Graphic Design Principles



There is more to arguing your case than a brilliantly written memo.   Never underestimate the value of “eyewash.”  If you write well, graphics will enhance your ideas and thus the reader’s acceptance of your points.  If you don’t write well, eyewash distracts the reader into thinking you do!



The purpose of a graphic is to present information or data so the reader can quickly access the data and draw conclusions which enhance the author’s point.

·        The graphic should be self-contained.  It should be able to be interpreted whether in a written context or standing alone.

·        Make your graphics simple.  Complexity creates confusion.

·        Use color where possible.  If duplication is a consideration, combine color with shades or half-tones.

·        Always title a graphic.

·        Graphic maps (any device which uses symbols rather than pictorial representations) should always include a legend.

·        Refer to a graphic in the body of the text (e.g., “See Figure X”), and place the graphic in the text near where it is referenced.

·        List figures in a separate index, both by page number and figure number.

·        Always identify on the graphic the source of the data.

·        Except for tables, each graphic should be enclosed in a border.

·        Graphic maps should always indicate vector (usually with a north arrow) and scale.

·        Line drawings may be helpful to clarify a concept or basic idea.

·        Photographs should be large enough to present the object clearly; extraneous information should be cropped to maximize impact.



  1. Frame your subject (get closer)
    1. Mediocre
    2. Better
  2. Make it active
    1. Mediocre
    2. Better
  3. Capture the emotion
  4. Light it up
    1. Mediocre
    2. Better
  5. Compose
    1. Mediocre
    2. Better
  6. Point of view
    1. Dupont Station

                                                               i.      Down

                                                             ii.      Up

    1. Vancouver Skyway

                                                               i.      East

                                                             ii.      West

    1. Downtown Pittsburgh

                                                               i.      Day

                                                             ii.      Night

  1. Standards
    1. Proposed National Parks Service Standards for digital photographs for National Register of Historic Places
    2. How to Improve the Quality of Photographs for National Register Nominations (National Parks Service)



  1. Tom Bliese (Set Designer, MSU Theater)
    1. Artists turn off the name of the thing and click in line, color, texture, form
    2. Variety in means of expression

                                                               i.      Visual expression

1.      Work toward it visually as soon as possible (don’t talk it to death)

2.      Can’t talk about the visual world; have to show it

3.      Start with a thumbnail sketch

4.      Presentation—turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse (definition, scale)

                                                             ii.      The more languages you can speak, the better the chance you’ll use the most appropriate one.

                                                            iii.      Don’t make it look too precious:  design it so it looks like it’s easy to modify

                                                           iv.      Don’t design the “set” first—first decide what the space is like, then what the scale will be (for theater, scale to the actor), then design the environment to be built.

                                                             v.      Combine 2 & 3 dimensions by mounting drawings on core-board and arranging depth (sort of bas-relief).

    1. Drawing is an exercise to see, rather than to look.

                                                               i.      “Draw a person” gives less satisfactory results than “Draw me”

                                                             ii.      Eye-hand coordination—proportions, rather than actual measure (holding the thumb or a pencil or a ruler out at arm’s length)

                                                            iii.      An amateur may have talent, but a professional knows how to control it.

    1. Evaluating a visual design

                                                               i.      Line—are proportions correct (do the lines relate properly)?

                                                             ii.      Color—tone, shade, etc.

                                                            iii.      Form—mass & shape

                                                           iv.      Texture—real (eg, brick) or visual (eg, marble)

  1. Hans Schwarz, Drawing Buildings and Cityscapes, NY:  Taplinger, 1979
    1. Vanishing Point

                                                               i.      Single

                                                             ii.      Double

                                                            iii.      Multiple

    1. Single Building

                                                               i.      Blocking

                                                             ii.      Details

                                                            iii.      Tones

                                                           iv.      Finish

    1. Cityscape

                                                               i.      Blocking

                                                             ii.      Details

                                                            iii.      Tones

                                                           iv.      Finish

    1. Street Furniture 

                                                               i.      Number 1

                                                             ii.      Number 2

  1. Style
    1. Nathan Winters, Architecture Is Elementary, Salt Lake City, UT:  Peregrine Smith Books, 1986. 

                                                               i.      Sydney Opera House

                                                             ii.      Louis Sullivan—Merchants’ National Bank

    1. Grady Clay, Close-Up, NY:  Praeger, 1973.

                                                               i.      Industrial Park

                                                             ii.      Urban Heritage

                                                            iii.      Word Map

    1. Gordon Cullen, The Concise Townscape, NY:  VanNostrand Reinhold Co., 1978.

                                                               i.      Municipal square

                                                             ii.      Pedestrian way

    1. Paul Spreiregen, Urban Design:  The Architecture of Towns and Cities, NY:  McGraw-Hill, 1965.

                                                               i.      Paths

                                                             ii.      Edges

  1. Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Los Angeles:  Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1989.
    1. Upside-down drawing—right-left shift
    2. Contour drawing—eye-hand coordination
    3. Transparency drawing—perspective



© 1996 A.J.Filipovitch
Revised 1 September 2009