Great design has an effortless look about it. All the elements work well together, the balance is just right, no detail has been overlooked.
But what looks like something effortless usually has taken a bit of time–and the skill of a practiced hand–to reach that point of “just right”. If you’re new to design, or if you’re a small business owner trying to learn how to design things for yourself, there are simple things to look out for that will quickly and easily clean up a design and make it look more professional.
1 | THE RIGHT TOOLS
In order to get your design off on the right foot, you need to be sure you’re using the proper tools for the project you’re working on. For design work, Adobe design software is where it’s at. And speaking from a graphic designer's standpoint, they're an absolute necessity. These design programs can be intimidating to use at first, but with practice they’ll give you the best results. Plus, there’s lots of tutorials and online classes geared specifically toward using these individual programs. There are even classes that teach how to do a specific skill/project within a specific program, so the opportunities to learn are endless!
The top three Adobe CC programs are Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. The latter of which is my favorite, go-to program since it makes layouts a breeze. Each program has it’s own sweet spot for the types of projects they suit best, whether it’s editing photos, creating logos, digitizing hand-writing, or creating layouts. And as great as all of these programs are on their own, they also work together beautifully.
2 | TYPOGRAPHY
The internet is chock-full of great (and not-so-great) fonts. There’s a few key points to consider when it comes to typography:
Quantity + Chemistry
One of the keys to exceptional design is choosing a small selection of quality fonts that pair well together. When a design has more than two or three fonts, things get very messy, very quickly. By limiting the number of fonts that are used in your design, you’re automatically making your design look cleaner and more professional. The other key is to choose fonts that pair well and complement each other. Some different examples are pairing a bold slab serif with a light sans serif, an airy script with a classic serif, etc. Ultimately, the fonts should work together to balance each other and suit the mood of the project. A quick tip for pairing fonts to create variety without overwhelming the design is to use a font that has an extensive family. For example, being able to pair a bold weight with a light weight of the same font is a great option for keeping things clean, plus it helps establish hierarchy in your design (more on that later!).
Personality + Purpose
It may sound funny, but fonts each have their own personality. Seriously. And because of this, you need to pay close attention to details so you're sure to choose the right one. The most minuscule differences between two seemingly similar fonts can actually make them have quite different personalities. When selecting fonts for a project, keep in mind your brand, the tone you want to convey, and who your audience is. For example, a tech start-up company would want to use a clean, minimal sans serif font over a frilly, feminine script.
Quality + Reputation
There are countless fonts available out there, and it’s tempting to go and download every free one, just because you can. However, there are many, many fonts out there that are poorly made. When you’re looking for fonts to use, go look at foundries that have a good reputation, or see which fonts professional designers use on a regular basis. (Pro tip: a lot of brand identity designers will include the fonts they use in a business’s branding board, so that’s a good place to check for good, solid fonts.) There’s plenty of free, high-quality ones available, but also keep in mind that a great font can really be worth the investment.
3 | SPACE
If you look closely at professional designs, you’ll notice that the design elements are given enough breathing room. Why does space matter so much? Because it encourages people to look at the design and absorb the information it contains. When something overwhelms the eye, you usually want to avoid looking at it. Having space for the eye to move around allows it to take in all the design elements and information that are working together to effectively convey the message of whatever you’re designing, whether it’s a blog post graphic, a media kit, or a pricing sheet.
Besides having enough space in your design, you also want to make sure that the spacing among design elements is consistent. Making sure things are properly aligned and evenly distributed (the Adobe programs all have nifty buttons to help with this) is a super quick fix, and is a tiny detail that can make all the difference.
4 | BALANCE + HIERARCHY
Having space in your design helps move the viewer’s eye around, but not without the help of balance and hierarchy. When designing something, it’s important to be aware of whether or not the piece you’re working on is equally weighted. For a design to be balanced, it doesn’t have to be perfectly symmetrical, though. The way you arrange elements in your layout will help determine a balanced design, and it will also help you achieve a proper hierarchy. If you’re unfamiliar with design, you may be wondering what hierarchy has to do with it.
