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User Experience Fundamentals: 4 Key Elements of the UX Design Process

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Many people have heard the term “user experience” but not everyone knows what this means. User experience (UX) is rapidly growing and revolutionizing how people interact with the world around them. UX is why Google is so easy to use and how Facebook knows what article to suggest to you next. It’s why the internet evolved from Geocities homepages with blinking “Under Construction” signs to the sophisticated interfaces we use every day. User experience is practiced by UX designers — but also product managers, product designers, entrepreneurs, startups, and forward-thinking organizations.

But what does UX actually mean? Let’s break it down.

For starters, if you have ever purchased a product or benefitted from a service, you are a user. When you interact with a product, service, or company, you are having an experience. Ultimately, most companies want you to have a good experience using their product or services. In order to understand what makes an experience good, we need to define what that means from the perspective of the user.

What makes an experience “good” hinges on whether it was successful at solving a real problem or provided users with actual value. This is the core distinction between art and design: Whereas art can be aesthetically pleasing, good design must have utility. Beauty alone isn’t enough. Thus, a good user experience is one that enables the user to be effective.

For example, let’s say you wanted to find a restaurant for dinner with friends. You know that several people in the group are vegetarians, so you’d like to find a convenient location where everyone has options. In this situation, you might use a restaurant recommendation platform to narrow down options, identify some potential locations, and share them with friends. The conditions for success in this situation would be an app that enables you to do exactly that. Anything more is considered “delight” and anything less is problematic.

The Four Key Elements of the UX Process

User experience is often referred to as “the science behind design.” What is meant by “science” here is the rigorous methods that comprise the UX process and provide the human insights and hard data to support and validate design decisions.

It’s important to know that the UX process can be used as both a path (go from start to finish) or as a toolkit (select the tool you need), depending on the project goals and timeline. Regardless of how you apply the process, there are a few critical ingredients that create the foundation for a successful user experience. We’ll outline these UX fundamentals below, along with specific tools or methods that can be used.

1. Behavior

Let’s begin by stating the obvious: People are complex creatures. When designing for people, it’s important to understand how they think and what behaviors they’re engaging in to satisfy their current needs or solve their existing problem. Before there was Yelp to find restaurants, what did people do? They asked their friends for recommendations or used an online search engine (or something else entirely — let’s not forget that there was life before the internet).

UX designers work with people by learning about their habits and goals, identifying needs and constraints, and aligning with existing behaviors to create solutions that are easy to use (efficient) and solve a real problem (effective).

Some UX methods and tools used to learn about user behaviors:

  • User interviews are one of the most important ways that UX designers uncover information. User interviews are usually focused on the qualitative data, which is information that can’t be measured but that is rich in emotional detail.
  • customer journey map is a visual document that details a user’s interactions with a company or product and how they feel about each interaction. This map tells a story about user’s end-to-end experience and how successful it was from the user’s perspective.
  • task analysis is used to analyze how users perform tasks in order to achieve a goal. Through observation, designers learn about the user’s current process (and work-arounds if no solution exists). For instance, observing a user file their taxes using analog methods (paper, mail) can inform a designer how they might go about that same task online. This is a great way to learn about existing pain points that could be improved.
  • Designers are always documentinganalyzing, and communicating user insights and data with their team to keep everyone on the same page. Designers might document a user interview using a screen-sharing tool that captures how a user moves through a website to complete a task. Then, they might analyze that information by creating an affinity map with their team to identify common trends or patterns in the collected data. Finally, they might create a user persona to bring this user data to life and communicate findings with their team.

2. Strategy

User experience is a human-centered process, which means that designers don’t prioritize business goals over people. The best design solution should ultimately align both the business and customer goals to create an effective and usable solution to a real problem. Strategy in UX is also about understanding where an existing product or process can be improved and communicating this effectively to internal teams and external users through design. Fundamentally, UX is about design empathy, which means translating user needs into actionable solutions.

One of the first steps in UX is user research. In order to solve a problem, a designer first needs to observe and understand what’s happening from the user’s perspective. Asking questions is a great way to uncover a lot of information about user needs and frustrations. These user insights can then be translated into design solutions that solve the user’s problem efficiently and effectively.

Some great questions to ask when strategizing:

  • Who is our user?
  • What is the user’s motivation or goal?
  • How does this make them feel?
  • Is the process clear?
  • What do they expect when they click this?
  • Are you assuming something about users? How could you test this assumption?
  • Are you thinking of the user’s wants and needs, or your own?
  • What do we want users to do? How are we helping them do it?

