If you are just getting started in making your own designs whether it’s for web or print it can seem daunting. Graphic design is a big subject and there are many concepts to grasp. The amount of information out there can be overwhelming for a beginner. There is much to learn but not all of its relevant or necessary for the average joe.
There are a lot of zen rules and odd ideas for art and design out there. But you don’t need to meditate under a tree with a sketchpad and a cup of green tea to get better at creative work.
Rather than bombard you with an endless list of the top things you need to know today. I am going to give a few simple tips that I and many other designers use daily.
Who is this for?
Perhaps you are somebody who doesn’t want to hire a graphic designer for every little thing and wants to do more of their own work. Maybe you run a website and want things ready to go instantly. Perhaps you want to make better thumbnails for your YouTube videos.
Maybe you want to get started in designing but you don’t want a student debt you might never pay off…
Whoever you are, let’s take a look at some easy to follow tips that will instantly improve your work. These are a few basic concepts that I think will have the biggest impact on a newcomer to the field of graphic design.
In no particular order:
Line and Align
Properly aligning elements is crucial for a clean and pleasing design. It is especially important with text. Sometimes we designers can forget the purpose of the text is to be read and understood.
Aligning elements is paramount for any type of design but it is crucial for print designs. You will often have extremely specific measurements to go by, and these need to be followed exactly. Printing mistakes can be costly, and they are not always easy to fix. A lot of times I send off a design and hope for the best. Not all printers will get back to you if something is wrong. The first you know about it is when you see it printed.
You don’t always have to get obsessed about aligning every single little bit of the design. Just try to make sure the big important things are properly aligned. This will make your work look much more professional and it will be easier to understand.
Use Fractions and Percentages
Graphic design is as much about order and symmetry as it is about being creative. As a designer, you often have to find the balance between looking pretty and being clear and readable. If I am a bit stuck or the creative juices just aren’t flowing. I will try to begin by dividing my design into fractions using guides.
This may sound a bit technical but it really isn’t. You don’t have to follow the guides by the book but they can make it a lot easier to design a clean composition.
Related Article: Setting up Print Bleed in Photoshop
At the end of the day, this is a just a quick an easy way of planning out a composition. It is not a rule you need to live by, but it can help you out in many situations.
Whatever you want, thirds are widely accepted as being very pleasing to the eye. Dividing every single design into thirds can be impractical and detrimental though.
If you are using Photoshop you can set this up very easily with the new guides layout option. You can then set the number of columns and rows to whatever you want.
This fractal approach allows you to decide what is the most important element. Is the text the most important part then maybe that should take up two-thirds of the design. Or maybe I want the pretty photo to stand out. In that case, maybe the text should only take up a third of the design.
This applies to text too, in the above design the second heading “now on” is half the size of the main heading “sale” and the last bit “don’t miss out” is a quarter of the size of the main heading.
This isn’t mandatory nor practical for all text designs, however, it can give you a good guide to follow.
This structure previously demonstrated creates a hierarchy which is also a fundamental concept of Graphic Design. In the Above text the first thing you see is “SALE” next you read “Now On” and so on. I prioritized the word “Sale” as I feel this is the most important part of the message.
Sometimes you want your audience to read/see things in a certain order. No writer wants their readers to read the last chapter of a book first. This is also true of visual designs. Sometimes you want to guide the viewers eye through a design in a certain way.
Size is one obvious way to create a hierarchy but there are many other ways such as:
- Font style
Space and Balance
Do not fear empty space. Empty space is just as important as the elements of the design. It’s better to have room to spare otherwise, things can look claustrophobic and cluttered. This ties in with my previous tip on dividing a design into fractions. You can play around with what percentage of the image will be empty space.
A great example of a properly executed empty space is a margin. We instinctively find pages of text with margins much easier to read than text which fills the whole page. The same is true of paragraphs we find small paragraphs of text much easier to read, we can even be deterred if the text is poorly formatted.
If you have ever doubted the impact of adding negative space, take a look at any mounted photograph. Simply adding a white border around a photograph can completely change the mood of a photograph.
You should even consider the space between the individual letters of a word.
Enough talk, let’s put the first few tips into practice.
Let’s pretend I need to make a front-page web banner for a tourism website. Let’s also assume they gave me an image to use and I have been given the text as well.
The text reads “The Top Family Beaches in the UK”. and then something like “find out more”
So first I am going to add some guides. – I’m going to add a nice big margin and divide the design into thirds. This is done with 3 columns.
And this is what I very quickly put together. ( I made this with Photoshop CC)
You may notice that the text spills out into the other columns (thirds) of the image. This is fine it’s not about constraining yourself, it’s about giving yourself a rough guide to work from.
I have aligned the text boxes to the margin on the left-hand side and I have tried to space things out evenly. I have also tried to evenly balance the text between the horizon of the photo and the top of the design.
Regarding the amount of space; notice how little space I actually used up.
Less is more
Keep it simple notice how I only used 2 fonts and 2 colours. I could have done it with one font but I thought the “family beach” bit needed to look a bit more fun and less informal. I also added a bright yellow tone to add to the fun summer vibe, but also it stood out better against the blue.
I could have added some silly graphics like a bucket and spade and all that crap but is it really needed? The photo says everything you need, it’s a nice sunny beach and it looks like somewhere you might want to take a family.
Don’t put text in bad places
The biggest mistake I see, and I see it everywhere.
The image above is an example of bad text placement.
