Graphic Design 101: Repetition

When my wife asks me to get the mayo out of the fridge (maybe this is a guy thing), if someone has put it in a different container than what I’m used to, I’m in trouble. I can look right past it; I expect to see it in the container I’m used to seeing it in. There’s an expectancy, a predictability – it looked a certain way last time I saw it, and that’s what I’m looking for.

People like repetition. It reinforces and builds patterns in our minds. Most popular songs have verses and choruses – a repetitive structure that builds and supports the song. Repetition helps us remember; and though the chorus of a song is different than the verse, it repeats itself, satisfying our need for variety and predictability.

This principle holds true visually as well. The third principle outlined in Robin Williams’ book, The Non-Designer’s Design Book, is that of repetition.

So far we’ve covered proximity and alignment. But we have a few more tricks up our sleeves that we can use to increase the impact of our layouts. How can repetition help us?

aligned page no repetition

Not bad, but bland and lacks punch.

Headlines are a good place to start. Pick a different font, make it bigger, and make it bolder – the bolder the better. In fact, it’s a good idea to invest in a few extra-bold fonts, sometimes called “Black”. In the first example, we see our trusty page with the same font as the body copy. It doesn’t offend, but it’s bland and could use a bit more punch.

In the second example, I’ve used a different font, in this case Poplar and increased the size by a fair margin. It’s more interesting to look at and highlights the points brought out by each heading. Note that the size and font of the headings create a repetitive pattern that sort of ties everything together.

aligned page with bold headings

Here we've put the headlines in a different, heavy font, and made them red. What a difference!

When you’re doing something bigger than a single page – like a newsletter – the opportunities to use repetition abound. Page numbers should be the same font throughout the entire document (though different than the font you use in the body copy). Rules along the bottom of each page for multi-page documents help create a sort of graphic theme throughout; “bugs” that signify the end of each article should be the same throughout the publication.

What about pull quotes? If you’re working on a muli-page document like a newsletter, find some interesting excerpts in an article, copy them and insert into the appropriate places in the body of the article. Make sure all the quotes use the same font (though one different than the body copy) at least within the piece to create a graphic theme and enhance memorability. It draws the reader’s attention in a stylish way and makes the page waaaay more interesting to look at. And you do want people to look at your page!

Remember: the graphic elements that you repeat on your page are like the choruses in a song. Differing but repeating components satisfy our need for variety and predictability. Don’t neglect repetition. It’s another great way to increase the impact of your documents!


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