Notes on design books

The Vignelli Canon by Massimo Vignelli

Semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics

Semantics is about meaning. If you design something you need to know everything you can about the meaning of the thing you’re working with. Everything in your design should support that meaning.

Syntactics is about the building blocks of your design and how they relate to each other. Like any syntax those elements should form a language together. They should be a connected system.

Pragmatics means that even if you’ve got these first two right, if no-one knows what your design means it’s useless. A design exists to be understood.


You must pay attention to absolutely every element of your design. Nothing can escape your notice.


Elements in your design can mean more than one thing, and this is generally good. Try to have multiple meanings throughout, but make sure they support the overall purpose of the design.


Simple shapes, colours, and type give a design a timeless quality. Designs made in this way will last longer than designs that pay too much attention to fashion.


No part of your design should be arbitrary. Every element should be there because it adds meaning, and is appropriate to the design. Arbitrary splashes of colour, for example, make a design worse.

Simplicity: A Matter of Design by Per Mollerup

Simplicity defined

Simplicity means “consisting of relatively few connected parts and being easy to understand”. Simplicity is the opposite of two concepts: complexity, which is how many parts are involved in something, and complicatedness, which is how difficult to understand something is.

Physical simplicity leads to mental difficulty

Better and more tools make our physical lives easier, but make our mental lives less simple. Now that life is physically easier, we have many more choices available to us, which makes our life mentally more complicated.

How quantity-simple and quality-simple interact

Something can be any combination of quantity-simple (not complex) and quality-simple (not complicated). Just because something has few parts does not mean it is easy to understand, etc. We also want different things depending on how we view an object. A wrist watch viewed as a piece of jewellery might look better if it is quantity-simple—for example if it has no numbers on its dial—but this might make it more difficult to use and understand.

General and special simplicity

If something is generally simple it means that anyone will think it is simple. Special simplicity means that someone already knows enough to understand a particular object, but someone else without that required knowledge won’t. For example, if you know how to type, a QWERTY keyboard on a touch screen phone is simple in the special sense, but not in the general sense.

Functionality, aesthetics, and ethics

There are three motives to seek out simplicity: Functionality means you seek it out for ease of use. Aesthetics means you seek it out for how it looks. Ethics means you seek it out for moral reasons (religious, environmental, etc.). These three motives serve comfort, pleasure, and conscience respectively, and generally map to the concepts of ease of use, minimalism, and austerity.

Number, variety, and structure of elements

Simplicity is affected by how many elements there are in something, the variety of those elements, and the structure of them.

Perceivable affordance, readability, and ease of use

An object’s functionality can be judged in three ways. Perceivable affordance is about whether you can tell what the object is and does. Readability is about whether the object is easy to understand. Does it need instructions in a separate book or does the object explain itself? Ease of use is about how easy the object actually is to use.

Simplicity trade off

Simplicity in one place is often offset by a lack of simplicity in another place. For example, flat-pack furniture is simple for the seller but complicated for the buyer. Pre-built furniture is simple for the buyer but complicated for the seller. For visual communication especially, the larger the audience the more time the designer might need to spend on the design, to make sure it’s simple for everyone.

How to simplify

There are several ways to simplify something: Reduction, specialisation (split a tool into different, simpler tools), modularisation (organise the tool into focused but still connected units), combination (combine tools into one, which often makes the tool more complicated but makes ownership and process more simple), smoothing (putting a smooth case over complicated internal parts), and clarification (use the outer casing to represent the inner workings in a clearer way).

Object, labels, user instructions

Where possible we prefer to learn how to use an object from the object itself. If this is not possible, we then prefer to rely on labels shown on the object. If this is not possible, as a last resort we rely on separate user instructions.

Requisite complexity

There is a certain amount of complexity that is required or even desirable in an object. A bicycle would be more difficult to ride up hills if it did not have the added complexity of gears.Some things are intentionally complicated, such as a maze.

Broad versus deep interfaces

An interface can have ten buttons for ten functions, which is broad, or one button for ten functions, which is deep. One works in space one works in time. Both are simple in different ways.

Ornamentation and unconcealed structure

Aesthetic simplicity, or minimalism, is partly about removing ornamentation. Without ornaments, in some cases the structure of the object is revealed to provide the aesthetic pleasure. For example, chairs made of tubing and not covered in upholstery.

Enough is enough

When it comes to using graphic design techniques to emphasise elements, you should emphasise them enough and no more. If everything is emphasised, nothing is emphasised, so a little emphasis goes a long way. For example, in typography you might emphasise a heading in many different ways, but you should only use one or two of them.

