Made to Be Broken: How Breaking the Rules of Design Can Help You Become More Creative
Following the rules is something we are all familiar with. Whether it’s driving with a seatbelt or following certain codes when remodeling your home, rules are put in place to establish a standard to ensure one thing: safety.
The same can be said about design. There are, without a doubt, certain rules put in place to ensure a standard of good design, or a design that is “safe.” Such rules include staying away from too many different types of fonts in a single piece and avoiding low-contrast color schemes.
Most people seem to confuse what is standard or “safe” with what is correct, which is the main problem with design. You don’t know correct until you see it. Correct is a solution to the problem; it doesn’t really matter how you get there. Think of professional design as the ultimate “end justifies means” business. This is the reason why following rules and standards all the time can hinder you. Having design standards sets you up to become part of the crowd, which is exactly what you’re trying to avoid as a designer. Standards can also lead to a “designing for the masses” approach that can really cripple creativity. While it’s true that you want to communicate as clearly as possible, as creative professionals we should look at who the audience is and appeal to them, not to the population as a whole. Always go with a quality over quantity approach.
Becoming a rule breaker can be tricky because you have to have the mindset at the start of a design. You should start every project with the objective to break a rule, and then you can see if the rules have any benefit. If they don’t, you have an opportunity to do think through the project in a different way. The project can dictate the rules, but the rules shouldn’t dictate the project.
The following are five reasons, along with examples, on why you should break the rules to make yourself a better designer.
1. Become a Trendsetter
Trends are usually set by doing one thing: breaking the rules. Trends tend to follow someone who addressed a problem in a different way than the expected. A great example of this is single page web design. After constantly hearing “keep all the important stuff above the fold,” single page scrolling sites became a great way to keep a whole website on a single page and keep it beautiful.
2. Solve a Problem
One thing about design is that problems are always present. You are always constrained by things such as cost or accessibility. Rather than accepting and working around these issues, see if you can’t solve them. A great example of this is responsive design. Instead of accepting the standard 960 width, which was not satisfactory across all platforms, someone came up with a way to address the problem of cross-device viewing.
Example: Responsive Web Design (A must-read for web designers)
3. Entertain Yourself
As a self-taught designer, there is probably more enjoyment in design for me than most, but trust me when I say there is entertainment value in breaking design standards. Whenever you feel like you’re stuck on a concept or design becomes boring to you, it’s a good time to try something crazy and see if it doesn’t have positive results. Whenever I’m stuck, I try asking things like, what would this site look like if it was retro? Then I start designing it that way. This could lead me to a color, typeface or even layout that works well and goes against what I would normally do. Because design is based so much on perspective, trying different things can inject life into an otherwise lackluster project. Just remember that if you’re not thrilled about a design, chances are others won’t be either.
Example: Zen Garden
4. Build a Better Mousetrap
Standards are there to help others with ideas that have already been done, so when you or someone else does push the envelope and come up with something unique and different, work towards streamlining and perfecting it. Just because you break the rules doesn’t mean you have to be sloppy about it. Hone the new idea and make it as effective and easy-to-use as possible for yourself and others.
Example: 1140 CSS Grid
5. Diversify Your Work and Yourself
This is an idea that is usually always in the back of designers’ minds, but it is worth mentioning. Using too many standards can make your portfolio (and by proxy, you) dull. Always look at unique ideas first while using a standard design as a backup. Always be sure to challenge yourself and keep variety in mind to keep both yourself and the project ahead of the curve and standing out from the crowd.
Currently working as an interactive art director for MediaCross in St. Louis, Missouri, James Fruth has been in the advertising industry ever since graduating with a Communications degree from Southern Illinois University (Edwardsville) in 2006. Although he began as a print designer, he soon dedicated himself to designing for the web. A self-described “Frankenstein’s Monster” of creative, Fruth has experience in everything from development and action scripting to creating storyboards, designing logos and creating mobile websites.