Main image
20th January
2009
written by Tony
I made this. Why does that matter? I'll tell you later.

I made this. Why does that matter? I'll tell you later (yes, I did the illustration myself).

This is a post for anyone who is going to or has worked with a designer. However, this is mostly a post dedicated to new and (to use a fine arts term) "naive" designers out there. And also to you experienced designers who haven't stopped to think about some of the things we do every day and why we do (or don't) do them. This is also a post that will touch on how I see the design world changing (briefly - I'm planing another post on where I see design going in the next 10 years) and what I think a good designer needs to know in order to stay relevant. This is going to be a long post. I have been designing for a little while now (going on 4 years as a "professional") and it recently hit me that I may finally know some of what I am talking about when it comes to design. I guess I had one of those moments, moments I assume all brilliant  designers have :), when I realized that my eye for good type and aesthetics has finally matured. The moment occurred when I was looking over some old work a former intern did and I started reading my comments for revisions. He was doing things with the type and layout that I know I did when I was a student and as I looked over my suggested changes I realized that I understood why I suggested them, and it wasn't just rote recitation or arbitrary preference. This lead me to think about design vernacular and realize just how much time and work goes into having a good design vocabulary. It's one thing to know what you should and shouldn't do, but entirely another to understand why. I believe that basic understanding of why is what really informs good design. Let me digress a little (and let loose some embarrassing trivia about my life in the process) and explain some of the background leading up to this post. I had left my masculinity in the other room, and Steph and I were watching Brothers and Sisters the other night (it's actually pretty entertaining, but I'll let Steph deal with that if she chooses) when an interesting sub-plot emerged in the episode. Sally Fields was getting a famous architect to design this house for her, and when she saw his design (which was brilliant, but not what she asked for) she flipped out and smashed the model and stormed off (seriously, the show really is entertaining). Granted this was after a heavy dose of elitism and condescension on the part of the architect, but still. She then decided to take a crash course in architecture and learn the ins and outs so she could tell the architect exactly why she didn't like his design. Wow. If only I had clients with that level of motivation, life would be so much better. I mean that in all seriousness. Anyway, she realized he is a genius and came to love all of his work, but ultimately still thought the design was inappropriate for her needs. Also, according to the preview of the next episode, they totally get it on. Stay tuned. So what's the message? Well, the architect got all hot and bothered because no one had ever refused his genius before and ended up designing the perfect house for Mrs. Thing. He didn't compromise his vision, but he did listen. At first I was like, wooooowwwww that's a brain explosion, you have to listen to your client? Damn, I have been doing this all wrong. But, they said some other interesting things, which lead to this list of things to do (and not to do). We'll start with what to do. You have to listen to your client. Seriously, good design isn't actually good design if it doesn't meet the client's needs. I don't care how innovative, experimental, or fresh it is, if they don't understand why it will work for them, it doesn't. And if you don't understand not only what they do, but how, why, for whom and where they do it, you aren't doing your job. See my logo above. That isn't what I started out with, and it may still not be what we finish with. This is revision 2, after my first round was too simple, not illustrative enough and didn't speak to the right demographic (people who know MGs, but are unfamiliar with what makes an MGC an MGC and not an MGB - hint, it's the bumps on the hood). I had to learn about the car and its heritage. I had to talk to MG enthusiasts. I had to consider the usage of this logo. However, it should be noted, that as I write this I received an e-mail from one of the reviewers asking if we could add the word American over the top (sure), super-impose the car over an American flag and put the whole thing in an octagon (absolutely not). As with anything, this process is a give and take, which leads directly to the next point. You have to educate your client as much as they do you. If you have made a design decision, be prepared to tell your client why. And be prepared to tell them why in a way they can understand. If you can't, then try to tell them the basics they need to know to understand your motivation. Explain why you chose they typeface you did, why you used the style of illustration you did, why you chose the images you did and why things are laid out the way they are. Chances are, if you can't tell you client why you did what you did, you probably haven't thought enough about the project. I know some decisions are arbitrary and you do things because they just feel right, trust me, I design by intuition quite often, but be prepared to speak intelligently about this. Never, ever say "I don't know." If you don't know, you're not doing your job. Sometimes you have to show and tell. Sometimes, when a client has an idea that you know is really bad, you have to go with it and present the comp of their bad idea. Then, ever so gently, you can show them why it's bad. This works for several reasons. One, it makes you seems much less confrontational. It shows you are willing to work with them. Two, when someone is presented with a bad design that they inspired and is diplomatically told why it is bad, they usually see the light. Sometimes they don't. In that case, take the money and run. You don't put everything you do in your portfolio, do you? If you are a print designer, you need to have perfect craft. This means be good with an x-acto knife, know what a bone folder is and how to use it, know the difference between a crease and a score, know how to fold a piece of paper without cracking the printing, always end up with square folds, understanding the importance of a cork-back ruler and always, always keep the ruler over your artwork so that if your x-acto slips you won't cut a chunk out of your project. You will be surprised how often you have to make things with your hands, so if you are a spaz, or are sloppy, get over it. Practice. Learn about photography. I can't even tell you how valuable this is. Photography is everywhere and in everything, and chances are if you can take a good picture you'll be better at art-directing your photo shoots and choosing stock images for jobs.  Good photography is almost as, or just as, important to a piece as good type. Learn something outside your discipline. If you do web design, learn print, or vice versa. Learn how to model in 3D. Get really good at photography (it's how I put myself through college), learn anything that lets you be more than just your position at your job. Design is changing and every discipline is merging with every other in new and unexpected ways. If you're a good designer the mechanics don't matter, and learning new things will enhance the things you already know. You can never know too much. Read everything. The more you see the more inspired you'll become. Read for pleasure, read for instruction. Read. Learn how to make an interactive PDF using InDesign. Because I just did (it's easy), and it's about a million times better than a shitty Power Point and beats Flash for ease of use if you are giving the presentation away on a disc or USB drive. Learn HTML and CSS. This is the future of the internet for the next few years at least. HTML is easy, so is CSS, so don't wait. Be aware of basic ADA guidelines. If you ever design a museum, environmental graphic or signage, ADA will haunt your dreams. ...

