Tips on how non-designers can get smart fast about graphic design

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So, you’re a professional who has never been trained in graphic design. But now you find yourself having to express opinions on what you think is good design and bad.

We get it. We hear it all the time. It’s enough to make even the most confident professional feel a bit anxious.  

In today’s world, numbers and strategy are given equal weight with design considerations in many marketing efforts. Marketers, salespeople, data analysts and company leaders are often put in a position where they have to opine on design issues they know little — or nothing — about.

What is the role of design in the modern world? It’s simple. People don’t read. I mean, they don’t really have time to read everything they come across. Design should be strategic and used to deliver a crystal-clear message, fast. 

Aislinn Barry, SketchDeck head of digital services

You probably have feelings about what’s really good: things like the graphics and products in Apple stores and the artwork in the Louvre. And you know what’s obviously bad: the Comic Sans typeface, blatant Photoshopping and most memes.

However, it’s more complicated than that. Bad design isn’t always obvious. Sometimes, something can look awesome, but it doesn’t get the marketing or sales results expected from it. Is it good design? Likely not.

Here’s everything you need to know to express a valid opinion about what’s well designed and which things need more work.

Good graphic designers versus bad ones: The basics.

Let’s start with the fundamentals. Here are some questions to ask yourself when hiring and working with graphic designers or agencies. They’ll help you figure out which ones are most experienced and likely to deliver high quality work.

Do they use too many design elements that look familiar? If you look at a portfolio or samples of a designer’s work and see too many visual elements that seem familiar, it could be a sign that the designer or agency doesn’t understand branding and how to customize their output for each client. If that’s the case, move on and check out other talent, especially if standing out from the competition is important to you.

Do they fully leverage all the information you provide them with? If you take the time to develop and discuss a creative brief, a graphic designer should be willing to follow it. It’s the only way they’ll be able to create things that will generate the results you expect. A solid brief should also give them the information needed to be able to create pieces that reflect well on your brand.

A good designer will use everything in a brief to develop the most effective deliverables possible. Or they may challenge parts of it that don’t seem right to them. A bad designer is one who creates things that don’t reflect the information you share with them.

Can they design for the people in your target audience? A great designer is able to create materials that resonate with people in different age groups, geographic locations, with varying cultural backgrounds and abilities and other factors. A good designer has experience creating pieces for people in certain demographic segments. A bad one designs for his or her own self or with no one in particular in mind. If you want people in your target audience to respond to your marketing efforts, use designers who have experience creating things for others like them.

Are they able to adapt their style for different clients? Some designers have a distinct style and companies hire them because of it. They want their brands to reflect the designer’s — or the agency’s — aesthetic. If you want your own brand reflected in your marketing and communication materials, you should seek out a design chameleon. To find one, look for an artist who has samples in their portfolio that vary from each other and reflect different brand treatments.

Do they communicate effectively? If you don’t connect with a designer when you interview them, it could be a sign that you should check out some other talent.

At the foundation of every good design relationship is the ability to communicate easily and comfortably.

Do they warn you when you could be making a mistake? Good designers have a lot of experience behind them. They should leverage what they know to warn you when things could be going off track. And of course, you should listen to it. A designer that allows a project to go off a cliff is someone you shouldn’t be working with.

Signs of good — and bad — design.

Once you hire a designer and start working with them, here are some design concepts you should look out for in their work.

Placement. Whether it’s on a piece of paper, video screen, website, Instagram post, presentation slide or anything else, the placement of text and images, and how they relate to each other, is critical. Not only should the combinations be attractive, they must get people to take action. A good designer will be willing to test different combinations until they find the placements that get people to take action and maximize results.

Type. Type may seem like an old school print concept that’s no longer an important consideration in today’s digital and visual world. However, thoughtful type styling may be more critical than ever. Good designers are able to make type easy to read, whether it’s on a page, a billboard or across different electronic devices. Great ones can leverage it to get people to understand concepts, feel things and to take action. You owe it to yourself to work with a designer who can get type to jump off the page or screen so it touches people’s hearts and minds.

Color. Color is a critical component of modern design. Not only should color be used in attractive ways, it must also be leveraged to get people to feel things and act on those feelings. Psychologists have done countless studies about how different colors and combinations can trigger reactions in people. Reading up on this will help you up your marketing and sales game.

In addition to this, if you work for a company with a broad customer base, it’s important to be aware of how people in different cultures respond to color. A color — or mix of them — that makes individuals feel happy and prosperous in one culture could reflect sadness and poverty in another.