Strategy is then translated into design through artifacts such as user flows (how a user moves through a system to achieve a goal), wireframes (schematics that show how a digital interface will look and function), and high-fidelity prototypes (a working model of a design) that can be tested with users.

3. Usability

Good design is ultimately determined by usability. If a design does not help the user solve a problem, or makes solving a problem extremely challenging, it is not a good design. If the user is confused or doesn’t know where to go, or you designed it for you? Also not a good design. Because design is about functionality, usability is more important than aesthetics. While designers talk a lot about designing for “delight,” the best designs are usable. Designers can add delight through sophisticated animations, friendly language, and unexpected surprises that anticipate users’ needs. However, if the design is not usable, all these delightful details don’t matter. This may seem like a simple practice in theory, but that’s not always the case.

Humans are complex, and usability is deeply connected with psychology and behavior. Digital design inherited a lot of its behaviors from things we used in our analog life, such as buttons and sliders. Thus, people come to expect things to behave a certain way, even if there aren’t the same physical or technical constraints.

Usability is about creating products that anyone can use, especially if they have a disability or impairment. Usability is also about accessibility, which means that physical constraints or disabilities don’t prohibit or impede someone’s use of a product or service. Good design is about helping humans.

How can you determine whether something’s usable and accessible? There are a ton of resources dedicated to creating accessible and inclusive designs from the ground up. Some of the best include:

  • Nielsen Norman Group’s 10 Usability Heuristics
  • W3C Web Accessibility Guidelines
  • Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Toolkit
  • Uxdesign.cc’s Diversity and Design Series
  • Airbnb’s Another Lens Research Tool

4. Validation

Finally, validation is a critical piece of the UX process. Ideally products need to be tested with users before they are deployed to the public. Unfortunately, this is not always the case with companies that are eager to launch their products out into the world. The UX process emphasizes testing with real users early and often in order to ensure that the design solves the right problem.

Solving the right problem is the most important task that UX designers face. However, testing often throughout the process also means that you’ll catch mistakes sooner and be able to adjust without losing users. When things don’t work or are difficult to use, most people give up.

Investing in UX design is one way companies can stay competitive in the market while making the most of their time and resources. Validation is proof that you have successfully solved a problem for your user. Another way to think about testing is as an experiment. When making decisions, it’s important to ask: What are my assumptions about the user? About this solution? How might we test these assumptions?

There are many ways to validate an idea or assumption, depending on the amount of time and money you can invest in the project. The important thing to remember with validation is that it removes the guesswork from the design process. Here are some of the most common strategies used to validate ideas:

  • Ideas can be tested very early in the process by putting out a smokescreen test. A smokescreen could be a landing page with a call to action (e.g., Sign up for my newsletter!) to test whether users want your product.
  • If you’re already in the design stage, you can validate your design by A/B testing two versions of the same page. This would allow you to see if one way of solving a problem is more successful than another.
  • Finally, you might want to create a clickable or coded prototype to see how users would navigate the system as you get closer to launch.

What happens once a product goes live? UX designers are constantly iterating, which is the process of continuously testing throughout a product’s life cycle. In fact, the UX process of learning about user behavior through research, translating insights into actionable strategies, and testing new products and features is designed to be repeated as often as needed. Building accessible, usable, and beautiful products is an ongoing evolution.

UX Fundamentals at General Assembly

There are many ways to learn UX fundamentals at General Assembly. For the most in-depth experience, our User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI) introduces students to every step of the process while providing opportunities to apply skills directly through project-based learning with real clients. The 10-week-long Immersive is best for career-changers who want to transform their professional life. Our part-time User Experience Design (UXD) program, available on campus or online, is a great way to gain exposure to UX tools, techniques, and industry trends, and the eight-week Visual Design course covers a high-level overview of the practice and how it relates to visual design. You’ll also learn how UX impacts the product life cycle in the part-time Product Management course. If you’re just looking to learn more about UX and opportunities in the field, there are many workshops and events (such as the UX 101 Bootcamp) that can introduce you to the core concepts and best practices.

Ask a Question About Our Design Programs

Meet Our Expert

Katharine Hargreaves is a UX strategist, educator, and facilitator working at the intersection of social impact design and education. She teaches the User Experience Design Immersive at GA’s Los Angeles campus. Katharine believes that human-centered design heals the world, and she’s dedicated to building tools and systems that empower people everywhere to be problem-solvers.

