10 Tips for Designers
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10 Tips for Designers

Great design is more than a creative vision. It's placing a variety of elements that visually represent an idea and achieving harmony among these elements so they generate a reaction together.

By Johnny Shell, Vice President, Print Technology and Training, SGIA
This article appeared in the SGIA Journal May / June Edition 2019 Issue and is reprinted with permission.
Copyright 2019 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

Creating a great design is a vast wilderness, involving the pairing of shapes and fonts, object scaling, alignment and white space.

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  • #1: Research
    According to Phoebe Cornog and Roxy Prima, the design duo that make up Pandr Design Co., research is the first step in any design project.

    "Do some research on the client and the demographic they are trying to reach. We want to know what makes sense for the brand and overall aesthetic before we put any pens to paper," Cornog says.

    Who is the intended audience? What is the benefit of the product or brand? What message is needed to communicate these benefits? Why should a consumer buy the product or use this brand? The list of possible questions is long, so if you don't already have a client questionnaire, develop one. It's an easy way to gather a lot of information quickly.

    The information you collect will shape how the design will ultimately come together.

    #2: Sketch
    You may be more comfortable jumping right in to a graphic application like Adobe(r) Photoshop(r) or Adobe Illustrator(r), but resist temptation, and put pencil to paper first.

    Well-known designer Aaron Draplin, Draplin Design Co., advises, "Sketch your ideas quickly, with quick gestures, and don't spend a lot of time. You're simply finding your way here to allow the design to take on various forms naturally."

    He also suggests designers "look for opportunities using existing constraints like a company name or their initials when designing a logo." Draplin believes "Function is always first," so when you have several designs sketched, take a step back and determine which function best. Then you can begin using your graphic application to improve them with color, perspective and scaling.

    #3: Explore the Dark Side of White Space
    Sometimes, the white space on the artboard can be an open playground, but sometimes it corrupts what may be a great idea. Everything looks perfect on a white background, but pair it with a color and things can get crazy.

    Place the design or logo on a dark or colored base to see how it does. That said, don't forget that white space can also help to meet your design objective. Jan Tschichold, who played an influential role in graphic design in the 20th Century, believed that white space should be regarded as an active element, not a passive background. Just look at Apple, who is great at using white space to increase the perceived value of their products.

    Think about all the possible uses for the design, and don't let that white space blind you.

    #4: Balance Symmetry vs. Asymmetry
    Symmetry produces balance, order, harmony and aesthetically pleasing results. Symmetry is a fundamental principle of Gestalt psychology, a human behavior theory that suggests our minds naturally create order in the objects we see and encounter. The theory implies that our mind understands an external stimulus as whole rather than the sum of its parts. Designs that require more stability, organizational structure or need to convey a conventional message of trust often use more symmetry in the design.

    Asymmetry is the exact opposite of symmetry. It introduces inconsistency, imbalance and visually complex objects that are heavier than symmetrical objects. If you like taking risks, asymmetry can reinforce your message and can improve an otherwise boring design.

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    #5: Use the Symbols Palette
    Think about all of the logos and designs you've created, then consider where they are used: T-shirts, hats, hoodies, etc. Create a stock template for all those end use applications so you can just drop in your design. For example, Draplin has a vector of a man in a T-shirt. All he does is drop the logo on the front to imitate a man wearing the design. It's simple, but effective, and all of these templates - and the logos you work with - can be stored in your Symbols Palette, which saves you the time in searching for that logo file. Draplin also built a Pantone(r) chip for proofing purposes and added it to his Symbols Palette. He simply drops the chip onto the artboard and changes the color to what is used in the design.

    #6: Make it Legible

    Cornog and Prima believe legibility is the most important aspect of a design. "If you can't read it, there's no point," they say. Legibility makes visual information frictionless, so the viewer doesn't have to think to understand the message.

    If the viewer has to pause or take time to absorb and understand what message is being conveyed, there's a problem. It's like radio static: The message gets through, but it is hard to understand.

    Good legibility allows the viewer to recognize individual characters and should not be confused with readability, which focuses on how a font is arranged. Legibility includes factors like character width, x-height, character weight, and the overall shape and design traits of a typeface (serifs, etc.). Readability includes factors like font size, type case, line spacing and length, as well as color or contrast.

    #7: Construct Files You Can Work With
    Draplin does much of his work designing logos, posters and other products with Illustrator, and he's a firm believer in building files so they are easy to manipulate and edit. Instead of being locked in to the constraints of a font, create characters using shapes. Draw them so you have total control of width, height and proportion, making them much easier to edit.


    #8: Manage File Architecture
    It may seem removed from design, but it has everything to do with efficiency. Your file management structure likely needs some improvement. Draplin developed a simple but efficient filing system, starting with the file name. He then saves various versions of the files in project folders in their respective client folders. The project folders also store every asset the client has provided for the given project. It's one thing to create a great design, but it's just as important to create a filing hierarchy that's easy to navigate and therefore saves you time.


    #9: Use the Cloud
    Draplin is a big fan of storing his files on the cloud: "Why should I keep my entire design life on a machine? I mean, if it breaks or gets stolen, I lose."

    Conserving bandwidth is a big time-saving advantage of cloud storage. Instead of sending an email with a large attachment to your client, you can just send a link. Plus, you can access your files from anywhere you have a computer and internet connection.

    #10: Always Use Design
    Draplin often takes what he knows about design to overcome everyday hurdles. Design isn't a nine-to-five gig, and design thinking, a process for creative problem solving, is now being taught at leading universities like Harvard, MIT and Stanford. Design thinking encourages developing fresh perspectives to solve complex problems. Brands like Apple, Google, GE and Samsung have adopted this approach as a way to focus product development on the people that will use the products. The skills and talents you possess as a designer give you the power to explore a variety of solutions using logic, reasoning and imagination in all walks of life, not just in your designs. Take advantage of your skill set!

    Contact Johnny Shell at jshell@sgia.org.

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