Size Matters

One of my first questions for a new project is, “What size does it need to be?” Design has to be functional on all levels: for the client, for the audience, for the vendors. With so many aspects to consider, details can be overlooked, affecting the quality of the finished project.

Account for Error 
Print designs that do not account for margin of error are difficult in production, and are more likely to need reprinting. Printing equipment is not 100% precise. Depending on the technique and the machinery, some variances still exist.

For example, when the art extends to the edges of a page, printers want bleed to accommodate their trimming margin of error. To include bleed, the artwork extends beyond the trim marks by about 1/8 inch. Without it, some trimmed pages would end up with blank, white lines along the edges.

Avoid Stretching
When enlarging an image (scaling), the height-width ratio should remain consistent. In most layout programs, holding down the Shift key while enlarging the image will lock the ratio and prevent unintended stretching.

Web designs often require specific pixel dimensions for accurate sizing. If these dimensions are not met precisely, the art could stretch to fit the space, compromising the quality of the image.
Design is about using creative energy with practical purpose. To work effectively, attention to detail must be valued. When dimensions are inaccurate, it costs everyone time and money. In every field of design—print, web, motion, environmental—size matters.

Staying on Task, Accomplishing Goals

As a freelancer, my daily schedule has a lot of flexibility built into it. I think of myself as an “on-call” designer. It’s certainly an advantage for clients who need after-hours work to meet deadlines, and it allows me to take breaks in the middle of the day for family responsibilities. Working flexible hours has its perks, but some days feel like I’m being pulled in a million directions. Staying organized is a key skill for keeping up with clients’ demands.

I use two organizational tools: my email inbox and my daily project list. Each day, I make a list of the “must-do” items for that day. I prioritize all requests by first-come, first-serve, and by urgency. I try to handle quick revisions earlier in the day, to give clients time for same-day approval. For incoming requests, I add them to the day’s list only if they’re urgent, or if the client is ready for print files. Otherwise, I flag them for the next day. If I’m in the midst of an urgent project, I do not answer my phone. Ignoring communication is difficult, but necessary for staying on task.

Some days work out more smoothly than others, but I always make a point to finish my daily list before calling it a night. With this method, I can usually keep my turnaround time at 1-2 business days. Plus, anytime I’m pulled away and come back to my desk, I can easily focus on what’s next.

Planning Website Content

We all want an awesome website, one that sings our praises and showcases our skills. It only takes a few minutes of browsing to drool over snazzy competitor sites and inspire yourself to register a domain name of your own. But how do you transform that into a compelling website? If you feel overwhelmed about where to start, take some time to plan it out.

1. Review similar sites
Yes, drool over those snazzy sites! And while you’re there, take notes on what you like about them, what works and what you’d like your site to do differently.

2. Make a list
List the main navigation buttons you’d like to include. Try to keep it between 5-7. More than that becomes overwhelming to your viewers.

3. Check it twice
Look through your navigation list for redundancies or similarities, and see if you can combine any topics into subcategories.

4. Outline time
Now go through each main navigation title and outline the content for those sections: introductory text, bullet points, sublevel links, photos, and other desired functionality. Gather any additional content you have, and organize it by navigation topics.

Whether you’re creating your own website, or working with a designer, planning the content from the beginning leads to a much smoother development process.

Small Business Shout Out!

As a self-employed person, I like to support small businesses! Many of my clients are local, small businesses as well. I’d like to highlight some of them here, thanking them for their vision and dedication to success:

E. S. Systems, Inc.
Software development, web design and hosting, data solutions

Blue Iguana Car Wash
New car wash at Sunshine & Glenstone, opening soon!

Nelson Sportswear
Screenprinting and embroidery

Boost Models
Staffing and models for special events and photo shoots

If you have an idea for starting a small business, I strongly encourage you to believe in yourself and make it happen! Develop a plan and follow it, even if it takes small steps and a long time. Pursuing your dreams is challenging, but extremely fulfilling!

Beyond Logo Design: The Brand’s Identity

If you just wrapped up a new logo design, don’t stop there! Take the next step: establish the identity of your brand by developing guidelines for visual design.

1. Colors
Your brand colors should be specified as part of your logo design. Make sure you have a record of the color recipes: Pantone colors, CMYK, or RGB (or for greatest versatility—all three!). You can ask your designer to specify these during the logo design process. Then, be sure to utilize them as much as possible wherever your brand is represented. If you want more color choices to work with, request accent colors that coordinate with the logo.

