You can’t successfully break rules without knowing they exist. You most certainly can’t break them with any kind of intentionality or purpose until you know why they exist. Rules exist to protect us.
Stop signs exist to protect cars (and people) from each other. Speed limits are rules of the land that are decided and agreed upon by a group of people—though they’re subject to change. And bringing food into a movie theatre isn’t necessarily a law, but it’s certainly frowned upon. People make rules.
On the other hand, very few people need to be told that murder or theft is wrong. It’s a principle we inherently know as humans. We’re meant to follow principles because they’re intrinsic. Rules are made-up and potentially temporary.
So when we talk about breaking design rules, we’re really talking more about design principles than rules.
Let’s get one thing straight: Rules are not meant to be broken. They are meant to be tested.
We know the laws of gravity, yet we still jump motorcycles, bikes, and skateboards. Heck, we even fly helicopters and planes. But none of that would be possible if we didn’t first understand the principles of gravity that govern our ability to do these things.
We humans love the thrill of breaking the mold—to try something we’ve never tried. But often, just like jumping a bike, it can end tragically if not done with the right understanding and capability. A bike can’t be jumped successfully without understanding. It’s learned either by getting it wrong over and over again, or with small incremental pushes of the governing principles. Only then can you really learn to thrive outside the lines of what is deemed achievable.
So who decided design principles? Who decided that 120% was the right value for the proper type size to leading ratio (12/14.4, 14/16.8, etc.)? Do I really need to follow the rule of thirds? Does my work always have to represent the golden ratio, or better yet the Fibonacci Spiral?
I love this quote:
“Federal agents don’t learn to spot counterfeit money by studying the counterfeits. They study genuine bills until they master the look of the real thing. Then when they see the bogus money they recognize it.” — John MacArthur
This quote applies to our design work. We must do everything in our power to pursue the mastering of our craft.
We will never arrive. But the more we constantly seek greater understanding, the less guessing and hoping we’ll do. Guessing is reckless, whereas deduction and strategy are the result of poignant research and knowledge.
Small, incremental risks or tests are what keep us moving forward. Don’t throw caution to the wind and try just anything. Be precise and know the decisions you are making.
Personally, I hate taking big risks for the first time in my published work. I prefer to learn, take risks, and experiment in my personal work. My sketchbooks are full of terrible ideas that at one time I thought I could make work. There are folders of Photoshop documents I wish didn’t exist because they’re so embarrassingly poor.
But all of those things are part of the process of improvement. They’re a safe testing ground for things that aren’t yet ready for primetime. And with the right amount of attention, they might one day be worth something.
Create every day. Run yourself through the process. Learn to push the walls out on your creative box.
Pursuit of mastery is what earns you the right to start taking risks—not because of time spent, but because of the lessons you’ve learned along the way.
As you learn these new lessons, your decision-making will inevitably improve. The more familiar you are with the principles of design, the greater the foundation upon which you can build your experiment.
Learn more. Strive to become the most knowledgeable and then learn even more. Increase your understanding of this craft we call design. Then, test only the rules and principles you have learned.