Book Review: The Non-Designer’s Design Book

publication date: Jul 5, 2018
author/source: Reviewed by Leigh Bowser

Good design ‒ in everything from grant proposals to gala invitations, business cards to bus shelter ads ‒ helps connect your audience with your cause. And while budgets, staff resources and project turnaround times shrink, the demand for good design is only increasing.

Maybe you squeeze your charity’s communications projects into the rest of your responsibilities and you simply want to add some zing to your donor reports. Maybe your organization hires professional designers and you need to be able to explain your design requirements clearly. Whatever your non-profit communications role is, knowing what makes good design good will make your job easier. That’s what makes The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams (no, not that Robin Williams) a useful resource for “visual novices.”

Williams opens her book with an anecdote from her childhood in northern California. After seeing a picture of a Joshua Tree, she declared that she had never seen such a weird-looking tree before. Then she was surprised to discover an abundance of Joshua Trees in her neighbourhood. Joshua Trees were all around her, yet she only saw them after they had been pointed out to her.

For Williams, design is the same as Joshua Trees. We are surrounded by it. In advertising, packaging, social media, direct mail, magazines, video – design is everywhere. Once you are aware of the underlying principles of design, you’ll be able to spot them in what you’re looking at and explain to others what you are seeing.

The book starts by outlining the four basic principles of design: contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity. Visual examples of each of these principles ‒ done badly, done better and done well ‒ train your eye so that you can appreciate how they influence a design’s effectiveness.

Then Williams moves on to an overview of colour theory. The colour wheel, with its complementary and contrasting colours, is covered along with guidelines for choosing a palette for your design projects. And if you have ever been perplexed by the difference between RGB and CMYK, you’ll find an explanation here.

The essentials of typography are dealt with too, from basic rules that will make desktop-produced documents look more professional (only one space between sentences please!) to a detailed exploration of how different typefaces work together.

With lots of colour illustrations, useful tips for common projects (such as newsletters, posters, stationery and brochures), and exercises where you can test your grasp of design principles, there is a lot of learning packed into this book.

“I do not pretend that you will automatically become a brilliant designer after you read this little book,” writes Williams. “But I do guarantee that you will never again look at a page the same way. I guarantee that if you follow these basic principles, your work will look more professional, organized, unified, and interesting.”

And who doesn’t want that?

Leigh Bowser is the communications & marketing specialist at Crescent School in Toronto. She has also worked and volunteered for non-profit organizations in the healthcare and arts sectors.

The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams

Fourth edition, 2015.

Peachpit Press:

Amazon link:

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