2. Fonts
If your logo is the brand’s face, your fonts are the brand’s voice. Sometimes I use a logo’s fonts for headlines in the same layout. More often, I select headline and text fonts that coordinate with the logo font, without distracting from it, letting the logo font stand out. Specify fonts for your brand’s materials and use those fonts consistently.

3. Accent Graphics
Select or develop some accent graphics, related to your brand’s or product’s purpose. They could use the same color(s) as your logo, or accent colors that complement your logo. Accent graphics have more flexibility than a logo, and can be used in numerous ways, while tying your materials together artistically.

Developing brand identity guidelines is just as valuable as carefully planning your logo—and for the same reasons. A visual plan, implemented effectively, conveys quality and consistency for its company or product.

Planning for a Smoother Design Process

Prospective clients sometimes ask, “How do I know I'll like what you come up with?” Design is not about personal expression. Graphic designers use type, imagery, and space to convey visual messages. What those messages say leads to a vast array of design styles. One designer’s portfolio can reflect many differing styles.

An excellent way to ensure you will be happy with your designer’s work is to clearly articulate your own goals and expectations from the beginning of a project. Explore answers to these topics:
  • Project Purpose
  • Project Description
  • Target Audience (demographics, their relevant attitudes or beliefs)
  • Tone & Feel
  • Problem/Opportunity (what problem you are addressing for your audience)
  • Message
  • Benefits and Selling Points
  • Support (show accuracy of selling points)
  • Content (copy and imagery)
  • Size/Media Requirements
  • Timeline and Final Deadline
Provide these answers to your designer(s) in a project brief. Your forethought and planning will lead to a smoother, more satisfying design process. 

Don’t Let the Proof Fool You

Using electronic files for design proofing has certainly sped up the project process. But a big drawback is the lack of color accuracy. How often have you fallen in love with an on-screen proof, only to print it out and find the colors completely different?! Display colors are created with light, while printed colors are mixed with ink. They don’t always translate very well.

Light vs. Ink
With monitors, the screen starts black, and colored lights are added in different amounts. The primary colors of light are red, green, and blue (RGB). Tints of these three colors can mix to create the full range of colors you see on anything with a screen display. The combination of all three colors makes white.

Printers use an opposite method. They start with a white page and use ink to show colors. In process printing, the primary colors are cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK). These four inks can produce a wide range of colors, and are standard in both desktop printing and press printing.

In the color circles above, you can see the overlap areas—or secondary colors—are quite similar to the primary colors in the other method. These two methods can create many of the same colors. But because of their different natures, they can’t match everything exactly. Variances occur, especially in blues and purples. RGB colors are more vibrant in the lighter tones. CMYK has richer dark colors, and can create several shades of black that cannot be replicated on screen.

An Accurate Finish
For print materials, always print out the proof for a more accurate depiction of the colors. If you’re concerned about how the final color will look, request a press check. If the finished project will be electronic, like a website or e-card, view it on more than one monitor. In either case, prepare for some variance. Printers and monitors are all calibrated individually.

Another color system designed for consistent reproduction is Pantone color. Their swatch books present a wide range of colors with the recipes for vendors to match accurately. Pantone colors are a standard tool in many design and production industries for consistent, versatile color usage.

The Value of a Well-Planned Logo

Starting a new business involves a lot of budgeting and planning. Business owners often put more focus on their product or service itself. Sometimes the logo is put together as an afterthought. New businesses might try to obtain a logo for as little cost as possible, or even at no cost. The value of a well-executed logo design is sometimes hard to understand.

A logo is the first impression a company gives to its prospective customers. What that logo visually communicates impacts how viewers react to your company. Viewers will come to subconscious conclusions about your company within seconds of seeing your logo. Most people equate the visual quality of the logo with the company’s internal attention to quality.

Remember, you’ll be using your logo for years, and want it to remain relevant. It needs to have design longevity, which means it does not follow a trend, or appear aesthetically dated. From a functionality standpoint, it needs to remain intact while being used in many ways. Consistent use of your logo reflects dependability in your business.

The logo represents the personality and product of the company. When I’m designing a logo, I ask the client, “What words would you use to describe this brand or product? How do you want the viewer to feel when they see your logo?” Then I keep those descriptors in mind for the logo design process.

For example, HotShot School Portraits logo is fun and youthful. They take non-traditional school portraits, and wanted to avoid a sense of tradition in their logo.

In another direction, look at the tru/tan logo. Their product is used in winemaking, and they wanted a logo that feels clean, precise, and scientific.

