Do You Obey Design Rules?

A new book upholds—and subverts—51 common catchphrases for design.


We like to think design is a field of unfettered creativity—an industry that abhors the proverbial box. In actuality it sags under an abundance of rules: Less is more. God is in the details. A good copy is better than a bad original. When in doubt, leave it out. Good design is when it’s finished…and so on.


A new book entitled Never Use White Type on a Black Background: And 50 Other Ridiculous Design Rules by Anneloes van Gaalen makes design platitudes up into full-spread graphics accompanied by a series of quotes that show how the saying was revised, rethought and, in some cases, rejected over time. The result is a small-scale oral history of each rule.

form follows function

As the book demonstrates, “form follows function,” the most common design adage of all, did not come from a European modernist like Walter Gropius or Mies van der Rohe, as is commonly believed. It originated with Louis Sullivan, the American designer of early skyscrapers. For the record, what he actually said was: “Form ever follows function.” Frank Lloyd dissented by saying “form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”


In 1964, Marshal McLuhan, a communications theorist, coined the catchphrase “the medium is the message.” In the book, William Bernbach, a founder of the ad firm DDB, responds: “Word of mouth is the best medium of all.”

new black

The most cliched design rule of all has to be “…is the new black.” Van Gaalen attributes the phrase to Diana Vreeland who allegedly responded to a pink Asian fabric by saying “pink is the navy blue of India,” meaning it was the basic building block of a wardrobe. Her pronouncement somehow led to grey as the new black, brown is the new black and, finally, black is the new black. (Not to mention endless variations, like Heath Ledger is the new Matt Damon.) By way of rebuttal, Bruce Oldfield, a British fashion designer, said, “When someone says that lime-green is the new black for this season, you just want to tell them to get a life.” And Michael Beirut, the graphic designer, said, “Innovation is the new black.”


Footnote: The book title is a phrase borrowed from advertising giant David Ogilvy, who was famous for impressing slogans on his staff. Among other things, he famously said, “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative” and “Don’t bunt. Aim out of the ball park. Aim for the company of immortals.”

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