Katharine Hargreaves, User Experience Design Immersive Instructor, GA Los Angeles

User Interface 101: How To Make Intuitive Designs That Users Love

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An interface is a means by which a user interacts with a computer, service, or product. It’s a way of simplifying a complex system so that it’s easy to use. In this day and age of modern digital services and businesses, interfaces are omnipresent. Every day, we interact with websites, apps, and even voice assistants that all require some sort of interface for us to use.

For a business, having a well-designed interface for your app, website, or even your internal dashboards or CMS means easier actions and easier ways for users to find information. This ultimately ensures that your users take advantage of your product in a seamless way. A good user interface is one that’s largely unnoticeable. When a user starts noticing clashing colors, misplaced buttons, or unreadable text, they may feel frustrated and leave, never to return.

The practice of designing interfaces can take years to master and teams of people to execute. An interface is the result of the collective thinking of user experience (UX) designers, visual designersdevelopers, and other business stakeholders, whose different perspectives ensure that each user’s experience is simple and clear. UX designers plan and structure the interface, assuring that has been tested with users, works properly, and meets their needs. They then work with visual designers to craft the interface’s appearance so that it’s easy to use and actions are simple and clear to understand. This is all done in close collaboration with web developers, who build the interface in code and bring it to life.

It might seem like a lot of work, but interface design fundamentally rests on a few simple guidelines and principles. If you ask these questions and follow these steps, you’ll have an interface that enables your users to easily take advantage of your what your business has to offer.

Who Are Interfaces Designed For?

Like with any product design, it’s important to set a clear direction and goal before you actually pick up any tools. A “user experience” or “understanding your users” phase helps you research the business goals of your product and the people for whom you’re designing it. Before you embark on any design for your product — especially one for its interface — try answering these questions:

  • What’s your product’s ultimate goal? What do you want users to do with your site or mobile app?
  • Who is going to use your product? What do they want or need?
  • What are the benchmarks for success? What interfaces work well and why? Which don’t work as well?
  • On what devices will your product be used? Where is it going to be used the most?

Having the answers to these questions informs every decision you make with regard your interface design and helps to avoid any confusion about what it needs to do.

Using Wireframes to Plan an Interface

Wireframes are the digital equivalent of a house’s blueprint. They provide a clear understanding of how an interface will function — the layout of the text, buttons, images, and more. Most importantly, creating a wireframe helps you establish hierarchy (the order in which you want your users to read information on your interface). Wireframes are meant to be quick and dirty, which helps you focus on your design’s logic rather than its looks.

picture

Wireframes are simple ways of demonstrating the layout of your interfaces and how they will work.

Wireframes should be low fidelity; i.e., you shouldn’t pay attention to how they look, but rather how they work. Use only three shades of gray, along with clean and simple fonts, symbols, and iconography. These elements only represent the structure of the interface, so there’s no need spend a lot of time crafting it. Think of it this way: If your interface doesn’t work when it’s low fidelity, then it’s probably too complicated.

While there are many approaches to creating wireframes, they all share a common goal: to plan what you need to design for your interface with a solid framework and demonstrate how it will function. As long as your wireframes achieve these goals, your method doesn’t matter!

How Visual Design Powers Usable Interfaces

The common misconception is that adding visual design to a product is only “making it look pretty.” While attention to visual elements does make a interface good-looking, it also makes it more usable, as colorstypography, and images can all provide clarity to a user when they’re using your product. When it comes to your interface’s visual design, consider the following techniques.

Grids

Grid guides give you a framework, making it easier to fit all of your interface’s elements together and maintain consistency within the structure of your site.

A grid is the first thing you should include when designing an interface, as it provides a rigid structure in which all your elements will sit. It is a set of lines that helps designers align elements and fit them together (like a giant puzzle). Grids guide a natural flow of information on interfaces and ease the strain on development. Here are some considerations to keep in mind when creating your grids:

  • Grids work best when their values are factors of 12, as this provides flexibility in your layout — i.e., a 12-column grid means you can have a three-, four-, or six-column layout.
  • Remember that the smaller the device, the smaller amount of usable space you have. Typically, for mobile devices, you want a three-column layout for main content and up to five columns for buttons.

