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DIY Design Tips & Tricks

Having spent over a decade working in a number of corporate environments, it was a given that CI (Corporate Identity) was a fundamental part of any growing or established business. It’s a set of visual tools that enables a business to assert itself and deliver its services and products with a professional and premium perception to its audience.

Unfortunately the realities are that a lot of small businesses, start-ups and one-man/woman enterprises just do not have the ready cash to invest sufficiently in having those tools created by a professional designer. They often turn to creating their logo, choosing their fonts and their colours themselves and making use of whatever software they have access to, on their home computer or some online creative portals.

It is really important to me as a professional designer that I can offer guidance and advice to those who need to venture into DIY design. I have compiled my how-to on some fundamentals of graphic design, to aid the novice designer so they can achieve something that has a professional edge. You can do a course on how to use Photoshop, Illustrator or InDesign but that will only get you so far.

1. Fonts: Less is more

There are an infinite number of fonts to choose from, but most of the time you’ll only need 2. This is the first classic mistake of the novice designer. They see a list of beautiful and exciting typefaces and can’t decide so they choose too many. When you are creating a logo or a piece of marketing material, whether it be a Facebook post or a printed postcard, remember that you are creating a visual language that is unique to you and your business. The simpler your language, the easier it is for your audience to build a clear association with you and what you stand for. In addition, you are creating a systematic way of helping them navigate through your content. I’ll come to that in a bit more detail later. Fonts are the ideal method to create hierarchy. Solid strong fonts are clearly titles. Thinner, less dominant fonts are a secondary thought. Complicated script like fonts – are usually by-passed. They look nice but they require effort for an internet ‘skimmer’ to translate and absorb. Top Takeaway: Use fonts that compliment not compete for attention. So usually one that is visibly stronger than the other, so that something as simple as a title, is clearly the title!

2. Consistency

Consistency in any aspect of design is fundamental. There should be purpose and a system in place for every decision that you make. Why you may ask? For a plethora of reasons. Consistency is one of the easiest ways to demonstrate to your audience you are the best at whatever it is that you do, because you value the accuracy of anything you share with them. It also increases engagement by creating an opportunity for your audience to build up a level of familiarity with your brand. This is especially effective when you promote from within social media channels, where your market is constantly being bombarded with advertising and promotion. Being accurate with your content enables your audience to perceive you as a professional, and not allow them to be distracted. Distracted by mistakes or complex and unnecessary details. Like random use of colours or fonts. Top Takeaway: Inconsistencies create distraction & confusion. Consistency builds an audience.

3. Visual Hierarchy: A map for your audience

When creating a piece of design, whether it be a presentation, a flyer, a logo or your next post on Instagram, at the forefront of your mind should be your audience. With this comes a long list of questions you should almost systematically tick off as you proceed. One of the most vital questions is how to get my message across in exactly the way I want. Can I control the actual order a person reads my piece of design? Yes, you can. Think about a magazine cover, a newspaper spread or a billboard. The designer behind these had a goal in mind. The position of every piece of text and image was deliberate. Deliberately placed to dictate how you read and view the content. They did this by creating a systematic level of hierarchy, using a combination of fonts, text sizes, graphical details, colours and alignment. So next time you are on Canva designing your next flyer, give some more thought to what text you make bold, or how you position it, so that you can guide your reader through your content like a clearly defined map. Earlier I suggested that you should limit the number of fonts you use. This is one of the primary reasons why. Too many fonts create confusion along their journey and makes your design less affective when you have a specific message you want to deliver. Top Takeaway: If your audience has no idea where to look first, then how can you ensure your message is delivered effectively and with the correct tone of voice.

4. Be different: Search the internet with caution!

There can be a tendency to follow design trends when it comes to picking logos for your business, but an important characteristic of any design is longevity. So, it is import to be careful when following trends. For example, if you were to go to Pinterest and put in logo design in the search bar, your results will look something like my image here….and if you keep scrolling down its more of the same. The current trends in logo designs are thin, elegant often illegible fonts and lots of coral and earth tones. Which are by no means bad design now, but there is a good chance they will be later. Keep in mind you want your business to grow and last, and the same goes for your logo. Choose something that avoids trends and above all is directly a reflection of you or your product. Don’t let trends send you down a road that will lead you to re-designing your logo in a couple of years. Top Takeaway: You need to stand out in the crowd if you are going to be successful. Be unique, because you are!

5. Colour: Don’t re-invent the wheel

A simple but effective tip when choosing colours is being guided by what already exists. So, for example, you have a photograph and you want to include it on a social media post. You need to accompany this with a caption, either on top of the image or next to it in a box perhaps. You then need to choose a colour for the text or the box.

If you don’t already have one, try to establish your visual Identity and stick to a set of colours to create a certain level of consistency. When selecting colours, try to remain objective. You may have certain personal preferences but depending on your type of business, dismissing certain colours may limit your market reach. On the other hand, if at the heart of the business is ‘you’ then it’s almost fundamental to pick a colour scheme that reflects your personality – if that is what you are selling. If you haven’t got a visual identity in place a really effective way to select a colour is to look at that photograph. Look for something significant and then take that colour and use it. Ever worn a green shirt and been told it brings out the green in your eyes? If in doubt, this principle in design works every time! Top Takeaway: Be restrained and avoid random choices of colours.

