Top 10 Things Non-Designers Need to Know About Designing

As any good business person knows, the message you’re trying to convey in your brand, product or presentation isn’t about what you think looks good. After all, if you’re creating something for your company, it’s not about what you like. It’s about what your customers like and what they will respond to. In order to get something that will appeal to them, here’s some guidance on what I think are the top 10 things to considered when designing a project.

 

1. CHOOSING AND USING COLOR

Probably the most powerful tool in a designer’s tool kit is color. A specific color or selection of colors can invoke a mood, convey hierarchy, focus attention or relay a brand’s personality. There’s a couple different ways you can incorporate color and I’ll get into more detail in a later post about color meaning and theory. For now, here’s a couple tips on how to choose and use color.

CHOOSING COLORS

I recommend keeping colors simple. Choose no more than 2 plus black (and don’t forget the white of the paper too). If you’re creating something for your company, use corporate colors and try and keep personal favorites out of the design.

USING COLORS

Don’t get too crazy with using blocks or shapes of solid colors, at least at first. Use color to help define the hierarchy in your type by coloring headlines and incorporating photos to add additional colors. If you do use blocks of color, use them as banners for your headlines or other important type. Again, keep coloring simple until you know how things are going to look when they are printed. Sometimes that black type on the blue banner doesn’t show up very well when printed. Also consider if you’re sending the piece out to a professional printer or if you intend to print in-house. Colors can look very different between your home printer or company’s printer and a professionally printed piece.

I've put together a small collection of color palettes based on specific mood categories along with their RGB numbers. Keep in mind of how white and black will play into your color palette as well as neutral colors like light tans, grays and creams.

 

 

2. TYPOGRAPHY

Fonts, type, typography, whatever you want to call it (each of those terms actually mean something a little different but we’ll stick with simple today!) is another essential part of communicating your message. Size is a big part of the equation too and I’ll get to that in a bit. 

My suggestion is to compile a collection of 15-20 fonts and keep them as your personal font arsenal. Choose some serif fonts (those with the tails at the tops and bottoms of the letters) as well as san serif fonts (straight up and down fonts with no tails on the letters). Include decorative, handwriting and other fonts that look different than the other, more traditional serif and san serif fonts. 

Here’s a quick list of some of my favorite fonts. Just click and save for reference:

 

Be sure to test your collection by using them in your projects and seeing how they work (or don’t work) together and making adjustments as needed. Once you’ve settled on a base collection, you’ll be more efficient at selecting fonts for your projects. And you can always add more fonts to the collection as you find ones that work within your arsenal. Just like with colors, resist the temptation to use more than 2 fonts. Too much variation can cause confusion and destract from your message. 

Ok, onto size. The main thing to understand about size is that everything doesn’t need to and shouldn’t be the same size. Keep headlines and sub headlines larger than your body copy. Size as well as color can help guide your viewer around the page. Remember that some fonts are just inherently larger than others. Typography is measured in points so keep in mind that if you have a 12pt font that looks great and is very readable, that’s not necessarily going to be the case across all font styles and families.

 

3. WHITE SPACE — A.K.A “BREATHING ROOM”

When you design with elements such as color, type and graphics, you’re not only using those elements but the white space around them as well. You should look at this as an additional tool to use when figuring out how you want your copy and images to live on the page. 

White space or breathing room for the eye is important because it actually gives the eye space and time to rest between everything else it has to concentrate on within the page. If you’ve crammed every little bit of info you can into all the space you have, the brain becomes overwhelmed and it tells your eyes to look away so they can rest and refocus. That’s obviously bad. As a rule of thumb, try to keep at least 1/4 of your total space with no content, preferable 1/3 if you can swing it.

 

4. PHOTO AND GRAPHICS (VECTOR VS RASTER)

This subject is a little more complex and I will definitely revisit this in a post devoted just for this topic. For now, an important thing to remember is the difference between a vector and a raster. A vector graphic is an image made entirely of lines and shapes. A raster is an image created entirely of pixels, which are small squares of information. The reason why it’s important to know the difference is because a vector image can be resized and not look fuzzy when blown up on screen or when printed. Not so much for the raster image. When a raster is resized (especially when made bigger) and it doesn’t have the appropriate number of pixels, it will look fuzzy and just down right crapy. Take a look at this graphic:

The measurement of how many pixels the images is made of is called resolution. The higher the resolution, the better the image will look when it is printed and/or scaled up. Most images from the internet are at a very low resolution (72 dpi) and do not look good if you try to make it bigger. If you’re printing a flyer, you want to stick with a much higher resolution for your raster images (at least 200dpi, 300dpi if the image is quite large). However, if you have an image at 72 dpi and it’s pretty small in your piece, you can get away with it. Just don’t size it up from the size it was when you got it off the internet.

 

5. FOCUS

This is lightly tied to the white space conversation because in order to have focus, you need to have white space to help direct your focus. Focus is created by using the things you do with color, typography and images. When you decide what your message is, your headlines copy and imagery help to convey that message and focus the attention where you want it to go. 

