Posted by: Alison Gilbert, Digital Age Storyteller | June 10, 2011

Graphic Design 101 for the Internet by Alison Gilbert

A graphic designer trained and working in the field before the advent of desktop publishing has a very different perspective from that of a computer designer/developer today. In fact, graphic design barely resembles what it did 20 years ago.

Manual Graphic Design Tools
Pre-Computer Graphic Design Tools

There are a variety of online venues where this is glaringly the case. They include online e-newsletters, social media, and websites. In the case of the latter, websites, the design aspect started to take a back seat to the development of the site due to its functionality requirements.

In the early days of websites, the picture was quite different. A site could be nothing more than a digital business card with a logo, the name of the company and the person, their phone number and e-mail. That was called a ‘web presence’ and for a time it sufficed. It was a no-brainer to copy a business card design on to a website page especially with the help of a program designed for such a conversion task.

The next phase was the web brochure. Companies literally handed their brochure to their web designer and said, ‘reproduce this on my website’. That worked as well. It was the next step up from mere presence to information. Then something happened called interactivity, online shopping and much, much, more.

Home Page of a Website As Viewer Sees It
What You See is What You Get

That is where the programmers came in and the designers went out. A website’s functionality was equally as important as its appearance if not more so. It did not have to be unattractive but it had to work. That was the bottom line. It had to be navigable, logical, take the viewer easily from one step of a purchasing process to the next. Utility of shopping carts, inventory and payment methods became the currency of design rather than the appearance alone.

Web page code
What You See Is NOT What You Get

Since graphic design had become the purview of computers, the art and science of manual graphic design went pretty much out the window. So where and how was one supposed to learn that? Companies that catered to desktop publishing back in the 1980′s and 90′s made design templates that required very little if anything in terms of creativity on the part of the assembler. They are still very popular today.

Clip art, stock photography, and ready-made typefaces also allowed one to create recipes that might not have even been considered graphic design in manual days. The question thus remains, what does one do to balance graphic design and the Internet?

The Graphic Artist Guild Pricing & Ethical Guidelines Book
The Graphic Artist Guild Pricing & Ethical Guidelines Book from

Here are some tips from a veteran designer that may come in very handy to create a readable document. Keep in mind that if you are looking to set the world on fire with your choice of design elements, all bets are off. As in every design medium, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But these are fairly standard graphic guidelines to follow for easy to digest information:

• Headers or titles should only be a few words and are often best when phrased as a question or as a ‘How to’.

• Use one decorative typeface for headlines (serif, such as Times, Mistral, Calligraphy or other more ornate sans serif typeface such as Bauhaus, Chicago, Eurostyle).

• Use one easily readable typeface for body copy (san serif when you are writing online, such as Helvetica, Arial, Verdana).

• Use variations of the body copy typeface (regular, italic and bold) for emphasis but do NOT use another typeface.

• Be aware of spacing between letters and lines (kerning and leading).

• Use one or two colors or a palette of colors that compliment each other. Use color with discernment unless it is part of the ‘story’ to be very colorful and that could be achieved better with images.

• Use bullets for information that you want to be read easily and will stand out as a list of essentials.

• When writing online, underline only linkable information.

• Balance blocks of body copy and white space so that one does not over power the other to avoid visual overload or caverns of white space.

If graphic design and its origins in pre-digital times is something that really floats your boat, you are in luck. There are organizations to join, magazines (and blogs) to read, courses to take, LinkedIn groups to join, plenty of Internet info to Google and scores of  YouTube videos to watch.

Organizations-Graphic Artists Guild, AIGA, LinkedIn Graphic Design groups
Magazines-Graphic Design USA, Print Magazine, Communication Arts
Courses-Free courses, Graphic Design Basics, Graphic Design Certificate
Schools-School of Visual Arts, Parsons The New School for Design, RISD
Internet-Paul Rand video, Paul Rand Bio
Blogs-NY Graphic Design Examiner, Graphic Design Blog
Articles-History of Web Design, History of Web Design


  1. Nice post, Alison. Some good advice and resources for both the newbie and the middlers!

  2. Thanks Roger. Great to hear from you. Hope all is well.

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