And now, what not to do.

Flash is not the future. It's not even usually the best solution. I'm learning Flash. It's useful as an extra element in a website, but total garbage as a functional industry solution. Ever notice that maybe 1 out of 20 big businesses use flash-based websites? There is a reason for that, and it isn't cost, difficulty of implementation or client-side issues. Gradients are not your friend, print designer. They don't belong in logos, usually ever. They don't print well on business cards, you can't heat stamp them on boxes, and they are hellish, if not impossible, to embroider on a shirt or hat. However, I have more tolerance for subtle gradients in web design simply because they only show up on a screen. But never, never, never in a logo. It's not okay because UPS did it, that was sacrilege. Limit the number of typefaces you use in a project. No more than three, max. If I must use more than one, I prefer one for display type and one for everything else. Use fonts of faces to create hierarchy. If any of them are Comic Sans, Arial, Times New Roman, or Kid Font (or the like) go home. Don't ignore your typography. Please. The automatic amount of leading (or line spacing) is almost always too little. Some fonts just have terrible letter spacing, learn to spot this and do not use them as body copy. I'm talking to you, Gill Sans. You too, Trade Gothic. Kern your display type. Always. Give enough white space around your copy, let it breathe. People are afraid of white space when they are making decisions, but always appreciate it when they are reading. Remember this. Good type is one of the single most important parts of any design. It's how people interact with your content. Don't fear the edge of the page. If you have the budget for full bleed and it works with your design, use it. Knowing when your artwork should or shouldn't extend off the page is important. When it works, it makes everything seem so much more interesting and engaging. It frees your design from the constraints of the page and adds visual intrigue. Don't full justify unless they make you. And then fight it. It just looks bad unless you are a newspaper or have very wide columns. Don't output your print artwork from Photoshop if you are working with type. Put your art in InDesign or Illustrator and do your type there. Even though Photoshop uses smart objects and blah blah blah now your printer may not. You can always tell when type is Photoshopped. There are always exceptions to every rule, but this is generally the case. Don't over-do it. Right when you think you're almost done, leave. Come back to your job in an hour, two hours and look again. You might already be done. ... That's enough sage advice for now. If you want more info, or have questions, I'm here and happy to help.

1 Comment

  1. 09/14/2009

    Love this post, love it. I totally agree about flash, it’s degrading to a website. In fact, it automatically makes me turn off. It’s obtrusive, annoying and more often than not, non-user friendly.

    Also, I’m with you on white-space. Why are people so reluctant to have any? I see so many designs that have every space filled with images or texts. It’s funny to go back and look at websites from the early 90s. It’s all flashing gifs and “wacky” colours and the entire page filled to the brim. I’m glad we’ve moved away from those days. Hee hee. Although, some web 2.0 designs annoy me.

    Also, why am I seeing this typeface http://www.dafont.com/sketch-block.font everywhere. I’ve seen it twice today.

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