Friday 14 September 2012

Design Principles #4 - Use Emphasis to make your point

So in our wander through the skills and ideas useful for devs that do not have design team handy when they are designing apps and sites we arrive at emphasis.

"OK", I hear you cry, "I know all about the [em],[i] and [b] tags."

But emphasis is more so much more that typographical!

Emphasis is what gives you design a focal point and by that I mean that the element that is most important stands out in your design. For this reason emphasis is sometimes called dominance, but I don't want to get all "50 DIVs of Grey" here so I will stick with Emphasis for now.

In the web site above is a classical example of emphasis used to great effect. The rays of light slanting down from top left to the centre and the well lit center image and dark surround create the emphasis and drag the eye to the most important thing on the page. Rembrandt used exactly the same lighting technique all the time... the emphasis is on the lit characters and you find yourself looking at them first and paying more attention to them as a result.

Focal points are very important. In an earlier piece I mentioned the Web Page "Sweet Spot" which was roughly here.
However you do not have to place the focal point here, you can by using emphasis move the focal point to wherever you want on the page.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in design it when the dev tries to make everything in the design stand out or more commonly nothing has emphasis at all. The problem with that is the app will appear busy if too much emphasis is used, and boring and unappealing if not enough is used.

Instead I would recommend using a semantic flow to your HTML markup, a task now made all the easier with the HTML 5 which has changed and will continue to develop towards a semantic rather than presentational markup. Using this new semantic markup as a starting point the developer can arrange the elements of the app or page into a hierarchy.

So your Web page/app will have a hierarchy and all you need to do is put the emphasis on the correct elements so that your design leads the user on a journey you want them to take and hopefully that will be in IBMish an "exceptional experience" ;-) So how do I do it this emphasis thingie

White Space
Remember Emphasis is important but of equal importance is what you de-emphasise!
What I mean by that is the more an element is surrounded by white space or is isolated from other elements, the more weight and, thus, importance it takes on.

In the example above note the "Part of the story" unlike the rest of the page which is space-free this text is emphasised by the the fact it has white-space around it. It jumps from the page and screams "READ ME FIRST" to the viewer.

Emphasis can also be leveraged using contrast.

Contrast is about differences: light against dark, small next to large, a portrait-oriented photo next to several landscape-oriented photos. See the contrasts and subsequent focal point on “Love that Summer Feeling” above. The focal point is a rectangle alongside many squares; it is the largest shape on the page; and it also is colorful against a black-and-white backdrop.  This is Contrast pure and simple.

Establish and then break a pattern

In the last post I talked about Rhythm and patterns you can emphasise an element on your design by placing an element at odds with the established pattern on the site. the central item is rotated by 3 degrees clockwise (you can do this really easily with CSS3 *-transform:rotate(5deg); rule). Once again the eye is caught by the weight of the difference and drawn to the centre, the rotation be clockwise draws the eye down to the title "Tie-Dyed". Emphasis hard at work!


Continuance is a fancy way of saying once the eye starts moving it prefers to keep going in that direction until something with more emphasis comes along. Consider this

Even though the bottom splat is bigger and so tends to catch your eye first, your brain can’t help but go “FECK, look at the sexy arrow AND it is pointing right !” Soon enough, you’ll find yourself staring at the smaller object.This is the same effect as you get when someone stops on a crowded street and stares up at the sky, soon a bunch of people will be looking up trying to find what the person is looking at.. (Hint the person looking up is the arrow!!)


I started with a nod at typography I will do a complete post on fonts in the future so prepare yourself for an attack on the evil that is Comic Sans! But I will add here Fonts can play a bit part in emphasis but do NOT fall into the trap of having lots of different font-faces, sizes, colours and weights. This is NOT good! Use no more than 3 fonts on a page and make very very sure they look good together. Do not,for example mix serif and non serif fonts, on the same page it hurts the eyes! The experience of printers going back to the times of Caxton's printing press should be ignored at your peril!!!

So that was a quick dander through emphasis. It is a very very useful tool for a developer to use, but it is easily misused and can cause chaos , confusion and double-vision in your users! Like all things make it part of your thinking process when planning the site and experiment so you get the right emphasis on the right places.

Look at magazines at other web sites and applications, where is the emphasis? Does it help or hinder? You have your eyes open all day, use them to learn what makes "good" design!!

Next post will be UNITY!

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