In sweet memory of Aldus Manutius

While cleaning out my closet, I dug up an original 1987 printed copy of the Aldus Guide to Basic Design by Roger C. Parker. It dates back from the early days of affordable laser printers and desktop publishing, when Aldus Pagemaker was one of the most popular applications in this area. For the trivia lovers: the software package was named after Aldus Manutius, a Venetian renaissance printer and publisher who lived between 1449 and 1515. Aldus and PageMaker were acquired by Adobe in 1994, and the final version of the software was released in 2001.


In the second half of the 1980’s, when I was teaching a Desktop Publishing course at Apple Computer, I used this publication as a reference to tell, show and instruct my pupils about the basic rules of page layout. And, well, the booklet’s content is still more than relevant today.

It starts with a simple-but-great customer-centric definition of graphic design:

“The purpose of graphic design is to make it as easy as possible for readers to understand your message.”

No, I’m not going to repeat all the guidelines Parker is giving about margins, columns, fonts, headlines, quotes, images, etc. You can buy a 2nd hand copy of the book online for a few cents – which, in my humble opinion, is still worth a thousandfold in value.

As a teaser, here’s a summary of the advise provided in chapter one:

  • Be willing to experiment. Creativity often beats experience, and a great design is usually the result of many alternate attempts.
  • Be flexible in applying the rules. Graphic style and content always need to be adapted to a publication’s purpose and audience.
  • Consistency helps to organize information. Be consistent in the way you handle the various layout elements, within a page, within a section, and within a document. (Note: this is what I introduced in an older posts “Don’t feed the chameleons.”)
  • Let the style of your publication develop according to the placement of its elements. Style is defined by a combination of your personal ideas, skills and experience, and the document’s specific requirements.
  • Recognize design appropriateness for symmetric and asymmetric balance. The layout you create may guide a reader’s eye movements over a page. One can use design elements to create an asymmetry that attracts visual interest.
  • Organize each page around a single dominant visual element. Putting a dominant visual element (like a headline or an image) on a page provides both a focal point and a resting spot for the reader’s eyes.
  • Design your publication in terms of facing pages. Two pages that may look good on their own may be difficult to read when presented side-by-side. This problem can be handled by constructing facing pages as a single entity.

Although the Aldus Guide is addressing the authors and editors of written publications, all the above rules (except for the last one) are good for presentation designers too. In case you’re looking for more tips and tricks for creating better slides, you may also reread my post about “Why look and feel matter in business presentations”.