Design Basics: Repetition Rocks

Even if you've never attended a single art class, you can still design creative and easy-to-read documents for any occasion. Just keep in mind some easy principles, and you'll wind up creating interesting--even compelling--posters, cards, invites, newsletters, and other everyday items. In the second installment of this four-part series we talked about alignment and how using alignment techniques gives readers a hard edge for their eyes to follow. Before that, we discussed the concept of proximity. This time we'll look at the third design rule: repetition, which is arguably the most fun!

Repetition, repetition, repetition

Whether you're creating a tri-fold brochure, an 800-page book, or a 1/4-page ad, repetition will give your piece a cohesive feel by introducing consistency. Have you ever noticed that newspapers, books, and manuals all have headlines, subheads, and header/footer styles that look the same throughout? This makes each page feel related, even though the content is different.

Case in point: Recently, I received a brochure in the mail with a butterfly illustration on the cover. As I unfolded it, the butterfly appeared again and again, though smaller and in different positions. Finally, the butterfly appeared on the back at bottom right, giving me the impression it had "flitted" through the brochure and landed at the end. "What a clever design," I thought. To introduce repetition into your designs, simply pick an item in your layout--a graphic, font family, or color--and repeat it throughout the piece. In the example below, feathers were repeated to draw attention to important details, the text color was snatched from the logo, and bolding was repeated for the first line of text in each block.

Depending on the program, repetition can be as simple as selecting an item and using copy and paste. However, if you're using a program that supports layers--such as Photoshop, Illustrator, or InDesign, here are a more few tips.

Duplicating layers If the repeatable item lives on its own layer, you can duplicate that layer by activating it and pressing Command+J. If you have a selection (marching ants), this shortcut will jump the selection onto another layer.

Ungrouping artwork If you're working with artwork from Adobe Illustrator, you might need to break it apart in order to select the piece you want (like the feather below). If that's the case, select the entire thing, choose Object -> Ungroup and then use the Selection tool to grab the bit you want. You can also copy an item in Illustrator and paste it into InDesign. Sweet!

Step and Repeat Both InDesign and QuarkXPress let you repeat an item any number of times at an equal distance of your choice. After selecting the item, choose Edit -> Step & Repeat in either program.

Copying color If the program you're using has an Eyedropper tool--such as Photoshop, Illustrator, or InDesign--you can use it to snag color from elsewhere on your page. Just highlight the text, activate the Eyedropper tool (circled below) and then mouse over to where the desired color lives and click to apply (you'll see the new color appear in your Tools panel, as indicated below).

As you can see from the final product below, a little repetition goes a long way toward giving your designs a more cohesive feel. See you next time for the fourth and final design secret: Contrast.

[Lesa Snider, founder of, is the chief evangelist of, author of Photoshop CS4: The Missing Manual (Pogue Press/O'Reilly, 2009), and several video training titles from both and]

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