Hierarchy in design elements works to signal the eye as to what the most important information is. Your eye takes in these signals and moves around from one piece of information to the next in the order it’s “instructed” to. When hierarchy isn’t used properly, it can make things really confusing. Think of hierarchy as a map. When it’s used properly, it’ll take you on the most direct route and you’ll find your way from point to point easily. When it’s used improperly, you’ll either be pin-balling all over the place, trying to piece together information, or you’ll overlook entire blocks of information because your attention got pulled in the wrong direction.
If you look at a print ad, you’ll notice there’s a headline, perhaps a sub-head, some additional body copy, and then usually the company’s contact information at the bottom. The headline is often put in a bold or eye-catching font to draw attention and should be the first thing a viewer notices. This short bit of text piques their interest so that they continue on to the sub-head to read a little more information, and then down to the body copy for even more information about that particular advertiser’s product/service. After they've read all that information and connect it with any supplementary visuals, they see the company the product/service belongs to. So, the ad draws attention, gives information, should include a call-to-action, and then provide the information to act on it.
5 | COLOR
What a broad topic! There’s so much more to color than what meets the eye. However, for the purpose of this post, we’re going to keep it limited to the part color plays in keeping a design clean and professional-looking. Just as we talked about with typography, color needs to be limited to a palette that plays nice together and suits the mood and brand of the piece you’re designing. Color can also be used to help reinforce hierarchy by calling attention to certain text or elements.
Quick tips: Avoid using colors without enough contrast to ensure readability. Also avoid colors that “vibrate” when they’re next to each other. Certain shades of blues and reds/oranges can be very unpleasant to look at when they’re paired together.
If you already have a brand identity in place, then you should already have a set color palette. Using the same colors consistently across all your media, from print to digital, is just one way to help you build brand recognition (and make you come across as more professional!). Plus, color works hand-in-hand with other design elements to properly communicate the message you’re sending to the viewer. For example, let’s say a pricing sheet is being designed for a wedding photographer who specializes in romantic, documentary-style photos. Colors like soft lavender and blush suit the mission and vision of that business much better than dark or super-saturated colors. And those colors work with the photographer's typography palette of (let's assume) a classic serif and feminine script to create a cohesive, well-designed image.
Having all your design elements, from the typography to the color, work well together will play a huge part in successfully creating a professional-looking design piece.
6 | QUALITY IMAGES
Not all designs include photographs, but when they do the quality can make or break it. Having high-quality images are a huge contributor to how professional your design looks. On top of that, having images that suit the mood and brand of what you're designing is also a big contributor to how successful and effective your design will be.
Even if you can’t afford to pay a professional photographer, you can still produce quality images given the proper tools and practices. Remember the design tools I mentioned earlier? Well, Photoshop is definitely your friend when it comes to helping create quality images. Adobe’s other photo-editing software is Lightroom, which makes it easy to edit photos in batches. (Note: this program is most useful if you’re shooting photos with a DSLR camera in RAW format). If you take a picture with your phone, but the lighting wasn’t exactly right, you can open it up in Photoshop – or Lightroom – to adjust the exposure, curves, contrast, etc. It’s amazing the difference that the smallest adjustments can make to the professionalism of your photos! Taking the time to edit your photos so they all look consistent will also go a long way to boosting brand recognition and overall quality.
Well, those are the top six things to watch out for when you're tackling your next design project! Knowing the fundamentals of solid design and how they all work hand-in-hand can make a big impact on your potential to create clean, professional-looking pieces. As you're designing, keep in mind that all of these guidelines work together. For example color, typography, and photography all work together to exude a mood, and typography and color can be put to work to help establish hierarchy.
As a small business owner, it's so beneficial to have skills in all different areas that can help benefit your business. If you're a small business owner who's keen on learning more design, then I hope this post will serve as a helpful guide for you! However, if you're a small business owner whose plate is already too full without adding design work to it, then maybe I can help you! One of the services I offer is in-house design. This service is geared specifically toward business owners who have an established brand identity but need some extra pieces designed to help keep things looking consistent, cohesive, and professional. If you're interested in reducing your stress by wiping away the worry of design work, you can read more on my services page. Or just feel free to get in touch!