Donald T Sterling Graphic Design Foundation - a full page ad in the los angeles time is a terrible thing to waste

Everyday Graphic Design Tips for Non-Pros

People use graphic design every day for personal and professional projects. It is just so easy, what with all the desktop publishing tools and the services available on the web. Heck you can just print all kinds of flyers, invitations and business cards right on your home computer printer. There are tons of things people design everyday for work or fun: flyers, scrapbooking, signs, postcards, powerpoint, invitations, photo albums, postcards, garage sale signs, lost pet signs, tawdry personal advertisements, ugly myspace pages…. You get the picture. With that in mind, plus a recent request from a friend, I thought I’d write up some tips for everyday design.

Pro designers do rely on a lot of fancy software, training and experience, but there are some basic principles that we use that can be helpful in everyday design, whether you do it by hand or with basic publishing software.

DISCLAIMER: This is just a starting point for every day people to help avoid some common mistakes. Of course top designers intentionally break these rules all the time, it all depends on what you are doing.

Ok, here are the tips…

With colors, type and layout, consistency is key to creating a design that holds together. Headings, subheadings, captions, etc. should be handled the same way throughout your document. Your basic text should be the same everywhere. Only use a different treatment if you are offering a different type of information. If you want to emphasize certain text, use the same technique each time (bold, italics, color, whatever, just do it consistently).

First, start with a limited color pallet. Select just two or three complementary colors that work together. From these you might generate some lighter and darker shades of the same colors. Maybe an additional accent color. If you work within this pallet the overall page will be more coherent. You might reserve one color just to call attention. If you use it sparingly, when you do use it, it will be stronger. Keep in mind that basic software programs often offer very bright, saturated colors by default. Selecting slightly darker, faded or less saturated colors can make your designs appear more sophisticated and reduce the ‘electric’ appearance of the brightest colors.

Just like colors, it is important to just pick one or two type faces that are complementary. They should be different enough from each other that they can be easily distinguished. If you pick a typeface that is very unusual and has a lot of character, use it sparingly – just for headings or call outs. And you probably shouldn’t use another typeface with a lot of character in the same design (unless you can really make it work). Don’t use every font you have, it just makes things look messy and hard to read. Feel free to experiment with letter spacing, all caps or other type tricks, but, again, don’t over-do it. Pick one or two techniques and then use them consistently throughout your document. The basic type style for your text content should be simple and easy to read.

Line things up. It is amazing how much of a difference this can make to make a page work creatively and coherently. Whether vertically or horizontally on the page, if your elements start and/or end at the same place, the page will look more polished. Of course you can have some elements indented or staggered. But you can anchor them and make the placement look more intentional if other items are on the same plane with them. Imagine (or create) guide lines on the page.

Don’t be afraid to leave some margins. And remember that thin columns of text are easier to read.

Group items that go together and give them plenty of space from other items. Measure and make sure things are exactly the right size, placement or spacing.

Your design should invite a visitor in and lead them through the page. A catchy headline, or image might be largest thing on the page. The next tier of information should be a little less noticable, but also strong. For instance sub-headers on a page can offer a guide for what the reader may want to zero in on next. It is ok to make some text quite small. It can actually make it easier to read, and help the other key items stand out. A call-to-action might appear as a strong element at the end of the page, a logical final thing to do after reading the rest of the page.

Don’t be afraid to leave space on the page. It can make your message stronger and easier to read. Group similar items together and leave space between things that don’t go together.

Placing a box around something can help to set it off, but try to avoid using this crutch too much. It is easy to fall into a trap of putting everything in boxes and then everything is cluttered and nothing stands out. Try other ways to group and separate information like lining it up together or unifying it with another illustration or design element.

Make Multiple Layouts
I know people usually don’t have time to create one really nice looking design, let alone more. But that’s how the pros do it. If you try to layout your page in a couple of different styles it can be very liberating. You get less serious about each one. Each one can develop its own flavor. Perhaps some of the ideas you are using work better in one layout than in the other. That way you don’t feel the need to keep something if it is not working with other ideas you are using on that design. Best of all, in the end, you have something to compare side-by-side and you can actually pick and use the better one.

Use Stock Illustrations or Photos
You don’t need to use lame clip art! Resources like Istockphoto can supply you with tons of photos and funky illustrations (this is a great fairly new resource and each photo or illustration only cost anywhere from $1 to a few bucks).

Proof Read
(Anyone who has spent time on this website knows that it does not follow this suggestion. But on more important stuff, it is best to get it right. It can be expensive to have piecs reprinted!)

After you’ve laid out your design, take the following steps to for quality control.

  1. Print it out. It will be easier to notice problems or get a new perspective once it is printed.
  2. Have someone else review it.
  3. Take some time away from it and come back to see it with fresh eyes.

And a Few Special Issues for Print
Here are a few basics that are helpful to know when designing for print.

  • Screen Resolution/DPI: Graphics on computer screen are low resolution (usually 72 dots per inch – dpi). For print you generally need at least 150 dpi and preferably 300 dpi. (you can go higher, but it is not necessary for most everyday purposes). If you start with a low resolution image and make it larger, it will look blurry or pixilated. You should start with a high resolution image. (I’ll leave the rest of the technicalities to another article).
  • Colors: Computer monitor colors are much brighter than colors on a printed page. It is very challenging to get screen colors to match print, so don’t be surprised. Be aware that if you are using a regular 4 color process, certain colors like oranges, will be darker and dingier. If you need a certain color you need to use spot color which uses the exact color of ink you desire, rather than a blend. Color guides are available to show you exactly what your printed results will be.
    Full Bleed: When designers create pieces with color that goes right to the edge of the page, the document is actually designed for a larger page and then the final piece is trimmed by the printer. Whatever the piece is get the specs from the printer or publisher because standard sizes can be much more affordable than custom work.
  • Color Printing: Sometimes it can be cheaper to print in just one, two or maybe three ink colors. If cost is important you should ask the printer if it will be cheaper. (Remember, in a two or three color print job, black is counted as one of the colors.) Full 4 color printing is much more common now and sometimes is cheaper than 2-color jobs. You should talk to your printer before doing your design to understand your specifications.

Hire a Pro:
And, one slightly snobby tip. For design that is crucial to your business, you really ought to hire a good pro designer.

For everything else — have fun and I hope these tips help!