Redundancy can be important

Redundancy means repeating something, perhaps in a different way, to help understanding. Sometimes redundancy is good because the meaning will be clearer to more people. There’s a natural tension between too much redundancy and too little. How much redundancy is required depends on the viewer’s knowledge. Redundancy is one of the reasons that removing too many elements can make a design less simple.

Why clutter happens

Some designers create clutter because that is the effect they want. Some designers create clutter because the tools are available and they want to use them. Some designers create clutter because they are incapable of creating something uncluttered.

Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming by Ellen Lupton

Visual research

Gather up examples of visual design in your target area, for example logos or websites. Are there patterns? Can you exploit them by doing the opposite? Do you need to use those same patterns because they help define the area?

Brand matrix

Gather examples of brands/types of things in your target area. Can you map these to a two-by-two matrix of values? Is there an underrepresented area you can target?

Action verbs

Take a central visual idea and apply action verbs to it. If your idea is “a lightbulb”, what happens if you smash it? Stretch it? Squash it? Melt it? Use these action verbs to try new ideas with the familiar concept.

Everything from everywhere

Be an active sponge: look for ideas everywhere that can you can use in design. Keep a note of interesting combinations of colours, textures etc. Observe other designers to see where they get their ideas. Make a database of inspiration for yourself: take screenshots of websites, photos of posters, etc.

Figures of speech

Many figures of speech can be applied to visual design. Look through the list on Wikipedia, and see if any of them spark ideas.

Icon, index, and symbol

You can represent a concept with an icon, which visually represents it, an index, which points to the object but doesn't necessarily depict it, or a symbol, which is an abstract representation.

Visual diary

Start a visual diary, possibly with a theme. On a regular basis contribute visual design ideas to the diary. If any particular effort excites you, go back to it again the next time you record something and expand on it. Share your work with others, make it public. Keep at it because the good stuff happens when you dive into an idea fully. Harvest anything good.


Not the same as Google-style sprints or Agile sprints. Take a concept, set yourself some rules/limits (typefaces, for example). Set a time limit and explore as many approaches as you can for the visual design in that time, and with your limits.

Kit of parts

Similar to the design system approach. Create a kit of parts you can use and combine to create your visual design. Then your only job is combination and not creation.


The same concept as copy-work. Take another piece of work, take it apart into pieces, recreate it, study the rules of its construction. Now create new work using the same pieces and rules.

Graphic Design Rules by various authors

Mix typefaces to create typographic texture

One reason to mix typefaces in the same design is because it creates typographic texture. Look for typefaces that come from the same period in history. Look for two typefaces that are designed to suit the roles they need to play in your design. Look for similar proportions in two typefaces, such as character height or width. Look for smaller visual details that typefaces share in the letterforms.

Don’t mix typefaces for hierarchy

If you want to add an extra text style to create visual hierarchy, change the size, or colour, or weight, or case style. Don’t change the typeface. This doesn’t apply to the standard case of having one typeface for body and one for headings.

Don’t use more than one serif typeface

It can be very difficult to tell two serif typefaces apart. Best not to mix them together.

Possibly increase serif or italic text size

If you’ve got sans-serif text in the same line as serif text, or are mixing in italic text with non-italic text, check to see whether the two styles look the same size. You might need to increase the serif or italic text size slightly to optically match them with the sans-serif or non-italic text.

Line-height can depend on x-height

Typefaces with a taller x-height might need more line height added to keep them easy to read.

Echo design elements

Every visual element (a colour, a typeface, etc.) you use in a project should be echoed elsewhere in the project. If you have a red circle in the design there should be another red element somewhere else so that the red doesn’t feel like an alien.

Don’t surround white space in the middle of a design

White space should gather at the edges of a design, not in the middle. This means you should avoid situations where some white space is surrounded on all sides by elements.

Use a hangline for columns of text at different lengths

If you have four columns of text and they're all different lengths, the best approach is to hang them all from the same horizontal line, called a hangline. In other words, align the tops of the columns rather than the centres.

Try to vary the sizes of elements

If every element in a design appears to be a similar size, it makes them appear to all exist on the same plane. You can make a design more dynamic if you vary the size so that some elements are in the foreground, and some are in the background.

Don’t place analogous colours next to each other

If colours appear next to each other on the colour wheel, don’t place them next to each other in a design. They’re not distinct enough from each other, and will blend together.

Don’t use trendy colours if a design needs to last

Some colour combinations are popular now, but will probably not be in a year or more. If you want your design to stand the test of time, don’t use these trendy colour schemes.

There is no such thing as a bad colour combination

Bad colour combinations are timid colour combinations. As long as you’re confident, you can make any colour combination work. Make it big, make it bold.