Typography

Text not only helps your interface present information, it also adds depth to the overall look and feel of the design. As it is your design’s main carrier of information, a subtle, clean font is best. Choosing the right typography for your site can be difficult, so keep the following rules in mind to avoid getting caught up in the complexity of it.

Typography

Creating typography guidelines can help you control how your font looks and, more importantly, how readable it is.

  • Set up rules and guidelines for your typography (like the ones as above) as soon as possible to help control the number of fonts you use, enabling you to pair interesting fonts quickly.
  • Aim for 14pt as a minimum font size for mobile devices and 16pt as a minimum for desktop. Fonts that are too small end up being unreadable and therefore not functional.
  • Use sans-serif fonts to display simpler information (e.g., Terms and Conditions or other legal language), as they’re easier to read than serif fonts.
  • Stick to a maximum of three different fonts. Anything more makes your interface look cluttered and directionless.
  • Make sure your fonts are readable. Favor readability over style, as an interface needs to provide functionality more than it needs to be “artistic.”

Color

Color Wheel

Color wheels help you choose colors that work together because of their relationships.

In interface design, color adds visual cues and draws attention to key actions a user can take. Here are some general rules to follow.

  • Use a maximum of three colors: a primary, secondary, and tertiary. This helps you prioritize colors within a design and prevents too much variation. Your primary color should be your most prominent and reasonably bright color.
  • Consistency is key. Having all buttons be the same color helps the user easily find clickable links.
  • Use color perceptions to the best of your advantage. E.g., even though it’s not in your color palette, using red implies an alert or an error.
  • Some colors work better together than others. Using the color wheel will help you find the ones that work best with your selected color. For example, yellow works well with purple and blue because they are close to one another on the color wheel. This color relationship is called “split complementary.”
  • Always keep accessibility in mind. This ensures that as many users as possible can use your product. For example, white text on a yellow background is hard to read, especially for people with visual impairments. Use color-contrast checkers to ensure that your combinations pass the test.

Buttons and Interaction Elements

Buttons

Adding color to buttons helps draw attention to specific areas of an interface, making it easier to understand.

Buttons and interaction elements such as carousels and image galleries encourage users to explore your interface and complete an action. Keep the following rules in mind when deciding how to design these elements.

  • Make your buttons clear and distinct from the rest of your interface to help direct the user to complete an action. Use contrast with color, shapes, and typography to highlight important information and key buttons they may find useful.
  • Always experiment. A carousel might be good for your product promotion, but it may not always be the best solution. Your goal is display information in the best possible way, so play around with different elements to discover what’s most effective.

Experiment, Test, and Reiterate!

Remember that your interface is constantly growing; you’ll always be testing and iterating to improve it. If you’re getting feedback that some parts are difficult to use, then try different colors, interaction elements, buttons, etc. until you find the best ones for your users. There is no shame in getting it wrong and improving your design.

A simple, usable interface is no easy feat, but if you follow these guidelines and principles — and keep your users at top of mind — you’ll be able to design one that helps you and your business grow.

Interface Design at General Assembly

At General Assembly, students learn to apply interface design in a variety of disciplines. As aspiring professionals in our Web Development Immersive, taught on campus and remotely, they design and develop interfaces for websites and applications. Coding students also explore interface design in our part-time Front-End Web Development course, as well as our self-paced, online HTML, CSS, & Web Design program. Students take on interface design from a user experience perspective in our full- and part-time UX courses, while students in our part-time Visual Design course dive into interface-related typographycolor theory, and more.

Ask a Question About Our Design Programs

Meet Our Expert

Paolo Sta. Barbara is a multidisciplinary experience designer with a passion for innovative design thinking and problem-solving. With a background in animation and digital design, he focuses on designing experiences that are not only user-centric, but also crafted and memorable to use. After working with some of Australia’s top digital agencies, Paolo is now the lead experience designer for WiTH Collective (part of Isobar), working on a range of clients, including Qantas, Foxtel, and NRMA. He also teaches various visual design workshops and courses at General Assembly’s Sydney campus.

Paolo Sta. Barbara, Visual Design Instructor, General Assembly Sydney

Color Theory: The Emotional Impact of The Right Colors in Your Design

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“People decide whether or not they like a product in 90 seconds or less. 90% of that decision is based solely on color.” —  99designs, online graphic design marketplace

Color has a predictable and quantifiable physiological effect that influences our perception and behavior. It’s about emotions, and whether you realize it or not, the colors used in a design strongly affect the emotions of your users.