6. Plan, Plan and plan some more.

There are plenty of people who believe that to be a designer, all your need is to learn how to use a few bits of industry standard software. Wrong! – That is simply not the case. You need to get creative, imaginative and step-into the shoes of your audience. This requires some element of planning that absolutely does not involve using the computer. So, turn your computer off before you start, grab a pen and paper and start here. If you start using a computer before you have a clear idea in your ahead about the layout or piece of design you want to achieve, it will never turn out well. You can spend hours, if not days fiddling with ideas and design layouts, and that time is doubled if you attempt to do this without sketching it out first.

Think about the bigger picture, this one piece of design, say a flyer for example, is just one piece in your portfolio of promotional material. Make sure you plan out in your mind ALL your marcom material before attempting one, otherwise there is a pretty good chance when you try to apply the same design on to something else, you’ll be forced to adapt the concept and then you will lose the ability to build your brand and a visual language that your clients start to associate with.

Top Takeaway: Even if, you can only draw a stickman, that will do. Always play around with your ideas on paper before switching on your computer. This will save you a lot of time!

7. Simplicity is Key

In life some things require an over-the-top delivery and then others sheer simplicity. For instance, if you ask my son he can never have too many sprinkles on his Ice cream – understandably you can’t go wrong here. However, when it comes to design over-doing things can be your downfall.

Design in many situations requires a restrained approach, and a refreshing air of simplicity. Whilst dabbling with some design tools, you’ll soon get distracted by the lure of fancy tricks and move away from the planning you had spent so much time doing. I have spent many years training professionals in the art of creating presentations. At no time have I recommended heavy use of special effects, shadows and animations, because it’s simply background noise. Think of your brilliant piece of design like a great pair of noise cancelling head phones, that helps your audience focus on you, when they are bombarded with marketing from every angle of life.

Top Takeaway: If you want your market to see you, don’t hide behind a wall of irrelevant tricks, be you in your simplest and clearest form, and that’s how you will stand out.

8. White Space – what?

This is one of the easiest aspects of design to implement yet it is almost always ignored. Don’t overcrowd your pages with content. More common than not is the tendency to fill space with as much information as you possibly can. Don’t be afraid to give your designs room to breathe. In actual fact ‘white/clean’ space around elements of your design have the ability to elevate the content. It is the easiest trick in the book. It has the ability to take a very amateur design to the next level and look professional.

Think of luxury goods branding. Apple, Chanel, Rolex. Their minimal look and feel makes them appear timeless. A valuable quality of any brand.

It can be so tempting to cram in images, graphics, and text wherever you can squeeze it in. However, space amongst your layout can help direct your audience and enforce your message. Try not to think about empty space being a wasted opportunity. Think of it as an element of your design, an instrumental one in making your design more legible, for a start!

Top Takeaway: When creating any piece of design, visualise an imaginary exclusion zone around each element. What is appropriate and what is not? Step back and take a look at some high-quality brands and their approach to compositions, and be inspired.

9. Effective use of graphics: Designers love icons

When you are creating promotional design content, it is often the case that you end up with a lot of content and your first thought is to reduce your font sizes to fit everything in - I see this often. Especially if you have read my previous tip about white space and are finding it impossible to implement this method. In addition, I often see social media posts where people have added their logo on to their post, but it is so small, it is actually diluting their brand image.

Re-read your copy and try to reduce reduce reduce. Edit it into it’s simplest form for anything promotional, if you are expecting people to read it. Then read it again and consider the content in a visual illustrative form. Us designers, we love white space and one of the most helpful ways to achieve this is by replacing repetitive content with graphics or icons, which we equally love. Symbols are an excellent way to organise content, and we are conditioned in everyday life to translate them a lot quicker than full sentences. From road signs to the back of a cereal boxes.

There are tons of places out there to get them free if you haven’t the skills to produce your own, and they can be modified easily to fit in with the style of any brand. You’ll find millions here for free, but there are plenty of alternative resources out there.

Top Takeaway: Avoid filling your websites or marketing material with repetitive written content. Don’t forget how little time people spend on websites or reading ads. So, use graphical diagrams or icons to help them navigate to the good stuff, and fast!

Now to my final and most fundamental point – Text!

10. Text formatting: Don’t make reading your designs a chore

I could easily write an article just on text formatting but here is the most important thing to remember. Help the reader, which means you want to make it as easy as possible to read whatever is written. Don’t make reading it a chore.

A simple way to make it easier for your reader is to not justify your paragraphs fully from left to right. You are unnecessarily creating uneven spaces between every word. Making it significantly harder for the human brain to read, and most importantly making it slower for them to digest.

If you have text in various different text boxes, make sure they are all aligned perfectly down one side or in the centre. Inaccurate placement distracts people from the point you are making.

Give your text room to breathe. So, don’t scrimp on margins or space between lines and paragraphs. Again, it’s just giving your text a more inviting environment for people to actually want to read it.

Top Takeaway: Remember your user journey. Putting that extra bit of effort into your designs will prevent your audience having to do the work themselves. Increasing the chance, they might actually buy in to whatever you are selling!

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