C.A.R.P. – My graphic design basics

Four simple techniques I employ for fantastic graphic design.
Graphic design isn’t easy. A year ago I wrote an article on the strategies I employ to simplify the design process. However, what I did not discuss were the design principles I personally follow. The guidelines for all the designs I compose are contrast, alignment, repetition, and proximity, C.A.R.P. It’s an acronym I was introduced to by my high school communications technology teacher, which actually functioned quite well because our school motto was carpe diem (although try telling a class of immature, sniggering fourteen-year-olds to not use the other spelling.) In my experience, anyone can be a graphic designer if they follow these four rules.


Contrast is about creating visual interest by pairing together elements with dissimilar properties. This includes colour, typefaces, shapes, size, texture, space, etc. Obvious examples include black and white, serif and sans serif fonts, and big and small type point sizes. Implementing contrast in design helps draw attention to important elements or create a hierarchy in the content, such as when one makes a heading’s typeface point size larger than a subheading’s. When one designs with contrast in mind, the piece becomes visually dynamic and a viewer’s eyes are immediately drawn to the important elements or messages because of the emphasis the contrasting differences create.


Whether it is the typesetting, shapes, or image placement, alignment plays a key role in how items appear relative to the page, column, table, cell, or tab. Right, left, or centred, how elements are aligned together helps organize and order the content, controlling how the eye flows from one component to the next. One of the most jarring issues to see is a graphic element that appears to be placed randomly on the page. For example, PowerPoint presentations can be downright distracting when bullet points from the same list are out of alignment.


Once the style is decided, setting the thematic tone and appearance of the design, repetition becomes paramount. Repetition is using the same or similar elements throughout the design, such as typefaces, colour palettes, motifs, etc. This is especially critical in document design where all the elements must work as part of a larger whole. It is through repetition that the order, structure, and logic of the document is created. Repetition establishes the similarity between parts, which helps simplify the design. Because the more alike items are, the more likely they are to form groups and create unity.
Repetition also encompasses consistency. In an age of omnichannel marketing, consistency is increasingly important, as campaigns across multiple media channels need to convey a cohesive design and consistent brand imaging. Repeating the same aesthetic can immediately generate brand recognition and identify a marketing campaign.


Proximity is the distribution of space between elements. Kerning, leading, margins, gutters, etc. all affect how items are placed in relation to each other in a design. Proximity serves two functions. First, proximity creates balance and white space in a design. Consistent spacing and margins reinforce alignment and retain the organization of the design. When the distribution of space between graphics is inconsistent, like alignment, it becomes obvious and distracting. Second, the nearness of elements to one another can correlate to their relationship with each other. Viewers naturally assume that items are grouped together based on their proximity to one another.


Regardless of skill level or program choice applying these four principles is guaranteed to improve any design project because it will be neater, organized, dynamic, and cohesive. The inverse is just as true. Following the rules and then deviating from them can create visual interest and dynamism in the piece making it more appealing to look at. My high school teacher probably did not realize the knowledge he was imparting to me at the time, but C.A.R.P. has been invaluable to me. From Grade 9 to the present, I still apply these rules to any composition I do – yes, even my PowerPoint presentations.

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