Layout 101: The Importance of Visual Communication
“One of the most important parts of visual communication is knowing your audience.” –Anne Gregersen
“You can have an art experience in front of a Rembrandt… or in front of a piece of graphic design.”–Stefan Sagmeister
There is a lot that can be said about graphical design and the importance of it concerning published works. Some think it is a frivolous thing, the “icing on the cake” so to speak. It is the pretty colors and shapes which grab the attention of potential buyers. A bright and pretty lure meant to draw people in. In some ways, this is true.
The job of a graphic designer is not particularly complicated to understand. Simply, they are in charge of visualizing the message of a product, to communicate the tone and intent of the work. Exactly how they do this is what separates the good from the great. A graphic artist needs to consider various ways of communicating the core of the product in such a way that the consumer, at a glance, becomes intrigued to explore the product further.
One of the most important parts of visual communication is knowing your audience. This is the case whether you are creating the layout for a newspaper article or if you are publishing RPG content on the Internet. In the case of RPG content, the consumers are often looking for a specific thing: adventures, player or GM options, monsters, or something else entirely. If you know who you are designing for, it becomes clear by the way you communicate your product. A muddy, confusing product communication shows a lack of awareness about who the intended audience is.
A “good” piece of graphical design consists of a multitude of different components interacting with each other, and which together creates an expression. Whether or not a design actually looks “good”, and which elements are important, is extremely subjective. This makes most discussion about this topic muddled. However, there are a few basic elements that must be considered when thinking about good graphical design, at least concerning RPG content and book publishing:
If we were to look at an example of knowing your audience in relation to these elements, the adventure An Ogre and His Cake by Christopher Walz and Emmet Byrne is an excellent choice.
An Ogre and His Cake is a short adventure intended, designed, and marketed to young children which would introduce young kids to Dungeons & Dragons. With the cover, as seen below, it mostly succeeded in communicating this intent.
- The cover is set up to be reminiscent of standard 5th Edition D&D hardcovers with the red diamond beneath the title and the red slash across the bottom of the page.
- The DMsGuild logo has even been put in the same position as the D&D logo is traditionally placed. This associates the adventure with the market it is trying to reach, and also lightly associates it with officially published material, giving it further credibility.
- The image and font choice for the cover excellently communicates what adventure is about. The product is made for a child audience, and is therefore trying to actively catch the attention of those who would be interested in such a concept. The crudely drawn shapes, font, and characters look like a child sketched them on a piece of paper before stuffing it in their backpack. Most people who look at this cover immediately associates it with children, something the publishers of this adventure was actively trying to accomplish.
The authors of An Ogre and His Cake knew their audience. They were not trying to sell their adventure to a general audience, they were specifically looking to sell it to people wanting to play a game of D&D with children.
This concept of knowing your audience and communicating the concept of the product you are selling is not easy. It takes years of experience and hours of research to properly understand what makes a certain group of buyers respond to a design’s presentation.
In the case of Dungeons & Dragons, many different types of content can be published under the same umbrella that is 5th Edition, and to stand out can be a hard feat. But there are certain things one can do to catch the attention of possible buyers. Monster manuals usually have a unique monster on the cover. Products set in Ravenloft favor dark color and a general horror aesthetic. Being conscious of the audience you are selling to and how to communicate the idea of your product is a great step toward becoming a better graphic designer.
Later posts delve further into the “rules” of layout: generating color stories, using appropriate typography, and composition of pages and product covers.
Anne Gregersen is a writer of RPG content and a student of Digital Design at Aarhus University in Denmark. She has released multiple titles for Dungeons & Dragons on DMsGuild and on DriveThruRPG, including her own bestselling 5e world setting and a detailed guide on creating apocalypses in the world’s greatest roleplaying game. You can support her work on Patreon, and follow on Twitter: @AnnesFlashBack.