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Liven Up Your Design Through Repetition

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Author Robin Williams offers practical, fun advice on creating continuity through repetition to make your design work appear more cohesive and professional.
This chapter is from the book

Robin’s Principle of Repetition states, “Repeat some aspect of the design throughout the entire piece.” The repetitive element may be a bold font, a thick rule (line), a certain bullet, color, design element, particular format, the spatial relationships, etc. It can be anything that a reader will visually recognize.

You already use repetition in your work. When you make headlines all the same size and weight, when you add a rule a half-inch from the bottom of each page, when you use the same bullet in each list throughout the project—these are all examples of repetition. What beginners often need to do is push this idea further—turn that inconspicuous repetition into a visual key that ties the publication together.

Repetition can be thought of as “consistency.” As you look through a sixteen-page newsletter, it is the repetition of certain elements, their consistency, that makes each of those eight pages appear to belong to the same newsletter. If page 7 has no repetitive elements carried over from page 4, then the entire newsletter loses its cohesive look and feel.

But repetition goes beyond just being naturally consistent—it is a conscious effort to unify all parts of a design.

When you get to the end of the information, does your eye just wander off the card?

Now when you get to the end of the information, where does your eye go? Do you find that it bounces back and forth between the bold type elements? It probably does, and that’s the point of repetition—it ties a piece together, it provides unity.

Headlines and subheads are a good place to start when you need to create repetitive elements, since you are probably consistent with them anyway.

So take that consistent element, such as the typeface for the headlines and subheads, and make it stronger.

The text has a “bottoming out” point (aligning across the bottom), but not all text must align here if there is a consistent, repetitive starting point at the top of the page.

Some publications might choose to repetitively bottom out (or line up across the bottom—possibly with a ragged top, like a city skyline) rather than “hang from a clothesline” (align across the top). One or the other technique should be used consistently, though.

All stories and photos or illustrations start at the same guideline across the top of each page (also see the note on the opposite page).

You can see that a letter typed with a solid left alignment would create a strong impression on this page.

Repetitions:

  • Bold typeface
  • Light typeface
  • Square bullets
  • Indents
  • Spacing
  • Alignments

Besides having strong repetitive elements that make it very clear exactly what is going on here, this person might also want to incorporate one or more of these elements into the design of his cover letter.

It’s fun and effective to pull an element out of a graphic and repeat it. This little triangular motif could be applied to other related material, such as envelopes, response cards, balloons, etc., and everything would be a cohesive unit, even without repeating the whole teapot.

Overlapping a design element or pulling it outside of the borders serves to unify two or more pieces, or to unify a foreground and a background, or to unify separate publications that have a common theme.

The great thing about repetition is that it makes items look like they belong together, even if the elements are not exactly the same. You can see here that once you establish a couple of key repetitive items, you can vary those items and still create a consistent look.

Remember this letterhead with the dots from Chapter 3? For a repetitive element, I capitalized on the dots. I enlarged two dots and put the little pictures of Mom and Pop inside (Mom and Pop are actually characters in a typeface called MiniPics Lil Folks). Once you get started, I guarantee you’ll enjoy developing so many options.

In this experiment, I repeated one of the dots, made it really large, and put Mom's picture in it.

Not wanting to leave Pop out, I put a white version of him in his own smaller plum dot and reversed him to the paper color.

Don’t overdo it with repetition, but do try “unity with variety.” That is, if a repetitive element is strong, such as a circle, you can repeat the circle in a variety of ways instead of repeating the exact same circle.

If an image is familiar to a reader, all it takes is a piece of it to help the reader make the connection.

This typewriter image, of course, has been used on all of the Screenwriting Conference’s promotional material, so at this point we don’t have to use the entire image. Once again, as in the example at the top, we see the advantage of using just part of a recurring image—the reader actually “sees” the whole typewriter.

Once again, you can see that repetition doesn’t mean you have to repeat exactly the same thing. In the card above, the headlines are all the same typeface, but different colors (unity with variety). The illustrations are all different styles, but all rather funky and ’fifties.

Just make sure you have enough repetitive elements so the differences are clear, not a jumbled mess. For instance, in this example you see that the recipes all follow the same format. When there’s an underlying sense of structure, you can be more flexible with the other elements.

Summary of repetition

A repetition of visual elements throughout the design unifies and strengthens a piece by tying together otherwise separate parts. Repetition is very useful on one-page pieces, and is critical in multi-page documents (where we often just call it being consistent).

The basic purpose

The purpose of repetition is to unify and to add visual interest. Don’t underestimate the power of the visual interest of a page—if a piece looks interesting, it is more likely to be read.

How to get it

Think of repetition as being consistent, which I’m sure you do already. Then push the existing consistencies a little further—can you turn some of those consistent elements into part of the conscious graphic design, as with the headline? Do you use a 1-point rule at the bottom of each page or under each heading? How about using a 4-point rule instead to make the repetitive element stronger and more dramatic?

Then take a look at the possibility of adding elements whose sole purpose is to create a repetition. Do you have a numbered list of items? How about using a distinctive font or a reversed number, and then repeating that treatment throughout every numbered list in the publication? At first, simply find existing repetitions and then strengthen them. As you get used to the idea and the look, start to create repetitions to enhance the design and the clarity of the information.

Repetition is like accenting your clothes. If a woman is wearing a lovely black evening dress with a chic black hat, she might accent her dress with red heels, red lipstick, and a tiny red corsage.

What to avoid

Avoid repeating the element so much that it becomes annoying or overwhelming. Be conscious of the value of contrast (read the next chapter and the section on contrasting type).

For instance, if the woman were to wear the black evening dress with a red hat, red earrings, red lipstick, a red scarf, a red handbag, red shoes and a red coat, the repetition would not be a stunning and unifying contrast—it would be overwhelming and the focus would be confused.

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