As random and chaotic as life often is, we can be both thankful and maybe slightly terrified (in a mystified, what does it all mean kind of way) to know that the universe has constants. Patterns in nature follow the Fibonacci sequence and golden ratio, gravity and the speed of light are fixed universal quantities, the energy of light adheres to a Planck constant and of course there’s always pi which is baked into geometry and physics. They apply whether you’re from Earth or an entity from Andromeda. There are many other constants I wish I understood, but they’re there and the universe colors between their unyielding glare.
So everything is tied down somehow. But the universe is big. Opportunities for disorder and mayhem abound. Although I won’t argue that some madness, especially with regards to creative pursuits, is great for asking questions and disrupting the ordinary, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that even these passionate brushstrokes or angry guitar plucks or brooding keystrokes follow—in basic structures, harmonies and ratios—a universal constant in some way by virtue of existing in said universe. To break the rules one must first know them, however innately.
In its root form, graphic design is no exception. There are grids, margins, whitespace and baselines which underpin a layout. Like the spiral patterns in seashells, they not only help establish a balance and visual rhythm, they appeal to the eye and are therefore easier to digest. These structural cornerstones are like bones on an animal. They effect how elements in a layout are positioned in space, define visual weighting of components such as color, type and imagery plus the respective sizes of all these. This interplay of ratios can be used to guide the viewer’s eye according to the designer’s intent, itself derived from nature at a basic level, revealing the important bits in a visual hierarchy. Ultimately, this process removes the burden of guesswork, and therefore the chance for confusion, from viewers.
Naturally, there are many other elements needed for good design, such as photography, illustration, typestyle, paper stock, die cuts and binding. On the digital side there is also interface flow and user expectations balanced against screen area and bandwidth. But, to stretch a pun to breaking point, all these cake ingredients need an appropriate pan and stove.
Having said this, by following such seemingly rigid underpinnings, we don’t want our layout to end up looking like a spreadsheet. But this is where things get fun. Like messily scooping icing on a nicely formed cake, now that we know the rules it’s highly encouraged to break them.