Between the lines: the role of subtext in design


In our daily conversations, it is said that 93% of our communication is non-verbal. It’s a similar situation with graphic design: regardless of what the text says, there is a lot more being communicated by the nuanced subtext of the design.

In literature, subtext is that which is implied, rather than directly stated. In graphic design, you can think of subtext as the connotations attached to your work. Depending on the knowledge, biases, experiences and feelings of your audience, different ideas might be being transmitted by your piece. As a designer, if you know your craft, you can harness these elements to greatly increase the effectiveness of your design piece.

Good use of subtext in graphic design tends to do the following:

  1. Look back. Draw on previously established imagery that your audience is familiar with.
  2. Keep current. Know which design trends are currently in vogue, and make the intentional choice to embrace or avoid them.
  3. Understand your culture. Utilize colours and symbolism that have widespread, agreed-upon cultural meanings.

1. Look back

Art history can provide a great understanding of where our current selection of styles, brands and imagery has come from. Knowing about the development of our current visual culture can help a designer employ the art of allusion, steer around accidental acts of plagiarism, and gain powerful ideas by studying past techniques that worked. Whether it’s Andy Warhol’s pop art, World War 2 Propaganda Posters, or the studied industrial design of Raymond Loewy, an understanding of the history of design can significantly boost a designer’s relevance.

Here’s a great example: Jonathan Ives, the industrial designer responsible for most of Apple’s best selling products, was clearly influenced by the shapes and styles exhibited by 1960s Braun products. The fine line between imitation and inspiration has been walked with expert skill, and the results have motivated millions.

The future of Apple / The history of Braun

2. Keep current

Trends phase in and out with such speed that it’s hard to keep track of the buzz, but for designer, it’s crucial. Being on top of current flavours can be the difference between timelessness and tired-out clichés. You usage of trends can connotatively communicate innumerable ideas about your business or product: is it classic, living outside current fads? It is progressive, introducing not-yet-seen design ideas? Is it hip, on the level with the latest style — or is that sameness making it unoriginal? Is it stale, drawing on old ideas that have long since been abandoned? Being in tune with trends is not advocacy for fad-following; discretion must be employed. Choose only to employ that which best suits your project’s needs.

Trendspotting from recent times:

  • The current crop of “Web 2.0” logos are feverishly following some very narrow trends. Rounded, sans-serif fonts paired with bright colours and reflections are quickly becoming cliche, and might be good to avoid for now.
  • Over the past couple years, vectorized ornaments and illustrated floral patterns, often done “collage-style” to mix with photo elements, have become quite popular.

Vector elements mixing with photo-realistic objects have been hip for the past couple years

The London 2012 logo was reaching back to a trend that was already out of style in the late 80s, but this might have been foresight. Trends tend to cycle back every 30 years or so, and by 2012, it’s possible that bright neon might be back in style. We are already seeing signs:
The 80s are coming back

Above: Bright neon hoodies with jagged patterns are easily spotted in skater and hip-hop fashion these days, perhaps indicating that the colour pallette re-introduced by the London 2012 logo might be onto something after all. The nu-neon isn’t restricted to apparel, either: 80s-chic is appearing in music, as best demonstrated by Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A’s eclectic design sense. Regardless, the trends you employ in your design work are communicating distinct messages to your viewers. It remains important to be in control of those messages, hence, the motivation for staying up-to-date.

3. Understand your culture

Culture can be as broad as your nation and as contained as your own suburb. Wherever your design piece will be published, you should be conscious of the collective pool of beliefs and understanding that will shape its reception. Be sure that the design elements you employ are being chosen with your future audience in mind. This involves your symbols, photos, fonts, and even colours.

Consider the colour green. In Canada, green is loaded with a lot of meaning. It could stand for clean energy and sustainability, but it also might bring up ideas of left-wing politics and marijuana. Thanks to stoplights, certain shades of green can mean “go” — but a few shades darker, and green becomes a militaristic colour, associated with army uniforms. In China, you might find that green gets an especially positive reception. What are your colour choices saying about your work?

Photography is one area where designers can connect with culture in an especially clear manner. The idea of non-verbal communication in graphic design is clearest when talking about photos, as photographer Brian Kenner explains very well in this article. Whether your photos are specifically commissioned or merely purchased as stock, everything from your photo’s human subjects to its setting, lighting conditions, quality and composition transmits important messages. Consider the example below:

Subtext at its finest


It’s impossible to understate the importance of subtext in graphic design. Every time a viewer interacts with your design work, be it a pop can or a poster, a billboard or a band t-shirt, it’s like an instantaneous game of “word association” begins in their heads. What choices will you make to guide your audience towards your intended meaning? Beyond the text they’re reading, what messages are they receiving? Your ability to learn from the past, observe the present and absorb your culture will give you the ability to shift your design work from effective to exceptional.

  • Amy

    That Shred-It ad is probably one of the most funny and genius ads I have ever seen. I wonder if if they got any hassle or slap on the wrist from the government for this ad?