The secret to good design; it's CRAP


Looking at the four laws of design inspired by The Non-designers Design Book by Robin Williams

Over the years I've met and worked with a huge variety of creatives and designers. When working with creative teams one thing I always teach them is the four laws of design. Wether you are an experienced designer or new to the industry, looking at your design process through these laws is an incredibly useful tool for figuring out why that design you're working on just "doesn't look quite right".

The secret to this is literally CRAP. C.R.A.P. That's Contrast, Repetition, Alignment and Proximity. Even now I run through these rules while looking through my designs to self-check my work. It has also been hugely useful to me in my role as a creative director, allowing me to quickly assess work from others and provide clear and easy to follow feedback rather than the typical response all industry creatives hate hearing from their CD or AD "It just doesn't look right".

It usually makes more sense to run through the process backwards (so, PARC) but CRAP is a much more fun acronym to remember and always makes teaching it to creative teams much more humorous.


Proximity looks at the positions of elements within a design. It is widely known that humans read and view content top to bottom and left to right in most western countries. When looking at the proximity we first look at placement of elements; are the elements likely to be viewed in the right order? This is known as design hierarchy. We all remember the barrage of memes online when AMCs Walking Dead hit us with this design no-no:

Don't Dead, Open Inside?! What does....? oh, ohhhhhhhhhh got it!

After the design heirachy we look at the white space each element is given. Are the elements allowed to "breathe"? Is each element given equal spacing? White space allows the viewers eyes to process each element of the work and creates clarity in work which has a lot of information or elements to serve up.


Ok, now we know where all the elements should go, we have to make sure they have a visual relationship with the other elements on the page. This is normally refereed to as the "flow" of a piece. Elements that are part of the same purpose or message should be connected through alignment. I've lost count of the times I've frustratingly begged a creative to "use your guides!!".

This is particularly important if you are designing something for web, trust me, your web designer will thank you if you double check your alignment and guides before sending them a file. If you don't do this, just be aware, that sixth can of energy drink on their desk and stressed look in their eyes is probably because of you.


Repetition looks at consistency in a design. Are you sticking to the brand guidelines? Do all your headings have the same font? Is that red the same as the red you used there? seems like an obvious one but you'd be surprised. I have worked with brands on a global scale that can't maintain the same brand colours or assets across collateral because no one has bothered to check. Think about all the elements in your design. If you have started creating elements with rounded corners then keep the theme going. If you have chosen a line-art style icon on a presentation, don't swap it out for a full-colour illustrative icon on the next slide. Pick a style and follow through.


Ok, you got all that? understand it all? Great, now forget it. Contrast looks at breaking the rules to create a focus on a particular element of your design. This could be placing your call to action in a contrasting colour, breaking the alignment rule on a pop-out quote or doing something crazy to draw the eye to something. My only rule has always been, don't attempt this until you can do the other three rules perfectly. Remember, design without purpose and structure is just art. Remember the role you are hired to play.

The 3 second rule

The final check I always teach people is the "3 second glance". On average, a person will only look at a piece of content for up to 3 seconds, in that 3 second window they will have decided the purpose of the work, it's message and wether they are interested. This is all the time you have to either convey your message or entice them to investigate the work further. This is particularly important if you design is for the purposes of marketing.

Look away from your work, clear you mind, glance at it for 3 seconds and look away. Now, recite everything you can remember and what you think the piece is about based on this. Is your work getting the right message across in time? How much could you process from the design? Where did your eyes get drawn to?

Everyone has their own process for assessing work created by themselves or others but these rules have helped me across the board regardless of my role within a project or the medium I am working in. I hope that it may help some of you with your design work. Many of the processes above are adapted from the book The Non-Designers Design Book by Robin Williams. One of the first books I read when beginning my career, if you wish to read it yourself it can be  downloaded for free here


I am an award-winning creative director and innovation consultant from England. I work with various creative agencies, brands and art organisations to develop and deliver break-through creative and innovation concepts.

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