At the core of all product design is visual communication. What users do with a software application depends nearly entirely on what they see. The color of elements like buttons, toggles, input boxes, navigation, and the primary sections of the application can play a significant part in how users understand and interact with the software.

Color Theory

In our user experience (UX) and visual design classes at General Assembly, we spend a lot of time discussing how, when, and why to influence our users with everything from information architecture to user interface (UI) and interactions. To say the use of color is just one of those ways is to underestimate its power over everything from the user interface (UI), to graphics and transitions, to the subconscious message you’re sending to your users.

Color Is Subjective and Culturally Defined

It’s commonly believed among most designers that the color blue conveys a feeling of trust, calm, and masculinity; that yellow makes you think of creativity, summer, and positivity; and red is the color of passion.

Blue is often thought to be for boys, pink for girls, and white for purity.

But wait  —  be careful!

Not all colors mean the same thing in all contexts, or all cultures. Not only is color subjective — it is also contextual and culturally defined.

Color has a different meaning depending on how it’s used, and by whom. Red can be the color of love and valentines, or of serial killers and cult leaders. Red can be fast like a race car, cool as an icy-cold Coke, or dead as a zombie.

Colors are culturally created; in America, the color white often signifies purity, chastity, and virtue, and so is the color of a wedding gown. In India, widows wear white saris as a sign of mourning, and brides often wear red to signify prosperity and fertility. An American may see green and think of the great outdoors or jealousy (“green with envy”), whereas the Chinese are likely to also think of sickness or infidelity — and both cultures associate the color with eco-friendliness and wealth.

How you use a color  —  what palettes you put together  —  must be thought through carefully, and with sensitivity to the culture in which that brand or product will be displayed.

Building and Testing a Color Palette

While the psychology of color may help to explain why someone feels a certain way about a certain color, it isn’t the only determining factor in selecting a color palette for a brand or product. The entire design, including UXUIbranding, and logo, all work together with color to convey a subconscious message to your customers. To effectively leverage the power of color, designers have to think holistically across the brand, as well as in detail about particular uses of the palette, and the context in which it will be used.

Even more specifically, at GA, we teach designers to ask, “What emotions do we want our brand to promote or project?”

So how do we figure that out? By using a few handy tools like mood boards, usability testing, and palette generators.

Creating a Mood Board

One way to begin developing a color palette for your product is to start with a mood board. A mood board is an arrangement of images, ideas, inspiration, and products intended to evoke or project a particular style or concept that you associate with your product or want people to associate it with.

Mood boards are an excellent way to play around with themes, images, and colors in context. From there you can start to put together a working palette to test with your customers, stakeholders, and users.

Palette Makers and Palette Theory

There are whole schools of thought around how to build a color palette and some fantastic tools to help you do it.

Here are some of the contradictions you’ll find across designers’ thoughts on building color palettes:

  • Some designers recommend limiting the palette to three colors, while others say four or five.
  • You’ll also find colorists who say you need a neutral, a bright, and a dark for any workable palette.
  • Others caution designers to stay with the same saturation and brightness values but select different hues.
  • Contradicting that, some advocate for all one hue and vary the saturation and brightness.

What to do, what to do? The answer is: It depends. Sometimes just knowing basic palette theory will help you with your own. Here’s a breakdown of the five most common color harmonies:

Monochromatic

Monochromatic colors all have the same hue, but vary the saturation and brightness. This palette comes across as sophisticated and subtle, and it’s great for when the content is the focus and the UI elements need to fade to the background.

Triads

Triads come from three opposing points on the color wheel. When the saturation and brightness are kept the same, the hue variations are complementary to one another, and will liven up your designs.

Analogous

Analogous colors sit next to each other on the color wheel. The closer they are in hue, the more they will blend together. It takes careful balancing to find the three that work happily together without clashing.

Complementary

Split Complementary

Complementary and split complementary are colors that sit opposite from each other on the color wheel. These colors make a great contrast for each other and work well with any product that wants to pop.

Color Theory and Branding

Finding the perfect color for your brand depends on your productthe emotional response you’re hoping to evoke, the color trends of the year (or season, or moment), and cultural aesthetics and values. Once you’ve got a few possible palettes together, start designing with them and test your creations:

  • Throw some logos, UIs, and social media posts at your customer base and stakeholders, and ask them what they see and feel.
  • Pull out your mood boards and do some A/B testing.
  • Ask your user group to give a thumbs up or thumbs down for each sample image or color group or logo.

