Critique This!

Critiques are important to understanding and improving our own efforts in graphic design. Through them we see how others have used the elements and principles of design and composition to create a piece. Sometimes we study good design, but it can be equally as helpful to discuss less-than-stellar designs or aspects in need of improvement. It all helps us learn to think critically about design.

Although the words look similar, “critique” does not mean “criticize” as we’ve come to use the word today, with a generally negative connotation. To critique something, particularly the way we do in the visual design field, means to study the uses of the elements and principles of design to both increase our own understanding and use of them and to more objectively determine the effectiveness of a design.

But first, let’s make sure we’re speaking the same language when it comes to the elements and principles of design.

The Elements of Design
The elements of design are the basic building blocks of any composition. They can be recognized individually and, although there’s always more than one element present in a design, they’re not dependent on each other.

The elements of design are color, line, size/scale, space, shape, texture and value.

The Principles of Design
The principles of design are different than the elements because they depend on the elements, and also because they often support and even help create other principles. They don’t exist individually as do the elements.

The principles of design are balance, contrast, direction, economy, emphasis, proportion, rhythm and unity.

Because the principles are more abstract than the elements, they can benefit from a little explanation.

Balance is the equal distribution of visual weight in a composition, and this can be done radially, symmetrically, or asymmetrically.

Contrast is created through opposites.

Direction is the planned movement of attention through a layout.

Economy is using as few elements and principles as necessary to effectively communicate the message.

Emphasis is hierarchy and a major contributor to the principle of direction.

Proportion is the principle of ratios and distribution.

Rhythm is also referred to as “repetition.” It contributes greatly to unity.

Unity (also called “harmony”) is the sense that the design as a whole fits together.

The most misunderstood principle is contrast. Many would classify it as an element, thinking that contrast only exists in value (black and white). In truth, however, contrast can exist between any element, so it’s a principle. For example, contrast in texture could be shiny and dull. Contrast in space is crowded and open. Contrast in color could be red and yellow. Contrast in line an organic, squiggly line versus a straight line. Contrast in shape is circle and square. Contrast in size is easy to see with large and small.

The Critique: Greengate Garden Centres Ad by Rethink
The ad below from Rethink Communications is clean, simple, and to the point. To help you adapt its successes for your own work, I’ll break down the design into its minute details. I’ll bold mentions of elements and principles so they’re easier to spot.

The thing I find most stunning is the ad’s color palette. Orange and green are part of a triad (the third color, purple, isn’t in this layout). It’s a bold color combination and the plant is quite striking against the white background. It certainly catches the eye. The white, however, is a little sterile, and ironically the opposite of dirt, which is something you’ll find plenty of in a garden! Perhaps they used the white background so as not to distract from the plant’s attention-grabbing colors, or to create a strong contrast between the subject and its background. What would it have looked like to bring in the complete triad and make the wall purple? Which purple would look best, a dark violet or a light lavender (now we’re getting into value)? While we don’t know why Rethink made the background white, these are the kinds of questions we can ask ourselves when we’re designing.

Although the background is all white, it isn’t without a little interest. The tile lines create a texture. It’s a linear and geometric texture that is in contrast to the flowing, organic lines of the plant. Then there are also lines in the receipt, which section off the important information. Using lines or even shapes to call out information can be an obvious solution, but there’s a reason even big agencies do it: It works! The next time you’re struggling to emphasize a piece of information, try separating it with a little space, a few lines, or even a shape (like drawing a box around it).

Everything in the ad looks to be in proper scale to the real world, though the receipt may be slightly larger than life, perhaps for emphasis. There is plenty of white space (literally!), which makes this an open, inviting, non-demanding design. The organic shapes in the design also help create an unassuming feeling, though the plant reaching for the receipt does give a feeling of urgency. Did you get the image in your mind that the flowers are a head and the two leaves below it (on the right side) are little arms reaching longingly for the receipt?

I already mentioned the texture created by lines in the tiles. In addition to providing interest, the lines also create a context (a kitchen counter). You may not have thought about it before, but did you realize that shiny and dull can be textures, too? And because of the dull finishes of the plant, receipt, and tile, there’s a contrast in texture. The shiny pot attracts the most texture attention in this layout. Overall, though, there are minimal textures, which adds to the unity of the composition.

When analyzing value, it makes things easier to convert the image you’re critiquing into grayscale. There is a concentration of deep values in the center of the layout to add emphasis and to draw in the viewer. This high contrast in value also creates a little more drama, almost an urgency.

In terms of balance, the layout is intriguing. At first glance, it looks like everything is pretty well balanced in the middle, with a little asymmetry around the placement of the receipt. But keep looking. The pot is slightly off center and the plant is really what’s situated in the center of the frame. Now check out the space on either side of the plant and you’ll notice that even it’s not exactly centered! You’ve heard that before you break the rules, you have to know what they are and have a good reason to break them? This ad is more of an adjusted rule: An exactly equal space from plant to each edge of the frame would have crowded the receipt too much, so the plant is moved slightly to the left. And that, probably not by accident, also lines up nicely with a four-column grid. (More on this in a bit with the principle of unity.)

I’ve already mentioned all the ways that parts of the layout are in contrast to each other, but to sum it up, the plant is in stark value contrast to the rest of layout; there’s size contrast between pot and plant; texture contrast with the shiny pot and dull plant, receipt, and tile; and a significant contrast (juxtaposition) between the organic plant and digital/mechanical receipt. It’s rather funny that the whole visual idea behind this ad is that of contrast: a white, sterile, clean, tidy image for a garden store, whereas a person gardening is quite the opposite of clean and tidy!