These aren’t the personalities of the owners or employees necessarily, but of the brands. Many business owners put careful thought into their brand personality when naming their company. But an amateur logo can quickly negate the value of a creative name.

How you treat your logo subconsciously communicates how you treat your company or customers. Make sure those messages are accurate by including professional logo design in your business plan.

Related: Beyond Logo Design: The Brand’s Identity

Design Feedback for Maximum Visual Success

Are you gaining the maximum benefits from your designer’s skills and expertise?

At least once a week I notice clients struggling with their own feedback. Too often I hear, “It’s not working for me, but I don’t know how to fix it!” This is actually my favorite kind of feedback. How to fix it is not your problem—it’s my job! With a few brief questions, I can unravel the problem, and open the paths to new solutions. When you jump to a solution for designers to take, you are actually removing their expertise from the process and effectually demoting them to layout technicians.

When reviewing a design, think about these key points:

1. What isn’t working? 
The colors, this font, that photo...take a quick glance and notice what elements cause friction for you.

2. How are you reacting? 
Does it seem too crowded? Does it contradict the response you want? What reaction do you want instead?

3. Why? 
This step is optional, but try to pinpoint why you’re reacting in such a way (The blue is too tropical. The photo reminds me of a bad vacation. The font is too whimsical.)

4. What to do about it?
No need to worry about this one! In most cases, you won’t know what to do about it. That’s OK! Don’t feel like you have to assume responsibility for the solution. Whenever possible, leave the solution open for the designer. You may be surprised how effective the results can be.

Regarding Mayonnaise (and Other Unreasonable Demands)

I recently participated in a discussion entitled, “What makes you different from all the other designers?” Many of us were eager to jump in, but after awhile the answers started to sound the same:
My process is unique.
I work hard and develop creative solutions. 
I involve my clients as much as possible. 

One designer challenged us to come up with something really bold and different. To which I replied, “I refuse to eat mayonnaise for any reason.” Lucky for me, no clients have ever required this of me. Although, one day, when I worked at an ad agency, a co-worker came into my office, handed me a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, and said, “I need this container for a mock-up. How fast can you eat it?” Not only did I eagerly oblige, I sat at my desk thinking, “I have the best job in the world!”

To this day, I’m not sure what I’d do if I had lunch with a new client and pasta salad was the only menu item. 

Designers are an eccentric bunch of people. We thrive in a profession that requires creativity and efficiency, beauty and order, rhyme with reason. Such juxtaposition can certainly lend itself to personality quirks. Since we work in a creative field, most clients will find unusual personal traits endearing and refreshing. I once met a new client after dying my hair blue. I don’t know if the blue hair swayed them one way or the other, except I did get the project and they’ve worked with me on several projects since.

Some designers may tone down their quirks in misguided attempts to increase their professionalism. Perhaps a polished fa├žade reflects their polished end product. Surely, suppressing our strange qualities gives our clients a sense of stability, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

That is, as long as mayonnaise is not involved.

Jostle Loose Some New Ideas!

Trying to name a new event or product? Or perhaps you’re working on the perfect tagline? Searching for inspiration is not always easy. While banging your head against the wall might jostle loose some new ideas, here are some brainstorming tips that are (hopefully) less painful:

1. Eat lunch. Today is no day to skip a meal. If you’re hungry, you’ll be anxious and distracted.

2. Get comfortable. Being relaxed helps ideas flow easily. If you’re tense, your brain will be, too. Take your jacket off. Sit in your favorite chair—even slip off your shoes!

3. No idea is a bad one. In the beginning brainstorming phase, do not criticize ANY ideas. It’s time to shut off that inner critic and let your mind play. Deactivating self-judgement will help your mind open new pathways to thoughts you would not have considered.

4. Write it all down. Use whatever media you’re most comfortable with: pen and paper, marker and wipe board, or computer. At the top of the page, write the topic or product you are focusing on, then relax and start writing whatever ideas come to mind. Include everything you think of. Fill the page!

5. Use word association. To jumpstart a new line of thinking, use one of these playful tools: opposites, rhyming, cause-effect, alliteration, or random association. Another helpful tool to keep close—a thesaurus.

6. Organize your notes. Look back through everything and group ideas together based on any similar themes you find. Consolidate duplicate ideas.

7. Find the keepers. Now it’s time to take a second look with the eyes of a strategist. Weed out ideas that are impractical, overdone, or too corny. Notice “keepers” is plural. Don’t narrow it down to one idea. Keep your top 3-5 and share that list with other decision makers involved in your project. If you’re doing this on your own, set your list aside for at least one day before choosing the top idea. 

