25 rules for good design


I’m always amused—and a bit disappointed—when someone tells me “I just love breaking the rules” of design.

More often than not, that person isn’t breaking any rules at all—because he/she doesn’t even know the rules. You can’t break the rules if you have no idea what the rules are.

What are the rules? How many rules are there? Well, I’m not sure of the answers, but I do know some rules—and I help my clients learn them and follow them.

Here are 25 rules of news design I teach. I’m sure there are more…but these are among those I consider more important.

  1. Choose typefaces for their legibility—especially text.
  2. Treat display typefaces with respect. Keep scaling and tracking to a controlled minimum.
  3. Avoid typefaces that are overused. Times and Helvetica are two such.
  4. Avoid typefaces that are over-designed. Papyrus and University Roman are two such.
  5. Create a baseline grid and align all text to it, including captions, bylines, credit lines and jump lines.
  6. Treat typography in lists differently from story text. Consider using sans serif type with a hanging indent.
  7. Avoid the gratuitous use of color.
  8. Avoid color screens over stories or around photos.
  9. Avoid magenta at all costs.
  10. Drop the use of boxes to frame packages.
  11. Use rules to separate packages.
  12. Do not clutter your nameplate with too much ancillary type and unnecessary verbiage.
  13. Learn to work in picas, rather than inches, when doing news design.
  14. Learn and use the basics of headline hierarchy.
  15. Strive for consistency in the look of key design elements, such as section flags, standing heads and column sigs.
  16. Allow three picas of space between packages on open pages (such as page 1, Opinion and an ad-free sports front).
  17. Allow two picas of space between packages on pages with ads.
  18. Create and use paragraph styles and character styles in your design software.
  19. Create and use object styles for those elements you use regularly, such as photo frames.
  20. Keep jumps to a minimum.
  21. Check and adjust justified type in a text wrap carefully if there’s excessive word spacing.
  22. Place page numbers to the outside corner of pages.
  23. Plan for and use visuals (photos, charts, maps) throughout all your designs. Readers will not swim through a sea of gray.
  24. Keep story length to no more than 12 to 15 inches. Reader survey after reader survey tells us readers will not finish a story that’s more than 12 to 15 inches. If a report must be longer, find ways to segment it.
  25. In everything you design, place the reader first. Not the writer. Not the editor. Not yourself. The reader.

So…25 rules, none of them difficult to follow. Now you know them. So now you can break them.

But you do so at your own risk.