BOOK: The Non-Designer’s Design Book: Fantastic basic design principles by Robin Williams

BOOK: The Non-Designer’s Design Book: Fantastic basic design principles by Robin Williams

Cover of book: The non-designer's design book by Robin Williams

Even if you’re not a designer, you can make your documents more attractive. In her brilliant book, Robin Williams explains the four basic design principles we need to use.

Many of us don’t have the luxury of working with a designer on every document we produce.

But how the text is placed on the page matters, even for those of us who work mainly with the text content, because design can help readers better understand the material.

Fortunately, we can still use design principles to make our documents more usable. In fact, being a non-designer is no excuse for producing documents that are completely ugly/boring/bland/messy and visually confusing for the readers.

In The Non-Designer’s Design Book (4th ed.), Robin Williams tells us there are only four basic principles of design1 that we need to understand:

☘ The four basic principles of design

  • Proximity: Group items that belong together. It will signal to the reader what bits of information belong together.
  • Alignment: Place items so they are visually connected to each other (e.g., align text)
  • Repetition: Consistently repeat visual elements (e.g., colors, shapes, font size & thickness). It can convey meaning and strengthen the sense of unity.
  • Contrast: Use contrast (e.g., font weight & size, font types, color) for visual attraction and also to clarify meaning.

Williams goes more into detail on what each principle means and shows us how the principle looks in action with before/after examples.

She also gives us a brief overview of colors — which is brief enough that I could get through it and still appreciate how colors can be used together.

☘ Plenty of specific examples

Under the heading “Extra Tips & Tricks,” I enjoyed seeing how the author uses the basic principles and color to create

  • a package or brand
  • business cards, letterhead and envelopes
  • flyers, newsletters, brochures, postcards
  • ads
  • resumes

It inspired me to try redesigning my resume, whose template I hadn’t changed in…oh, 10 years?

My text-heavy CV with & without some design
The before and after of my CV. It uses the same text (with minor cuts). I hope you agree the revision looks a bit more attractive…!

☘ Intro to typeface

I also loved that the book gives a very simple overview of typeface and how to use fonts effectively.

What struck me here was Williams’s emphasis on contrast.

Don’t be a wimp!

Robin Williams, The Non-Designer’s Design Book, 4th ed., 2015.

You do not want to use fonts in a way that is conflicting (because the fonts are similar but not the same). You want them to be clearly different, contrasting.

There are roughly six categories of type:

  • Oldstyle
  • Modern
  • Slab serif
  • Sans serif
  • Script
  • Decorative

If you’re mixing fonts, then the basic principle is that you want to use only one from each category. (In the book, Williams talks about other ways to bring out the contrast in typography.)

Using contrast will not only make your text look more exciting but help readers understand the text.

Typography is fascinating and beautiful, and I always felt it was completely beyond my understanding. But Williams has given me some concrete tools that make me feel a bit better equipped to try things out.

Recommended for: Everyone who works with documents

Just because you are not a designer does not mean you’re stuck producing only ugly, hard-to-read text.

Non-designers certainly won’t put any designer out of a job by reading this book. But an understanding of the four basic design principles and a bit about colors and typeface will let us make documents a little bit prettier and easier for our readers to read.

Robin Williams. The Non-Designer’s Design Book, 4th ed. Peachpit Press: 2015.

Want to work with an editor who also has a basic idea of visual presentation? Send me details via the contact form or email me at


  1. Abbreviated as “CRAP”…or “CARP” if you prefer :)

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