CRAP Design

The Non-Designer's Design BookCRAP: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity. An unfortunate acronym from the four basic principles of graphic design first expounded in Robin Williams’ delightful little book, The Non-Designer’s Design Book. It’s now in its fourth edition, adding 24 pages since the last edition, almost 50 since the 2nd and more than 100 since the first).

Of all my books on graphic design, this has been my favourite for several years, ever since I bought the first edition in the late 1990s. It condenses so much information, so many ideas, so many nuances into clear, understandable principles.

Plus, it’s well-illustrated, with many visual examples of good and bad design.

Every chapter and many sections offer some quiz, test, or challenge for readers to work on. None of which are terribly difficult and some of which are subjective, so there’s no right or wrong answer. But it’s a good exercise because sometimes the answers reveal things we missed in our initial exploration.

Since Williams came up with the CRAP list, it has been expanded and enhanced by others online. The principles have been included in courses, infographics and videos, too. They apply not only to printed publications, but digital ones as well, as this site shows.  You can find many more online, and I recommend you do so. But go back to the original to see how and where it started.

Other principles are often expounded on by subsequent authors: whitespace, balance, flow, scale, focal point, hierarchy, unity, movement, variety, emphasis, gradation, proportion and grouping for example – but you can tackle these once you’re understood the essence of CRAP.

I can recommend this book to everyone who does any sort of design, from PowerPoint slides to rack cards to brochures and even town newsletters. If you aren’t a graphic designer – and I am not – then it will give you the basics to help understand what design is all about. If you are, it’s a good reminder of the core principles. describes these four, related concepts – and the relationship is important – in part as:

Contrast: Contrast refers to any difference of size, shape, or color used to distinguish text (or other elements, though here we’re focusing on text) from other pieces of text.

Repetition: Repetition…of your design elements is not only good but necessary. Once you’ve decided on a size and typeface for second-level headers, for instance, all second-level headers should look the same.

Alignment: Alignment is crucial not just to the cohesive appearance of your document but to the creation of contrast for elements… Unaligned text floats mysteriously, forcing the reader to figure out its relation to the rest of the document. Centered text is particularly bad (and is a novice’s favorite design trick).

Proximity: Pieces of information that are meant to complement each other should be near each other… Your reader shouldn’t have to seek out the next logical piece of information…

The book is not all about CRAP, either. Williams has a section on designing with colour (17 pages) and a larger one on typography (67 pages). Both are, of course, essential to design, but somewhat more difficult to put into a basic guide. Still, she does a good job of explaining these topics in digestible portions that novices can appreciate.

Colour has always been fascinating to me: how it affects us, how it changes meaning and response to content, how it sets moods and emotions. Just look at this colour wheel from Adobe. It allows users to explore the colour wheel in many ways, some complex, others subtle. I’ve spent time playing with it just for the sheer joy of creating and altering colour schemes in ways I could not otherwise visualize without this tool.

Type is, however, somewhat more complicated and one I love to read about. I have yet to find a tool that provides similar visual reference as there are for colour. There are many good sites that explain typography verbally, like this one based on the bestseller, Designing With Type. And this one: Typography in Ten Minutes, which offers five basic rules (and a more comprehensive summary of key rules on another page). Many offer examples to show elements like type contrast and harmony.

And the above don’t even cover a key component to design: the actual writing. Without good writing, without proper grammar and spelling, well-crafted headlines and good body copy, design – no matter how good – only masks the mess of a publication temporarily.

Oddly, writers and designers are often not the same person; as if there were some brain hemisphere difference that makes it difficult to be a good writer and designer simultaneously. Perhaps, however, it’s more a matter of training and practice. People practice one art more than the others, thus bifurcating from the rest.

Somewhere in there is the need to learn and use your tools – the layout, graphic, and writing software – effectively. Programs are tools, and like any tool you can use them elegantly or coarsely. Are they chainsaws or scalpels in your hands? Williams doesn’t address tools, but others do.

You can tell a lot about a person by what’s on their bookshelves. A person’s personality shines through in the titles and topics of the books in their private library. In a professional environment, like a business or municipal office, you can tell a lot about the dedication and professionalism of the people by the books on/above their desk.

After my last post on the town’s abysmal ‘newsletter’ disaster, I started pulling out my books on design and style to re-read the basics. I’ve always believed good editors and writers in the media read Strunk and White every year to remind themselves of the basics, and have the latest editions of the top style guides (eg. CP Stylebook, 17th edn) and recent (and reputable)  dictionaries on their desk so they can refer to them easily. These are tools the pros use.

I think good designers should have The Non-Designer’s Design Book on their desks, as well. It is one of those few titles I recommend anyone involved in communications, design and presentations read yearly. I have a few others to recommend, particularly on type, but in another post.

Suffice to say, you cannot learn all you need to learn about design, layout, type, and writing simply from a few rules in a book, or a few website shortcuts. It’s a long learning process and takes practice, dedication and talent. But regardless of your level of expertise, you really, really need to read what the pros say; what the other experts recommend. It is arrogant to think you can figure out what to do without their help.

Creative work is not a solitaire activity: it is done in the milieu of the millions of other designers and artists and musicians who both came before you and are creating now.

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