It won’t be hard to see what people are loving and leaving this season, and which palettes will evoke the response you want.

Color Theory at General Assembly

During the full-time User Experience Design Immersive course at General Assembly, which I teach in San Francisco, we spend time working through both the science of color theory — how RGB color systems differ from CMYK color systems, and when to use each — as well as how to use color in product design to achieve business goals.

In GA’s part-time Visual Design course, students learn the fundamentals of color theory and color schemes, and learn how to apply them to designs for the web, like websites and interfaces.

Ask a Question About Our Design Programs

Meet Our Expert

Susan K Rits is the founder and director of product design at Rits & Co. She teaches the User Experience Design Immersive course at General Assembly’s San Francisco campus.

Susan K Rits, UX Design Immersive Instructor, General Assembly San Francisco

Composition in Visual Design: How Design Influences User Perception

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Composition is how we see information. It influences the relationships we see between objects, perceptions of complexity, and affects our desire to engage with content. Learning composition as a visual designer will allow you to make information appear in ways that convey different meanings, or leave different impressions, like sophistication, affluence, cleverness, or strangeness.

If someone asked you to write down your phone number, you might instinctively group the numbers into two groups of three and a group of four. This is a system developed by designer Ladislav Sutnar, who used the psychological principle of “chunking” to group information in ways that are easier to remember. Composition is constantly shaping our perceptions around familiarity, relationships, and ease of use. If you see a row of clickable buttons near the top of the web page, you might assume they share a common function, likely navigating through that website. Simply by placing the buttons in that location and in that proximity to one another, a designer has leveraged composition to imply function and orientation of the design.

The Gestalt Principles, Continuation, Complexity, and More

Let’s see composition in action: How many triangles are in the following image?

Optical illusions like this one use composition to subvert the mind’s expectations of how forms relate to one another.
Optical illusions like this one use composition to subvert the mind’s expectations of how forms relate to one another.

Many people guess three or more, but the real answer is zero. You’re looking at a series of V shapes and Pac-Man-looking figures. Your mind is following the Gestalt principles of proximity (which states that objects near one another share a common relationship) and figure-ground (which states that the mind will choose a foreground and background). Being aware of how the mind instinctively derives meaning from visuals is a critical part of understanding how to leverage composition in powerful ways.

The Gestalt principles were first developed in 1890 by a school of German experimental psychologists who were interested in qualifying how the mind perceives information. While their initial list of principles has since been greatly expanded, even learning the basics will help a visual designer think critically about compositions and how to influence perceptions.

Beyond simple optical illusions, composition affects things in our everyday lives. Consider the following designs.

In the first example, the design utilizes a phenomenon known as continuation. By deliberately cutting off the bottom row of images and text, it suggests to the user that there’s more to see below. Users know they can scroll, so they’re likely to do so instinctively and continue exploring.

Skills Composition
An example of continuation, a Gestalt principle that helps to inform a user there is more to interact with.

In the following example, however, the design neatly ends its grid within view. Many users in this scenario would not attempt to scroll. If this were the homepage design, some users may confuse an even grid of shows to be all the website has to offer if they aren’t familiar with the service.

Skills Composition
A complete grid view can imply that this is all of the content the products often…even if it isn’t.

As Steve Jobs said, “Design isn’t just what it looks like, it’s how it works.” The composition a designer chooses influences how a user perceives something works.

Like most elements of design, the more complexity you add to a composition, the more difficult it is to balance. Simple designs with large type and clear focal points are often perceived as more accessible and easier to understand. They are often faster to make. However, more complex compositions can also make for longer consumption.

A Skill for Many Careers

Combined with typography and color theory, a mastery of compositions can help a visual designer compete in a range of design job markets from editorial layouts to app design. For example, visual designers at large tech companies like Facebook and Google often specialize in designing icons, user interface details, and general page layouts. They collaborate with engineers, product managers, and other specialized designers (like user experience) to apply visual principles in ways that further the goals of the user and the business. Visual designers in publishing, advertising, and lifestyle brands often focus more on ads, page layouts, or book jackets. Using composition in these settings means a visual designer is either making an object more eye-catching or easier to digest dense information.

While the roles may have different mediums to focus on, the principles of composition remain true for all visual designers.