Think of the idea before the visual

If you start to work on the visuals first, your creative energy is focused on the details like typefaces and colours. It’s better to focus on the idea first, make sure it’s right, and let that good idea inform the visuals. Good visuals that support a bad idea is bad design.

Happy is Up—Sad is Down by Various authors

Heavy: More, difficult, important, sad, expensive, debts, guilty, responsible

Light: Less, easy, unimportant, happy, cheap, innocent, irresponsible

Up: More, good, happy, healthy, social status, moral

Down: Less, bad, sad, sick, having no say, immoral

Near: Similar, familiar, considered, concrete, good

Far: Different, unfamiliar, not considered, abstract, bad

Rough: Exciting, unpleasant, impolite, dangerous

Smooth: Boring, pleasant, polite, safe

Big: More, good, important, powerful

Small: Less, bad, unimportant, powerless

Warm: Active, happy, friendly

Cold: Inactive, sad, unfriendly

Soft: Pleasant, flexible, uncertain

Hard: Unpleasant, strict, certain

Bright: Happy, knowing, the sacred, good

Dark: Sad, unknowing, the profane, evil

Strong: More, competent, confident

Weak: Less, incompetent, unconfident

Left: Bad, social-democratic

Right: Good, conservative


101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick

  1. The white space that results from placing elements should be considered as carefully as the elements themselves.
  2. Design to accommodate a specific experience. Envision actual situations or experiences, and design to accommodate and enhance them.
  3. A bad designer addresses the functional problem. A good designer is also concerned with meaning.
  4. Good design is not merely visually interesting but is driven by underlying “themes”. Thoughtless design with decoration applied to “dress it up” is not good design.
  5. The more specific a theme is, the greater its appeal is likely to be. It will help others identify with it in their own way.
  6. Opportunities for multiple design justifications can be found in almost every element. The more justifications you can find or create for any element, the better.
  7. Start with the most general elements of the design and work gradually towards the more specific aspects of it.
  8. A designer must know enough about other disciplines to negotiate and synthesise competing demands while honouring the needs of the stakeholders.
  9. Engaging with your work both subjectively and objectively are crucial to good design.
  10. When designing any individual element, always consider how its design can express and reinforce the theme.
  11. A good designer understands that as the project changes, the theme might be challenged. They can create a new theme that incorporates all that they now know about the project.
  12. Use rough drawings for rough ideas and detailed drawings for detailed ideas. Rough drawing encourages broad thinking.
  13. Just because an interesting idea occurs to you doesn’t mean it belongs in what you’re designing. Subject every idea to careful, critical consideration.
  14. The most important and difficult skill for a designer to develop is to be attached to the process and not the product. That means, among other things, exploring the problem thoroughly, not being attached to specific solutions, and being able to let go of your work if necessary.
  15. Improved design process, not a perfectly realised product, is the most valuable thing you gain from one project and take with you to the next.
  16. The most effective, most creative problem solvers engage in continual internal dialogue of testing, stretching, criticising, and redirecting their thought processes.
  17. Richer experiences are often found in elements that are discreetly selected and framed. Work to carefully shape, size, and place elements such that they are specific to the experiences they address.
  18. Colour and depth tend to convey emotions better than flatness.
  19. Any aesthetic quality is usually enhanced by the presence of a counterpoint.
  20. A static or symmetrical design appears to be at rest and suggests power, firmness, conviction, certainty, authority, and permanence.
  21. A dynamic or asymmetrical design encourages the eye to explore and suggests activity, excitement, fun, movement, flow, aggression, and conflict.
  22. To create a dynamic, balanced design, make a strong initial design decision that is dynamic and unbalanced. Then follow it with a secondary dynamic move that counterpoints the first move.
  23. Cool colours tend to recede from the viewer, while warm colours advance.
  24. Don’t use a dozen separate design elements when the combination of three design elements could accomplish as much.
  25. If you can’t explain your ideas to your grandmother in terms that she understands, you don’t know your subject well enough.
  26. Beauty is due more to harmonious relationships among the elements of a composition than to the elements themselves.
  27. Asymmetrical balance is more difficult and is considered by many to demonstrate a capacity for higher-order thinking.
  28. Shapes have inherent dynamic qualities that influence our perception and experience.
  29. An effective oral presentation of a project begins with the general and proceeds towards the specific.
  30. Less is more.
  31. No design system is or should be perfect. Exceptions to the rule are often more interesting than the rules themselves.
  32. Being genuinely creative means you don’t know where you are going. Shepherd the process rather than try to directly control it.
  33. True style does not come from a conscious effort to create a particular look. It results out of a holistic process, perhaps accidentally.
  34. All design endeavours express the zeitgeist, or the spirit of the age.
  35. Forget about what you want the design to be. Instead ask “What does the design want to be?”
  36. Limitations encourage creativity.
  37. A design problem is not something to be overcome, but an opportunity to be embraced.
  38. When a design problem is so overwhelming as to be nearly paralysing, don’t wait for clarity to arrive before you start to design. Designing is not simply a way of depicting a solution, but is itself a way to learn about the problem.
  39. When you come up with a concept or idea, give it a name. The act of naming something helps you to explain to yourself what you have created.