For Western cultures, focus needs to happen in a top to bottom, left to right order. Your focus needs to point the viewer at the first thing you want them to see and then so on down the page. Side note: When I was in college, I would go to my roommate with a design project in hand and show it to her asking “what do you see first?” This was a great question to see what the true focus of my piece was! Thanks Sara for always being willing to answer that repeat question! 😉

 

6. ALIGNMENT/GRID SYSTEM

In order to have organization in your project, your graphics and copy need to be aligned in some kind of standard manner. Otherwise your message will get lost because your audience will be searching for consistency and order. The human eye is naturally drawn to information that is organized and within a grid system (whether simple or complex), and it will help you lay out your info so that your audience can read it.

Creating a grid system can be as simple as bringing in some guidelines so that the main things of your piece align down the page. That doesn’t mean that everything has to be left justified or centered. Just stick with a couple guidelines and play around with lining elements up on those lines. 

Check out this example of using chunks of the page as well as guide lines to help create alignment, focus and order:

 

 

7. PRINT VS SCREEN — WYSINWYG

So you’ve probably heard of WYSIWYG. Well, in the design world, there’s another annoying, long acronym that we use – What You See Is NOT What You Get. This means that what you see on your monitor screen will most likely NOT be what it will look like when it is printed out. 

Screwy, right? 

This is key for color, typography and graphics. Colors on screen are seen in RGB (red, green, blue) but what is printed is CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black). So that orange that looks super vibrant on screen could look like a light shade of mud when printed (there’s another reason for this as well, but again, I’m keeping things at a 10,000 foot level here). 

As for typography, sometimes you think that 8pt type looks good but when you print it, you realize you need that magnifying glass you like to keep hidden in your desk drawer to read it. Imagery can be just as deceiving. It looks great on screen and then when printed, you realize how fuzzy and awful it looks (see #4!). The best defense you have against WYSINWYG is to print your piece at least once before you finalize it. You can change the colors, tweak your font sizes and just have a general look-over of what you’ve created before the rest of the world sees it.

 

8. PROGRAMS AND WHY YOU SHOULDN’T DESIGN IN WORD

Because I am a designer, I will ALWAYS advise to NEVER use Word to design anything. If you're responsible for creating flyers, simple marketing announcements or presentations for your company, invest in design programs because they are equipped to do much more than Word can. My experience is with Adobe products, but I’m sure there are other programs out there that may be more economical for a tight budget (please feel free to add your experiences below in the comments section if you want to give a shout out to other good non-Adobe products).

As for Adobe products, InDesign was made to handle more complex layout projects such as books, multiple paged brochures, annual reports, etc. Illustrator is great if you want to create more with vector graphics or if you have more shapes or drawings than copy and images. I prefer to use Illustrator when I’m doing posters, invites and simple flyers or brochures. If I’m doing more book or catalog design, then I’ll go with InDesign just because I like the way it handles pagination. Photoshop is also a key in my daily work because I’ll adjust photos that don’t quite print right or I’ll create graphics for online posts and social media content. 

Whatever you choose to use, be sure it has a great online resource for support and help. The last thing you want is to be fumbling around with a crapy program when you’re just trying to make the type blue and lined up with that image of your boss and coworkers!

 

9. FILE FORMATS

Once you have your project completed and you’re ready to get it to a professional printer or out on your site or social media platforms, you should know about the common formats to deliver your files. For print, most professional printers will accept high resolution PDF files and for every Adobe program, you can export your work as high, medium and low resolution PDFs. Sometimes printers want the native files and for more complex projects, you should use the package feature within the design programs to gather all the necessary files. The native file extensions are specific to each program (.psd for Photoshop, .indd for InDesign and .ai for Illustrator). 

As for website and social media graphics, the format can vary from jpg, pdf, png and gif. There are others but these four are the most common. They all have their own feature and benefits and as long as you don’t need a transparent background, jpg is the most common format. You can check out my post File Formats and When To Use Them for more details about file formats. Check out this cheat sheet and save for reference!

 

10. HOW TO SET UP FOR A PROFESSIONAL PRINTER

So now that you’ve been introduced to some of the most common file formats, now it’s time to dive a bit into preparing files for your professional printer or for the online world. For print, I mentioned above that you can save or export your project as a high resolution PDF. This basically means that you’re sending one master file to the printer and whatever parameters you set when saving to PDF is what your printer has to work with. 

Adobe programs all have a feature that will package all the files (fonts, images) that you use in your project. This is key when your printer wants the native files. If your printer asks for outlined files, they want a file that doesn’t require them to mess with the font restrictions or linking them into their system. If you give them an outlined file, this means you will not be able to alter the type after you’ve outlined the fonts. So, be sure you save a version that’s not outlined so you can make changes to the copy later.

 

So that’s a rough overview of several important topics of design. It’s a lot, I know. Especially if you’re new to all of this nomenclature. But don’t worry. When you don't have the budget to hire someone like me to create simple marketing pieces, I'm hear to guide you through creating them!

If you have questions or comments you’d like me to address, please feel free to comment below. I’ll try to answer any questions via the comment area or a future post.