designing ebooks and other fun things

Ask a designer: breaking the rules


This post is part of the Ask a Designer series. You ask me questions, I answer them to the best of my ability. The questions can be about design process, branding, software, technical things – or even completely unrelated. Want to play? Leave me a comment here, or use the contact form.



How do you know when to ignore the rules?
by SilverMagpies


I am assuming we are talking about the rules in the sense of guidelines; or the way things have always been done.

(Because if we are talking about rules like “Cross the red line at risk of death penalty” then the answer is “probably never.”)

I could talk about this topic for hours, but let me give you a short answer first:

Learn the rules in theory; learn to apply the rules in practice; understand why the rules were invented to begin with. Know whether the rules are helping you or not.

THEN break the rules.

But let’s look at some practical examples.

In graphic design, a rule that you will often hear is to pick two fonts – and stick to them.

An excellent rule if you don’t know much about typography and are choosing fonts according to your personal preferences, without a good understanding of what each typeface represents and how they work together.

However, if you are a typography expert, you can throw in ten or twenty different fonts and create a beautiful, unique message that communicates exactly what you want it to.

Most of the time, even experts will go with something less. Introducing a third font for a playful effect, or to draw attention to a certain element is usually enough – unless you want the entire focus to be on typography. This would depend on what your message is, but it’s rarely necessary to go that far to enhance it, to make it jump off the page.

When design is created to best suit the message, and not the other way around, a subtle twist of the rule is often enough.

Another popular design rule is using layout grids. Without going into too much detail on the grids themselves — which can be tweaked according to your needs, I will say that, most of the time, every single page I design has an underlying grid.

It’s much more effective to break out of the grid only on certain pages or only with certain elements, rather than have everything positioned without any structure – that would make for a messy, amateurish effect. (And even if someone doesn’t physically place the guides on the page, most of those who work with layouts often enough have some sort of a structure in place, without the need of the guides.)

The principle applies in branding and marketing as well.

While you don’t necessarily have to know everything there is to know about the topics, understanding why those rules exist is a prerequisite for breaking them effectively. (because let’s face it; if you are breaking the rules just for the sake of being rebel, you probably don’t care what others think anyway… and this whole theory on effectiveness is pretty muh wasted!)

So if the rule says “Send a follow-up email to every single customer that buys from you within two weeks” – make sure you understand the reason for it.

Is it to help them remember you, to not loose touch after the initial purchase?

Is there something you can do that will achieve the same purpose but that is more relevant to your business or your mission? More unique, more unexpected — but still relevant?

How about sending a little free sample of something instead of an email?

Or how about emailing a link to an article that might be interesting to them instead of just a thank-you-keep-in-touch email?

Would that accomplish the same purpose: help them remember you and your business? Excellent! Go ahead and do that instead of the same old email.

The point is, most rules exist for a reason. They are the easiest path to accomplishing something.

But being the easiest, they are also the most overused and the least noticed.

And often, a little twist of a rule is much more effective (and easier to accomplish) than doing the complete opposite of what the rule says — or never bothering to look up those rules in the first place.

Or at least that’s my theory. But let’s put it to a test with a completely unrelated example, shall we?

Let’s pretend you are just learning to cook. What are the chances you will come up with a successful recipe without looking at any existing ones? (And by successful I mean yummy. And by yummy I mean your family and friends will eat it up. And ask for more. No cheating!)

Pretty slight, right? Oh, I know that it could happen, in theory. But I yet have to see a wannabe chef create a lip-licking dish on his or her first try – let alone create a completely new never-heard of recipe.

How about someone who has been cooking for years? Following recipes and suggestions of friends, and every now and then trying some new things? This cook probably has a good idea of flavors that work together well, cooking times of just about every ingredient, as well as what can be done to improve a dish.

They’re no longer following the rules; they are following their instinct.

But that instinct has been honed with practice. Practice, experience with following – and slightly tweaking the rules – gives this person a much better chance of creating a dish that will have their neighbors salivating at the windows.


I am smiling as I write this. I am impatient and inventive by nature. I don’t want to keep practicing with stupid rules someone else has created. I want to jump in and change things and create my own.

And yet, the more experience I have, the more I realize: it is spending the time understanding why those rules work that allows me to break them effectively.

It doesn’t matter that I could recognize beautiful design or appreciate yummy food for as long as I can remember. It wasn’t until I took the time to learn and apply the rules that I was able to twist and break them effectively.

In some subjects, such as design, or coding, or even engineering, the practice is more formal, deeper. In others, understanding of why the rules exist can be fairly intuitive.

In both cases, understanding is key.

5 Comments on this Post.

  1. Lisa –

    Thank you for such an excellent and thorough explanation of my initial question.

    You can get so far, but then if you really want to take your presentation to the next level you have to hand it over to a professional. There is great value to the DIY phase – at least for me it helped me 1) refine and understand WHAT I was trying to accomplish and 2) recognize the point at which I was able to say OK, this is the general direction but I need someone else to make it shine. A professional needs to supply the HOW to accomplish the WHAT.

    Equally, I would imagine it is very frustrating to work with clients who are unclear about the WHAT.

    Regardless,it simply confirms my conviction that hiring you was a very good idea!

    Thanks so much. I’m sure I’ll have more questions for you!!

  2. lisa

    Thank YOU Nancy — that was exactly the kind of question that I love to answer.

    And I guess my answer was somewhat broader than you were expecting. But if we are talking about DIY design specifically, it still applies: if you don’t have any background in it, you could follow a step-by-step tutorial and come away with decent results — but don’t expect to accomplish a creative breakthrough by just making up your own rules; that’s usually not how it works. (Much like I wouldn’t just decide to, say, build my own house without knowing any fundamental rules on how that works.)

    Not everyone even explores the DIY phase. It depends on the person. For some it can be helpful. Others know that they want something more than they could ever accomplish by themselves, and turn to professionals right from the start.

    As far as those unclear about the WHAT, there are two different camps. There are those that WANT to find it and it just seems to be difficult for them to define. It can actually be fun helping them find it.

    And then there are those who think it’s not necessary, that they can be yet another faceless business and get by on specials, discounts and fluff. Those are the ones that I avoid. And by avoid I mean run and hide. But I think you already knew that.

  3. Wonderful explanation Lisa. I especially liked how you applied the thinking to other areas, like the “You should send this email…” Doing something a bit different is a great idea, and has me plotting quietly!

    • lisa

      Thanks Ryah! Plotting? Now I am curious! When will you tell us your cunning plans?

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