Looking to the past of graphic design to understand today

21 SEP 2016 0

When designing for the web, it's easy to get caught up in the latest trends. The market moves so fast, with different fads falling in and out of style, new tools that make whatever you were working with a year ago feel obsolete and clumsy, and industry-wide revolutions that happen on a weekly basis that just keeping up seems like a job in itself. There is a tendency to believe that you always have to be on the Next Big Thing as soon as it's out or risk being left behind.

But, maybe not. Maybe we should call "time out” every now and then for a chance to reflect. To study up on the classic elements of design instead of always chasing that next revolution.

Portland area graphics designer Aarron Draplin certainly thinks so. A key element of his success has been an ongoing appreciation and love for the past of graphics design; the little logos, simple typefaces, and bold colours that used to be common place before Photoshop and Illustrator made it so easy to layer 30 complex elements together and slap them on a T-shirt. He's developed a recognizable style by taking those classic design ques and just enough of a modern flare to make them feel fresh and vital for the 21st century. 

Obviously, web design involves more than just graphics, but only a lunatic would ignore the important role strong visual design plays in a good site. So what lessons can we take away from the logo designs of the 1960's, or the packaging materials or the 1940's?

Clarity is what's important

When you look at classic logos, you see how many of them are designed around clear, simple images. Bold images that look great, but are also simple enough to doodle on a napkin. Things that can look great emblazoned on a billboard 50 feet wide, or stitched into the tongue of a running shoe. 

Look at something like the classic CBC branding, or the Adidas trefoil. These a logos that are instantly recognizable and still hold up decades after they were introduced. They're also logos that involve a couple of simple shapes that you could probably sketch from memory. 

This is a meeting of form and function. It combines the advantages of being easily recognizable while also maintaining flexibility no matter the form factor. From a web design perspective, it's important to remember that while there are all kinds of cool features and tricks one can add on a webpage, there is value in keeping things simple and clean. Not only is it easier for users to browse, it also allows for greater 1:1 compatibility between home and mobile experiences.  

A little can go a long way 

Another thing that jumps out about classic graphic design, whether your looking at logos or signage, those old designers made a little go a long way. They might have only had one or two colours to work with, but they were still able to make striking, lasting images with them. A little creative muscle can make even a simple design pop.

There is a tendency to always think that more is better. That if you have the option to add something you should add it. There is a place for intricate design and hyper-detail, I'm not going to say that every site should be designed with just three colours and one font. But, there is also a case to be made for keeping things simple, for knowing when to stop adding and tweaking and let something stand for itself. The skill is to know when which approach is best.

Lots of info, real fast

I love looking at old signs. Sign painting is almost a lost art in today's age of digital design, but there was a real craft to it. One of the things that blows me away about classic signs is just how much info they could cram into one shingle without being overwhelming or disorienting. How sign painters were able to isolate the most important elements of what they wanted to convey and express them concisely and clearly. 

We should think exactly the same way when designing a home page or a header. What is the most important info for the visitor to know? What did they likely come to the website to find out? That info, or the path to find that info, should be clear as day on the page. We should look for ways to pack that info down to the smallest possible package and relate it to the user as easily as possible. 

Web design is it's own unique craft, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from looking at what's come before. Keeping the fundamentals in mind helps when sorting between what is truly effective design, and what's just today's latest fad. 

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