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04 March 2016

5 Basic Principles of Design

Recently I came across a wonderful TED talk on the study of flags, also known as Vexillology. The speaker, the wonderful Roman Mars, revealed the five basic principles of flag design and explained why he believes they can be applied to just about anything.

Tentatively, I clicked the link to watch the talk, thinking it would very dry and really rather dull. The study of flag design? Who really cares about that? Yet within the first few moments, Roman had me hooked…

It’s simple, he says, “When you decode the world with design intent in mind, the world becomes kind of magical. Instead of seeing the broken things, you see all the little bits of genius that anonymous designers have sweated over to make our lives better”. 

That simple line got me thinking. It’s true, we see design, good and bad on a daily basis but how often do we stop to think about the basic principles that were used to create such a design?

So, how can the design of flags help us as designers consider any number of design solutions?

Roman poses the theory that “Once you can understand flags you can crack the design of almost anything”.


The 5 principles of flag design: 

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Use meaningful symbolism
  3. Use 2-3 colours
  4. No lettering or seals
  5. Be distinctive (or be related)

So let’s use these principles and test his theory on popular every day design ideas…

Logo Design 

Starting with one of my favourite design challenges, the humble logo!

For hundreds of years businesses, cities, and brands have turned to that anonymous designer and briefed them on creating a logo.

Keeping it simple. This rings so true with the design of a logo. Take Nike for instance, that simple ‘swoosh’ icon designed in 1971 by Carolyn Davidson has become one of the most recognised trademarks in sporting history. This logo can be seen everywhere in the world and is universally recognised around the globe. This meaningful symbolism is iconic and has been worn by many high profile sports personalities boasting backing from the likes of Michael Jordan and Maria Sharapova. Its simple use of colour is testament to its design. Mostly seen in black and white, the design is easy to reproduce on packaging, apparel and advertising. The word ‘Nike’ was and still is used within the design but it’s very easy for the brand to drop the lettering altogether and the logo is still instantly recognisable. The Nike swoosh is a great example of a design that is distinctive and powerful.

Is this truth enough to back the theory that the principles of flag design can be used? I’d say yes! When I approach the design of a logo I break the brand down and attempt to create a mark that is simple and recognisable. A logo that can be used without the brand name will stand the test of time and instantly translate around the globe.

Web UI and Icon Design

As web designers we all struggle with that challenge of creating beautiful bespoke brand icons when producing stunning websites. So how can the study of flag design be implemented here?

Of course keeping it simple is the order of the day when producing icons and well thought out UI kits. To be honest the simpler the better in my opinion. As with flags that need to be instantly recognisable, symbols, icons and buttons need to sign post website users in a clean and easy way. We produce pathways for web users that are easily followed via a course of calls to action eg. “click here/progress to here”.

Meaningful symbolism - Who knew that three vertical lines would translate so simply to mean menu/navigation? Similarly, a simple house icon that can be instantly recognised, has become the universal symbol for a simple path back to the Home page of a site.

Over the years web designers have worked tirelessly to produce meaningful symbols to help guide users through their web experience. The massive increase in mobile browsing has made it ever more important for web designers to consider their design strategy for symbolism.

Simple use of colour - When designing for web, we designers tend to stick to a basic colour palette, selecting our colours for “Go” on call to action links, “Stop” colours for an alert or important message and pairing this all with the brand colours for the company we’re designing for. This simple use of colour enables web users to move through a site at ease and within moments the user understands the colour palette enough to know what buttons will help them progress through a site.

Creating a design that is Distinctive and Powerful should really be the end goal for any site in my way of thinking.

In short, it seems Roman Mars may well be onto something. How we perceive design is a wonderful thing and if starting with the very basics creates the platform for unquestionable design, then I’m all for starting here.

Of course we can’t promise to make you a website that you can fly from a rooftop, but we’d like to think we can take your brand to greater heights.

Interested in Roman Mars? View his TEDtalk below:

Or if you liked his talk you’ll love his podcasts 99percentinvisible

To find out how great design could help influence and persuade your customers, take a look at our blog inspired by the fantastic Derren Brown.