Composition in Visual Design at General Assembly

At General Assembly, we teach composition primarily in our part-time Visual Design course, which I teach at GA’s San Francisco campus. However, some of its concepts overlap with our user experience design courses, since composition can also implicate how something works to a user. Students can expect to learn by doing at GA: They’ll analyze their favorite web pages and apps to detect how subtle choices in composition influence their understanding of functionality and impact an interface’s feeling.

Ask a Question About Our Design Programs

Meet Our Expert

Shawn Sprockett is a design manager at Postmates, design advisor to Axiom Zen, and an instructional lead for General Assembly’s Visual Design course in San Francisco. His work has spanned a wide breadth of industries over the last 10 years, having worked with brands including Victoria’s Secret and Airbnb, and trained under legendary designers like Milton Glaser and Stefan Sagmeister. Shawn has also been a part of big business transformations like Conde Nast’s shift to mobile publications and IBM’s implementation of design thinking at scale. Shawn has an MFA in design and entrepreneurship from the School of Visual Arts. His recent projects are at the intersection of artificial intelligence, behavioral psychology, and generative design.

Shawn Sprockett, Visual Design Instructor, General Assembly San Francisco

Typography: 4 Essential Typeface Styles and How Brands Use Them

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Typography is one of the most essential topics in visual design. It not only sets the mood and tone of your work — whether it’s a logo, app, or book — but it is the chief vehicle for communicating information. In 2006, the user experience studio iA wrote a blog post claiming that “web design is 95% typography,” and it’s still true today. Companies like Medium and The New York Times have built iconic digital interfaces based on strong typographic design.

Historically, calligraphy and engraving were the dominant expressions of typography until the printing press introduced movable type and a world of different typefaces with unique expressive qualities and uses. To this day, typography is used to influence perceptions, persuade people to change their behavior, and communicate the importance of messages and ideas.

Four Essential Typeface Styles to Know

Typefaces

THERE ARE WHOLE HISTORIES OF DIFFERENT KINDS OF TYPEFACES, BUT THE FOUR BASIC ONES TO KNOW ARE SERIF, SANS-SERIF, SCRIPT, AND DECORATIVE.

At the broadest level, you can divide typography into four main categories: serifs, sans-serifs, scripts, and decorative.

  • Serifs are recognizable by the wings that are visible on the edges of their letterforms. You can play this game to get better at recognizing them.
  • Sans-serifs are fonts that don’t have the wings. They’re often seen as more modern and less formal.
  • Scripts are fancy, calligraphic fonts. You’d probably use them for wedding invitations or maybe a movie poster.
  • Decorative typefaces are often dynamic and full of personality, but the tradeoff is that they aren’t very readable, so you wouldn’t want to set a large amount of text in them.

One way that typography influences your user or audience is believability. If the IRS sent you a letter in Comic Sans, you might think it was a scam. That’s because handwritten typefaces usually have the connotation of informality and playfulness; not typical characteristics of serious government business. By contrast, a brand like Wells Fargo intentionally uses all caps and a serif typeface to project authority and security; ideas it wants the public to associate with it.

How Brands Use Typography

In 2012, The New York Times did a study in which participants took an online quiz that asked them to confirm whether a statement was true or false. Each participant saw the quiz in a randomly chosen font. The researchers found that statements written in formal serif fonts, like Baskerville, were more likely to be labeled as true than statements in handwriting-based fonts, like Comic Sans. This suggests that typography can actually influence our trust in a source of information.

Of course, it’s not as easy as just making all your designs in serif typefaces. You should choose a typeface based on its appropriateness to your brand’s goals. A typeface is like an outfit. You want to wear the right clothing for the right occasion, but the choice you make also needs to project how you want others to see you.

Think of some of your favorite brands. Look at what kind of typography they use and consider why they might want to portray themselves that way. A lot of tech companies, like Lyft, Airbnb, and Facebook, intentionally use lowercase sans-serif typefaces for their logos in order to appear more approachable and friendly. When Google updated its logo in 2015, switching to a sans-serif font was the most noticeable change, and it revealed the company’s intention to be seen as friendlier and more innocent amid concerns about data privacy. Brands like Disney and Coca-Cola use script typefaces to remind their audiences of their long history and traditional values.

