Thursday, April 17, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 24, Elements: Format, The Forgotten Element

Download Episode 24

Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Today, we bring to a close our series on the formal elements of two dimensional design. Having surveyed line, shape, value, color, and texture, today we'll wrap up our discussion with some thoughts on format.

And what is format? To lay out a definition, Format refers to the shape and size and dimensions associated with our chosen medium. Specifically, that could be a business card or a book jacket or a label for a can of beans. All these are examples of formats, each with their own possibilities and challenges and constraints. And every one of these formats deserves thoughtful consideration before we set to work.

Unfortunately, however, Format is the forgotten element. Or if that's too dramatic a statement, we might at least agree that it's frequently the overlooked element. Like the phenomenon of something that's hidden in plain sight, format isn't always given the consideration it deserves.

This syndrome reminds me of one of those classic monster movie scenes where someone is being told where to look for the creature's footprint, but they just can't see it. "Where? Where is it?," they ask. And it's not until the camera pulls back, creating a wide reveal, that we, the audience, can see that they're actually standing in it. The footprint is enormous--the work of Godzilla or King Kong.

And this is why we overlook format. It's our context. And we tend to miss it or to take it for granted. And what we tend to do, is to default to the tired, conventional uses of certain formats, without giving it a whole lot of thought.

Robin Landa, in her book, Graphic Design Solutions, says it this way.

"Whether it is a page or a business card, whatever you start out with is the format. The format is a vital element in two dimensional design. Most beginning students take the format for granted, not realizing that it is an active element in design. If you think of an average page as two vertical lines and two horizontal lines joined at right angles, then the first line you draw on a page is actually the fifth line. Like that fifth line, all of the other formal elements are contained by, and interact with, the original shape of the format." (end of quotation).

So, Landa is emphasizing format as an active element that should be given as much strategic thought as we would give any other element.

There are some classic examples of how designers overlook format. Thinking of a business card only in horizontal terms, for example, as if it can't be turned vertically. Or assuming there's only one fold scheme possible for brochures, the tri-fold that everyone else uses. Even formats that offer tremendous flexibility go unexploited. The format of a book, its shape and size, its orientation and thickness, is determined by the choice of trim dimensions and paper, well within the power of a designer to influence. Now, I know there are other constraining factors, such as budget and trade standards that tend to tie our hands. But just as often, what holds us back is simply a failure of imagination. We tend to go with the flow, and we default to convention.

These examples are offered not as an attempt to turn this discussion into some kind of a call to novelty, but simply to provoke a little forethought. If we stop and ponder the possibilities of our format, we stand to improve all the decisions that will follow.

Finally, we should be aware of the function of our format. Where street signs and billboards are meant to be viewed from afar, magazines and brochures are viewed at close range. And then there's the nuance of how to optimize a format for its intended use. Should that cookbook we're supposed to design be perfect-bound? Or should we put it in a ring binder, so that it lays flat, and so the reader can remove or add pages? Or how about that web page, should we use a tabbed format for its navigation, or will some other metaphor better suit our audience. It should become obvious through these examples that choice of format has many practical implications. And that its the designer's job to aid the consumption of information by selecting the right format and using it in the right way.

The old design adage, "form follows function" attests to this. Let's first determine the function of what we're doing. If we can figure out the function, we can usually draw natural and obvious conclusions about the form, or format.

But that's it for today. If you'd like a transcript of today's discussion, be sure to visit the webpage at Music is by

Thanks again for listening. And I hope you'll join us next time.


Robin Landa, Graphic Design Solutions, 3rd Edit, Cengage, 2005

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