The Fundamentals of Design

So I see you sitting there, in front of your computer, smoke coming from your ears, trying to decipher the jigsaw that is that presentation, word document – heck – even that email. “However, will I make my *insert thing here* look totally professional and simultaneously fly?” Well, let me impart some knowledge.

So within this article, I will with much effort on my side, and minimal on yours, help you out with a simple set of rules that will make anything look both visually appealing and professional. I’ll cover visual hierarchy, typographic layout, spacing, colour, and unity.

Visual Hierarchy

Based in Gestalt psychological theory , this theory suggests that the human brain has an innate tendency to arrange elements. The arrangement of elements or content on a page/screen in such a way that it reveals an order of importance. Simply put, the hierarchy of information ensures that the viewer’s eye has an initial focus on the points of importance in order of importance. For example:

To ensure this functions within your document, clearly define your hierarchy before you get started. A simple structure to follow will be this:

  1. Heading
  2. Subheading
  3. Body Copy
  4. Quotes / Points of interest
  5. Sub Copy


Typographic Layout

Following the principle of Visual Hierarchy, there are a few simple rules when it comes to the copy you put into your document


  • Basic Grammar
    • Don’t use ampersands in your body copy
    • Don’t have Double Spaces
  • Don’t let words hyphenate
  • Don’t use Display Fonts as body copy

  • Don’t have ‘Widows’ or ‘Orphans’
    • A widow is a term for a line of text that belongs to a paragraph and has moved over to the next column.
    • An orphan is similar, but a single word on its own on a line, poor little thing

  • Don’t use too many effects, keep it simple
  • Be considerate of your line length, not too short, and not too long, the ideal is approximately six words per line



Often referred to as White Space, although the actual space is not necessarily white. This is the selective use of the viewed area (for example the presentation slide) that allows for ‘breathing room’ within the design, letting your eyes rest between elements of importance. It relieves visual tension and gives clarity



How do you space everything out? Here are some steps:

  1. Make everything smaller
  2. Don’t fill up every space with content
  3. At the end, ask yourself, “Is this part necessary?” if not, remove it.

A reminder that white space is not EMPTY space, it has its own very important function in visually understanding the content.



Colour and the mood of the design are directly linked, and using these properly will ensure that the content flows and looks unified. This is more tricky if you have a set colour palette you have to stick to (I’m looking at you business people with your assigned Corporate Identity Guides, use those, they were painstakingly made and you can totally trust them. Most of the time.) There are many different ways to use colour combinations, from complimentary, split complimentary, and triad, to monochromatic, analogous and achromatic. But the basics to follow go like this:

  • Legibility and Readability
  • Avoid Colour Discord (like the plague)


Finally, we get to unity, arguably the most important design principle and possibly the hardest to convey. Unity is also based on Gestaltism, so to reiterate, this means that the viewer is actually looking for a connection between the elements, for some sort of organisation, for unison in the design. Unity creates an integrated image where all elements are working together to support the overall design. So our brains group things together to creates new parts. They are grouped by proximity, similarity, continuation and alignment. Unity is achieved when all the above principles are brought together.

So to follow these rules will automatically increase the efficacy of your work and presentations. Just follow them as best you can. You’re welcome.



Anika Vos is the Art Director at Fort.