If You Give a Designer a Sharpie...

If you give a designer a Sharpie...
He’s going to ask for a project brief.
When you give him the brief, he’ll ask you some questions about it.
When he’s finished asking questions, he’ll want content.
You’ll refer him to your website for photos.
He’ll download the photos and tell you they are too low-resolution for printing. He’ll ask for high-res photos.
While he’s waiting, he’ll check his Google+, his LinkedIn, his Facebook, and his Twitter.
All this social marketing will make him sleepy. He’ll want to go out for coffee.
The coffee shop logo will remind him of a mermaid.
The mermaid will remind him of the lyrical voice that whispers great ideas to him at night as he’s trying to sleep.
He’ll try to remember the great idea that came to him last night.
He won’t be able to.
He’ll go back to the office anyway.
He’ll want your logo in vector format.
You’ll send him the vector logo, and he’ll notice it isn’t the same logo as the one on your website.
He’ll talk to you about the importance of a consistent brand identity. He’ll offer to update your website.
You’ll agree to it, and tell him what other improvements you’d like.
He’ll want you to write a brief.
And chances are, if you give him a brief...
He’s going to want a Sharpie to go with it.

“Why do designers like to waste space?”

One of the most common lines of feedback I receive is, “Can you make it bigger to get rid of the white space?” I'm a “Less is More” kind of person. I love using white space.

White space, or negative space, is any area of a page design that is intentionally left blank. That word “intentionally” is important to note. We're not being lazy, careless, or wasteful. White space has a purpose, too.

From a business perspective, you pay for the ad space and want to make the most of it. From a design perspective, white space is a tool, just like imagery and copy. Think about the context of a magazine ad, for example. You're flipping through a magazine. Every page is filled with columns of text and photos, all packed into a tight grid. Then you notice a page that's almost bare, and you stop. The lack of content gets your attention. That space gives you visual relief. It conveys a message of stability and precision. It's a haven from the visual over-stimulation throughout the rest of the publication.

White space might seem useless, but upon closer inspection, you'll notice it serving one of the following roles:
  • Balance. White space can balance the page while giving strength to a bold image.
  • Structure. Page grids are often visible through the white space. It establishes columns, margins, space around photos, and brings order to the page.
  • Elegance. Intentionally leaving sections of the page empty and free conveys a sense of luxury and confidence. Yes, you're paying for that space, and yet choosing not to fill it. 
  • Direction. White space gives more significance to the elements on the page, acting as a tool to strengthen the focal point(s).
  • Improved Legibility. Ample margins and proper spacing literally make the text easier on the eyes. Copy that is tight strains the eyes and creates reading difficulties. Pages with smaller margins can make text appear overwhelming, and make the audience less likely to read it at all.
In some cases, white space is purely functional. Pages need margins to prevent content from being trimmed off (for the margin-of-error in trimming). But white space can also have aesthetic power when used effectively.

“I bought Photoshop, will you teach me your tricks?”

Clients have said to me before, “I wish I was more artistic, then I could just learn the software.” Turning on a computer and installing Photoshop does NOT make you a designer. It will lead to frustration and poor quality. You want to learn the tricks of the trade? Here’s how.

I have some natural artistic ability. I always have. But it was a raw asset that required much honing. In college, I began an intensive, four-year program for a Bachelors of Fine Art (not Art, not Science—Fine Art) in Graphic Design. I spent long nights in the campus art annex, working for hours on drawing, sculpture, or painting class assignments. I kept journals of effective use of color, patterns, techniques, and type. I drew countless self-portraits (because let’s face it, friends will only sit for your drawing so many times before they’re tired of going numb). I studied art history, color theory, and photography, preparing research papers and presentations for them. I was reviewed and approved for a design track and began taking classes on information design, web design, illustration, concept development, typography (that’s the study of fonts—yes, fonts), and printing technology, to name a few.

I dedicated my life to solving visual problems. Earning this degree consumed my days—and most of my nights—for years. I also worked part-time at a printing company, and then at an advertising agency. Upon graduation, I had a full-time job and was ready to begin my career, but that was just the beginning. My college experience was nothing compared to the pace and volume of work expected in my professional life. And since you can’t fit more hours in the day, I could only practice working more efficiently. I've been freelancing for the last 10 years, and I've had a LOT of practice.

The truth is, there are no tricks. If you want to do it yourself, great! Go to school and get the proper education. The world always needs more highly qualified designers. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then allow yourself to recognize the graphic design professional as a valuable part of your marketing plans.