There are also more basic things to think about, like how certain colors make it impossible to read text, and how others could reflect negatively on your brand because they’re thought of as tacky or dated.

If there’s one aspect of design that non-designers should educate themselves on, it’s about how color can be used effectively in graphic design. Thankfully, there have been countless books written about this subject and many websites dedicated to color theory.

User experience. This is a design concept that’s relatively new and that many people don’t understand. It’s all about how consumers experience — and respond to — a completed design. Don’t limit your consideration of user experience to your own perception of it. You must also think about how people in your target audience will react to it. If you find this a stretch, it could be worthwhile to user test new marketing and communication pieces with people in your consumer base.

UX is the full universe of how people interact with your brand. Hardware, software, engagement. There are many, many ways, and not all of them are digital. Billboards are part of UX, too. So are print materials, and all kinds of collateral. So is chat, the people who are talking to the customers. Every touch point is UX.

Saul Suaza, SketchDeck designer

Order and balance. A good design should properly balance and arrange elements, providing adequate empty or white space to make things attractive and guide the eye. It helps people know which things they should focus on and what they need to do next. Good design can be as much about what isn’t there as what is.

Responsiveness. What looks great on a desktop may not be attractive — or even viewable — on a smartphone. That’s why it’s important to review any online experience on different types of devices. If it doesn’t look good on any of them, make adjustments before it’s released to the public.

Spelling and grammar errors. Copy is a critical component of any design project. A spelling or grammar mistake can destroy the most attractive piece. Many people view these kinds of errors as examples of carelessness. It shows that an organization doesn’t focus on the details. This will make many prospective customers move on to your competitors. Make it a rule that all marketing and communication pieces be reviewed by a professional proofreader – or several other people — before they’re sent out.

Movement. When you look over a design, pay attention to how your eye travels through it. Does it take you over a clear path that leads to an actionable conclusion? Or does it force you to wander around to an uncertain ending? A good design will make it easy for you to understand the intent of the experience and how to take action.

Rhythm. Thoughtful designs have certain objects and items in them that are repeated with slight variations. Rhythm is a good device to support storytelling and to move people through a design experience. If you find it hard to follow the flow of a design, it could be because the designer hasn’t repeated certain elements enough to supply cues about how to move through it.

Proportion and scale. A sound design will leverage elements of different sizes to help guide viewers through it. Larger elements are usually viewed as more important, and smaller ones less so. If it’s unclear what the relative size of elements in a piece is trying to communicate, send it back for adjustments.

Contrast. Contrast is the difference between two parts of a design. It can be achieved by pairing dark versus light things, big and small ones or modern against retro elements. Contrast should be used to communicate differences to make a point. If it’s not, it will simply confuse people if they don’t find clear meaning in the contrasted elements.

Repetition. Repeating one or more pieces of a design is a fundamental part of brand building. Using a logo, certain colors and other design elements repeatedly makes a brand readily recognizable to viewers. It isn’t enough for a single piece to communicate with consumers. It should also tie to a broader brand experience.

Hierarchy. Hierarchy is all about how design elements are structured on a screen or page. A design should be easy to scan and make it simple to understand the relative importance of the information in it. If you find a piece difficult to read or understand, the designer may need to rethink it’s hierarchical structure.

Emphasis. A part of a design is emphasized when its size, color or visual bulk makes it clear that it’s the most important element in the layout. If you find it hard to figure out the key points of a piece, it could be a sign that you need to put more emphasis on them.

Variety. Does a design seem a little bland to you? It could be lacking variety. You may need to add a different type of image, additional typeface or pop of color. An experienced design professional will know how to change things up to make a weak design stronger.

Current trends. Design isn’t a static discipline. Technology, changing sales and marketing trends, styles and other factors cause what’s considered to be good design to change over time. Colors that once seemed fresh fall out of favor. Typefaces that may have seemed cool at one time are now viewed as stale. It’s important to stay up-to-date on the latest graphic design trends. It will help ensure that your organization is viewed as modern and not dated. Pay attention to what other firms are doing, and read-up on the latest design concepts to stay informed.

Do you feel more confident about your graphic design knowledge and ability to provide informed input on marketing and communication materials? We hope so! If you have questions or need more information about a design concept, feel free to start a chat. An experienced SketchDeck design pro will get back to you with the help you need.



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