Typography at General Assembly

In General Assembly’s part-time Visual Design course, students spend up to two weeks on typography. They learn everything from how to create effective layouts, to individual parts of letterforms, through exercises that can include creating font mood boards, practicing fundamentals with online games, and building layouts from scratch with vintage letter scans. Mastering typography will help you communicate ideas and craft an effective look and feel for your products and your clients.
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Meet Our Expert

Shawn Sprockett is a design manager at Postmates, design advisor to Axiom Zen, and an instructional lead for General Assembly’s Visual Design course in San Francisco. His work has spanned a wide breadth of industries over the last 10 years, having worked with brands including Victoria’s Secret and Airbnb, and trained under legendary designers like Milton Glaser and Stefan Sagmeister. Shawn has also been a part of big business transformations like Conde Nast’s shift to mobile publications and IBM’s implementation of design thinking at scale. Shawn has an MFA in design and entrepreneurship from the School of Visual Arts. His recent projects are at the intersection of artificial intelligence, behavioral psychology, and generative design.

Shawn Sprockett, Visual Design Instructor, GA San Francisco

Why Design Thinking Matters

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Design thinking at work

Design thinking isn’t just about the visual outcome of a product. Rather, it’s a method of creatively and practically solving problems that keeps the user top of mind. Understanding the user’s wants and needs allows us to make more accurate decisions during the inspiration, production, and iteration phases of building a product. The outcome, hopefully, is intuitive products and services that actually improve users’ lives.

I spoke with Maya Weinstein, Sr. Designer at IBM Watson, about her thoughts on the design thinking method.

In your own words, what is IBM design thinking?

Design thinking has existed in some form for the past 20 years. What makes IBM Design Thinking unique is scale. IBM is a massive company and this is the first time design thinking is being implemented at a company of this size with this degree of training. We have an entire division, the IBM Design Education, whose sole focus is to train the entirety of IBM on the practice of Design Thinking. By training engineers, product managers, marketers, and executives on how to think like a designer, we are able to bring design thinking to a mass corporate level. This is design thinking in a company at scale.

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An Artist’s Journey with Code

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Matthew Epler is a creative technologist based in Brooklyn, NY.

Matthew Epler is a creative technologist specializing in creating one-of-a-kind interactive projects with an emphasis on the Internet of Things. 

His work, which blends digital and physical design practices with computer programming, has been featured in museums and a variety of media outlets around the world including The Milan Triennale Museum of Design, mudac Lausanne, and on Wired, Huffington Post, Newsweek, Reuters, Vice, and Creative Applications.

Some of his most well-known pieces include the Netflix Switch, Levi’s Station to Station, Grand Old Party, and Big Bats

Matthew describes himself as a designer who can code, and a coder who can work with his hands. Read on to see how learning to code transformed his passion for art and film into a thriving career in creative technology. Continue reading

GA alum Advocates Importance of UX Design in Cambodia

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Since graduating from GA DC’s first UXDI course last year summer, Nina has honed her skills with freelance gigs, one of them at a big political consulting firm. When Nina wasn’t freelancing or leading a Code for America chapter, she made time for Visual Design this spring. Since her second GA graduation, she’s been exploring the nonprofit space by working with the Asia Foundation. After her work in Cambodia, Nina is considering other ways she can share the value of good UX in DC and beyond.

Keep up with Nina on Twitter @nbaliga1.

What were you doing before you came to GA?

I was a freelance UX designer and digital strategist. Prior to doing freelance UX, I was working at several digital marketing agencies as a project manager/account manager/digital strategist.

What did you choose to take a course with us?

I wanted to develop my portfolio to make myself more marketable. I also wanted to leverage the GA network to make more contacts to increase my number of freelance gigs.

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Why Entrepreneurs Should Learn Design Skills

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Visual-Design

As an entrepreneur, one of the most important investments I make is in my own learning. Having spent a year running a content marketing consultancy, I’ve learned more than I ever would have imagined about my clients’ pain points, the legalities of growing a new venture, and even accounting.

Across all of these disciplines, I’ve noticed the following the trend — that with the proliferation of data and the pace at which information moves, information is becoming increasingly more difficult to communicate.

For years, I thought that learning to code would give me a competitive edge as a founder. I’ve been self-teaching principles of data science and programming for years, to the extent that I can confidently work with developers. When my CTO Justin joined my team as co-founder, however, I came to a touch realization: I was wasting both of our time by figuring out how to become an “expert programmer.” 

The best way to increase my value as an entrepreneur would be to learn design.

Here’s why. Continue reading