre of the shape differ.

Creating associations

Certain images also have emotional and emotional associations that can be triggered to positive effect. This is particularly the case for pictures of people. Humans would seem to have a hard wired response to picttures of faces.

Triggering the correct emotional responses can help in controller a reader, and can also make the reader happier as people enjoy emotional responses.

Trigger the correct associations can help in communicating ideas, by introducing concepts into the readers mind.

Manipulating the readers perceptions of the material

Readers tend to draw conclusions about material based upon indicators that are in no ways related to the conclusions formed. By giving a reader graphical material that has indicators that readers associate with with the properties that you wish them to believe your material has you can increase their likelihood of believing the material has these properties.

If one wishes to rationalize this activity as non-manipulative, one can describe it as ensuring that the reader recognizes the material as having the properties that it possesses. Further, one can argue that it is impossible for the graphical appearence of work to not cause conclusions to be drawn, hence one might as well have these conclusions be positive. Alternatively, one could consider this as a rather devious form of deceit. Which of these arguments is correct will depend upon whether you like the person who wrote the material.


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