What is organic design? There are “organic foods” (even though there’s no such thing as inorganic food) and an “organic” movement that’s tied to ecological concerns. Organic food is free from chemicals, pesticides and other artificial additives. Organic design is similar; it avoids the “artificial” look of work that appears to have been created by software instead of by a caring, human artist.

How often do you look at design work that clearly broadcasts the “footprint” of whatever software was used to create it? Real design doesn’t look like a technology demonstration; it looks like the expression of a living, thinking person. In handwork, scuff marks from disc sanders or extraneous saw marks are unacceptable flaws. In digital design, the same standard applies; go beyond the software footprint to bring your work to life.

Here are some organic design tips for adding warmth to your digital design work.

Organic Design Tip—Use Natural Textures: There’s nothing quite like nature for creating natural textures. It offers a beautiful randomness that’s difficult to create intentionally. Keep an eye out for great textures and start a collection. Snap a picture of rough concrete or the rusting metal on the side of a dumpster. I get funny looks all the time from people who see me pointing my camera at unusual things—walls, tree bark, moss-covered ground—almost anything that can be used as a digital texture. Paper textures are especially useful; there’s nothing more uninspiring than a sea of white pixels. Mayang’s Textures offers a library of over 4,250 royalty-free textures for use in your projects. I have a collection of wood textures that I converted to seamless tiles. The tiles live in the “Patterns” directory in my Adobe Fireworks configuration files where they can be quickly accessed for filling vector shapes.

website with metal and carbon fiber textures

Organic Design Tip—Natural Colors: Part of being a designer is learning how to see deeply. Look at a printed poster, for example. It may have large areas of solid color, but if you observe them more closely, the glorious imperfections of ink on paper will be revealed; there are light and dark areas where the ink coverage is inconsistent. Ink is partially transparent; it interacts with the color of the paper and other printed elements beneath it. Instead of using solid, digital colors, start a collection of ink textures that you can colorize with the HSB (hue-saturation-brightness) filter. I have one texture I love that came from a scan of real ink rolled out on a piece of paper. Another technique involves printing a solid black page with a laser printer. If the printer is low on toner, you’ll get “organic” variations in coverage. If the page is completely dark, try crumpling it up and then scanning it for a different, but useful effect.


Organic Design Tip—Distressed Type: Distressed typefaces are popular, but they fall apart when words contain consecutive copies of the same letter. The distressed patterns lose authenticity because the patterns are repeated—something that would never happen in nature. Instead of using a distressed typeface, use an ink texture and then mask it with a typeface of your choice. To roughen things up even more, add a tiny bit of “add noise” filter (about 4% will do). If you want the text to look a bit older, add a very tiny bit of black inner glow (at about 15% opacity). If your text is black, set the opacity to about 90% and set the blend mode to “multiply” or “darken.” This allows the text to blend somewhat with the color of the paper (or whatever else it’s set on top of), producing a more natural effect. (All these filter and opacity specifications are approximate. Use your eye to dial in the best results).

Organic Design Tip—Emulate Real Printing Processes: Today’s printing technology is extremely accurate but not so long ago, printers working with letterpresses and silkscreens worked very hard to get different color plates to register correctly. With digital imaging software, we don’t need to worry about making the CMYK or RGB components of our images line up. We design on-screen and leave the registration problems to the printers. In doing so, we produce tight, precision work that is perfectly appropriate for glossy brochures and corporate websites, but by thinking like a printer, we can introduce new dimensions to our work. Examine the work of great silkscreen artists who produced thousands of posters for the WPA in the 1930s. Rich images were built up by overlaying a handful of colors. Some inks were overprinted; others had areas knocked out to make room for other colors. Printing with nylon screens in wooden frames introduced tiny variances in the locations of the various colors.

Introduce some “slop” into your digital design. Create work with a fixed palette of colors and learn to think like a screen-printer. Layer “transparent inks” by using blend modes. Knock out areas to reveal the paper texture beneath them. Shift a color a few pixels from where it should be to emulate natural variances in plate registration.

Organic Design Tip—Vectors: Anyone who has ever tried to draw a perfect circle or square appreciates the power of the ellipse tool and the rectangle tool. The pen tool is likewise a beautiful instrument. Its precision and simplicity are wonderful, but the perfect mono-weight lines produced by vector shape tools are stark and sterile; the real world rarely offers anything so perfect. Instead of solid, digital fills, use colored ink textures. Instead of perfect digital strokes, use a brushstroke or add some grain texture to the stroke to imitate the way a pencil skips over the grain of the paper.

vector fills and strokes

Organic Design Tip—Avoid Superfluous Filters: Bevels, glows, drop-shadows and other filters were conceived to add realism to digital work, but they are rarely applied with that goal in mind. Photographers use special diffuse lighting to achieve soft shadows not often encountered in nature. Digital designers often set the blur settings too high and then fail to achieve realistic shadows. Gradients are found everywhere in nature, but they’re usually subtle except on shiny, metallic textures. The bevel filter can simulate surfaces that have relief, but very few natural surfaces are beveled; most are cut square along the sides if their are cut in a uniform fashion at all.  Filters are wonderful tools but a little bit goes a long way; less is more. Find the point where a filtered graphic starts to look like a filtered graphic and then back off on the settings.


Organic Design Tip—Introduce Imperfections: An important part of natural imperfection is human imperfection. The things we use and love develop wear patterns from the way we handle them. Things get scratched. Screws get loose. Corners get dog-eared. Fingerprints and stains appear. Repairs are made. These imperfections tell the story of human interaction. If something is worn out, that’s because someone used it; that means someone cared about it. Perhaps the viewer will be more inclined to care about it, too, based on the silent recommendation implied by its wear patterns?

Organic Design doesn’t always have to be grungy or heavily textured; ultimately, the needs of your client will dictate the best direction to take. Though it’s easy to overdo things, consider the possible negative effects of not taking the time to polish (or scratch up) the details. Even in the stiffest of corporate settings, there is always room for work that implies that somebody cares. Explore the value of organic design to develop work that looks like it was done by you—not by your software.