101 Things I Learned in Product Design School by Sung Jang and Martin Thaler

  1. Active doing helps us figure out what to think about. Otherwise, we think only about the things we already know.
  2. Originality begins with developing basic competencies. Copying good work will build your awareness. Mastering skills will eventually unleash creativity because you can focus on ideas rather than execution.
  3. A radical product usually calls for more time, financial investment, and testing than people want. Incrementally improved products are more comfortable, and easier to integrate into customer’s lives.
  4. Animals react with fear when they come across a new stimulus. A novel product may be disliked for this reason. Raymond Loewy says that products should follow the MAYA principle: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.
  5. It’s less scary to come up with design ideas on a small scale than on a large scale.
  6. Front-load the design process: spend more time than you think necessary on fuzzy, conceptual explorations and daydreaming.
  7. There are many factors to which a product and its features must answer, not just function. The more factors a design decision responds to, the better.
  8. Additive forms appear to have been made by assembling, attaching, agglomerating, or intersecting parts. They tend to have a mechanical aesthetic. Subtractive forms by removing material. They tend to look highly unified. Morphed forms by applying force to a starting form. They often look organic.
  9. Objects are almost always considered beautiful across cultures. But two different cultures can produce two very different objects. These differences come from the display of other factors: power, prestige, historical references, etc.
  10. Both a Casio and a Patek Philippe watch tell the time, but there’s a big cost difference. Almost all of the value of the Patek is in it’s use as a sign of prestige.
  11. Question tradition, but don’t dismiss it outright. A stemmed wine glass may not be practical, but it has other qualities that make it superior to a stemless glass.
  12. Elegance is aesthetic efficiency. Minimal, but with sophistication and complexity. Extravagance shows an accumulation of features, embellishments, and details. Both are valid, but hard: failed extravagance gives cluttered garishness. Failed elegance appears simplistic and dull.
  13. Cleverness is unexpected efficiency: it solves a core functional problem while adding at least one more element of functional value. Gimmickry adds little or nothing of additional value. Gimmickry asks to be noticed. Cleverness does not ask, but is noticed anyway.
  14. People tend to perceive material thickness as an indicator of product quality. An increase in thickness increases strength, stiffness, reduces twisting, housing squeaks, etc.
  15. Details are the concept: they’re an opportunity to manifest the design intent.
  16. Details are easier to see in lighter colours. This makes darker colours more suitable if you want a silhouette effect.
  17. White is practical (pure, clean). Black is sophisticated (obscured surface details lend an air of mystery). Metal is professional.
  18. A painted surface on a product suggests that the material was hidden for a reason. It suggests cheapness, low quality.
  19. A perfect fit isn’t necessarily good ergonomics. There is only one way to engage it, so any variations in use aren’t possible.
  20. Software users may be annoyed by bugs and shortcomings, but they will work around them until an update is released. They’ll expect new features with the update, which will bring new bugs. And so on. A software company has little incentive to work out every problem.
  21. People may be smitten the first few times they use a product. Design it to encourage that attention with “wow” moments. But also design it to suit them later on, when they’re used to the product, e.g. with customisability.
  22. Low fidelity artefacts encourage others to engage in feedback because they feel they can influence the direction of the project.
  23. Detail, exactitude, and craft should represent the confidence the design deserves, and no more. Don’t spend time on them if you’re not confident in the solution yet.
  24. Name work-in-progress concepts to express their sensibilities, create an emotional connection, and keep track of it. Be overly emotive or exaggerated.
  25. The aware designer understands that conceptual or narrative simplicity rarely means literal simplicity.
  26. One clear idea—a design element, quality, shape, function, form, material, colour, or feature—should triumph over all others and embody a product’s core narrative.
  27. If you’re slow or stuck, you probably haven’t asked enough questions about the need for the product. Looking inside yourself for answers is fine, but you only expand what’s inside by looking outside.
  28. There should never be a big reveal in a design process. Keep everyone informed along the way.

The Interior Design Handbook by Frida Ramstedt