Text needs to be easily read – always. I see so many designs where the white text is half unreadable because the background image has an area of highlights. The opposite is true too, I see a lot of designs where the dark text goes over dark shaded areas of an image. This is sometimes unavoidable and it’s okay in very, very small amounts like a bit of a letter being obscured. But if you can, avoid it at all costs.
It’s also good practice to avoid putting the text over complex textures or areas with lots of detail. This makes the text more difficult to read and it’s just plain annoying.
Check out this article where I go into much more detail on creating front-page banners:
How to design a simple web banner – that converts.
Don’t go font mad
I am guilty of this myself. You get excited and want to use every crazy stylish font on the web. Always remember that clarity and readability comes first. You will be surprised by how many big companies and websites all use the same basic fonts. It seems half the text on the planet is done with Arial. Try not to get carried away it’s great to use crazy fonts in small does but the bulk of a message should be in clean easy to read text.
You might be surprised by how versatile and how neat a few basic fonts can be. What is more important than the font, is practising how to use and present text.
Have you ever seen the logos for some obscure death metal bands? It’s like deciphering an old scroll that was found at the bottom of the sea. – Google “Death Metal Band logos ” for a laugh. In a new tab of course 🙂
The text is there to be read so it should be readable first and then look exciting second.
Typography is a huge part of Graphic Design, many designers focus almost all of their attention on typography exclusively. Typography is basically the study and application of fonts and text it may sound simple but there is a massive amount to learn. Font choices can evoke certain emotions and every font comes with its own “baggage”. You may think hmm that reminds me of the coke logo, it may seem insignificant but it matters. Some brands don’t want to be associated with other brands but some might.
Some fonts are so iconic they are almost unusable and some fonts are considered embarrassing (comic sans).
I have another post which demonstrates the usability and versatility of the basic fonts most people already have installed:
I have some bad news – some colours never ever look good together. There is a thing called the colour wheel. The colour wheel demonstrates how colours relate to each other and how they appear together in a design.
Looking at the two pictures above, the one on the left looks horrible. If you stare at it long enough you will actually start to get a headache. The one on the right is much easier to look at. This is because the colors complement each other, the yellow is less saturated to offset the intense saturation of the red below it.
This is due to the wavelengths of light. Just like a musical note, some notes harmonize to produce a chord and others conflict and sound horrible.
You don’t need to understand color theory in any great depth to benefit from it. Just be aware that some colors will never look good together.
Use the right material
If you are designing any work with images you need to pick design friendly photos. These are photos that offer plenty of space to place text and logos etc. If we go back to my example image again you will notice how much empty space is in the sky. This gives me tonnes of freedom to add elements and the flat low contrast tones make it easily readable.
Non Destructive Editing
You should always be prepared to come back in the future and edit your design. It is very easy to make spelling mistakes or just miss something out. Non Destructive editing means your files are arranged in such a way that any change can be undone or discarded at any time.
A simple example is not flattening the text layers, if you make a mistake you will have to start over. If you keep the layers editable it’s only a two-second fix to correct a spelling mistake.
For a more visual example, check out this video where I create some grungy text non-destructively using Krita.
Sometimes it’s impossible to keep something completely editable for any future mishaps. In this scenario, I would advise making multiple backups periodically. If you work in this way you might only lose a hours work at most.
Putting the design first
Below is the original and older version of my logo.
I had many color variations of my old MonstaBot logo, this is mainly because I couldn’t make my mind up. I really liked this logo and I also liked the freedom of being able to change the colors. However, as time has progressed I began to see a few issues. So I decided to update my logo into this design:
This design unlike the previous looks fine without color and it also takes up less horizontal space. I wanted the text to have a bit of a “wild” vibe so I added the little black rips at the bottom of the word Monsta.
But as time passed I had to accept that the little black rips were unnecessary, and they did not scale down very well. I also thought that the rip effect messed with the shapes of the letters, specifically the M and the N.
Check your ego and do what is best for the design, I know it hurts 🙁
Related Post: I discuss an efficient workflow for logo design in Adobe Illustrator
Sometimes a design is not finished. Even once you have a design nailed every little bit of the design can be tweaked. Some people are incredibly picky so its best to churn out plenty of variations.
Many brands have more than one variation of the same logo, you can’t put a black logo on a black screen.
Back it up!
S**t happens and it is always at the worst time. When a hard drive fails you sometimes get no warning at all. One day at my Job I left the room for 10 minutes and when I came back my computer was on the BIOS error screen. There was no warning leading up to this event and NOTHING! could be recovered. I lost about 4 months worth of work, I used to back up weekly but I got lazy.
I was very lucky because most of my old work was not needed in the future but I still had to rebuild a lot of Photoshop files including the template for a magazine ad.
My advice would be back up to a regular schedule or after any important work. Hard drives are getting cheaper all the time so nowadays its easy than ever.
Windows has a good back up utility which can back up to a schedule, the first back up takes ages but after that, it is much quicker. This is because a proper backup utility only backs up changes made or new files created, it won’t copy the same stuff over and over.
What software should I get?
The Adobe Suite is still and probably always be the design standard. I use it daily and have been using it for 15+years.
If however you are not in a position to spend the money you can get by with a massive amount of free software. You can check out my list of free design software here:
These are a few of the fundamentals which I think will have the biggest impact on a beginners work. These are not just a few things I have made up to fill the page, I actually use them on a daily basis. I have made all kinds of designs both print and web and these few tips have helped me out every time.
I hope they help you too.