Direction is always a fascinating principle to study and an often-overlooked area of design. The direction in this piece is straightforward: The plant points to sale information on the receipt, which helps to link these two otherwise-disconnected but essential objects. The only improvement I would make here is something else to draw our attention back into the design, to keep us here. Right now we just stop at the receipt and, especially if this were in a magazine, we’d continue on to the next page because the last part we look at is leading us off to the right, or to turn the page.

This ad is the epitome of the principle of economy in design: The only things you need to know are 1) plants and 2) sale details. There’s no superfluous information!

The first thing to draw our attention is the plant, which then points to the sale information. The plant is our first stop for several reasons (this is the principle of direction, by the way): It’s the largest object (size/scale) and relatively centered; it’s the object with the most contrast of value; and it’s the only spot of color.

As for proportion, the plant takes up majority of the layout, which is fine; gardens are about plants, after all. The ad’s distribution of objects is not ideal, however. There are two major pieces, the plant/pot and the receipt. Aesthetic studies tell us that odd numbers are far more visually pleasing than even numbers, and I’d say two is probably the worst even number you could deal with. If your eye isn’t already led off the page because of the previously mentioned direction, then it’s playing ping-pong, bouncing between these two objects.

To study the rhythm of this piece, let’s look at two other ads in this series. Now the consistency in color, texture, and overall layout becomes obvious. This consistency may seem easy when you’re looking at the end result, but it’s a feat that says a lot about the skill of the photographer and art director.

In all, this design feels pretty unified; nothing that immediately jumps out as not belonging. This ad uses a four-column grid, with the pot in the second column, the plant the second and third columns, and the receipt squarely in the fourth column. Everything fits in visually and this is a good example of unity — except for the obvious irony in the idea of plants in cooking pots and pet dishes!

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Posted on: August 12, 2009

10 Comments on Critique This!

  1. I think the ad may have been too clever regarding your description of the “obvious surprise.” The tag says “Find Room” and the flowers are planted in a kitchen, a bathroom, and a utility room (dog dish), giving the message that flowers are not just for the living and dining rooms but other rooms as well..

    I assume the design was conscious.

  2. I wish we’d gone over something like this before going to critiques at school!
    Kids were cruel and didn’t really approach a critique in an understanding way. I think this is one of the best articles I’ve seen that takes a critique and breaks it down with an examples and does not criticize the artist! Bravo!

  3. Guest,
    Yes, critique doesn’t mean criticize. I know what you mean about having to go through those in school (it was generally either “I like it” or “That’s stupid” both of which are anything but helpful). You can see similar articles to this on Creative Curio, my site.

    Spruis,
    I don’t think I quite catch your meaning. The design was very intentional, yes! That’s what the whole article is dissecting.

    Creative Consultant and author of Creative Curio

  4. I find the spatial relationship of the plant head and the reciept too loose. They don’t relate/attach themselves to each other.

    If the whole ad was flipped right to left there would be a circular unity berween the plant and the receipt keeping the viewer within the design.

  5. On reviewing ads 2 and 3 I find that they too suffer from the same detached relationship as 1.

  6. Great article! I’ve been both a designer (30+ years) and a design teacher and I found this article to be an excellent critique! This type of critique, given in a classroom, would actually provide useful feedback (provided the student was paying attention!).
    For the most part, I agree with the critique.

    Still, I love this ad series.

  7. I think we also have to be conscious of why marketing design work exists in the first place…
    To increase awareness and thus sales.
    My feeling is that this series was aimed at the people who do keep their kitchens spotless (or wish to), perhaps an in-store promotion located in kitchen / home wear departments to increase garden shop traffic by those who would not normally consider buying a plant because it is too messy / dirty.
    Possibly a POP display, my initial (design hat off for a moment) consumer reaction is that it makes me want to pick one up, first the clean visual gets my attention, “hmm that looks nice, I could picture that in my home”, then the flower draws me to the 25% off which seals the deal / justifies the purchase in my mind.
    My comment is that the first image does this perfectly, second image…I think their choice of background tile gives the bathroom an unintended ‘institutional / restroom” feel, while the third image is clever, I think they could have made a better choice in flowers / receipt / wall texture & proportion.
    Sometimes we have to (momentarily) think like an everyday consumer to deliver the end results our clients expect from our work.

  8. Excellent critique! I believe it was well thought out and I like the layout design of the first one. The design has a lovely flow to it with the juxtaposition of the plant bending and pointing to the tag. Good description of the design.

  9. The ad’s distribution of objects is not ideal, however. There are two major pieces, the plant/pot and the receipt. Aesthetic studies tell us that odd numbers are far more visually pleasing than even numbers, and I’d say two is probably the worst even number you could deal with. If your eye isn’t already led off the page because of the previously mentioned direction, then it’s playing ping-pong, bouncing between these two objects.

  10. Critique the design elements by all means, but the purpose of a ad design is to communicate something desirable to potential buyers so they are motivated to act. The elephant in the room here is none of these say anything or motivate anything.

    Design elements have no value unless they get the client’s message across in the right way to the right audience, no matter how well done they are. That, after all, is what the designer is being paid for. The purpose of advertising, Sergio Zyman says quite rightly, is to sell more stuff to more people. I can’t see where any of these vital tasks has been accomplished.

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