Do I really need to learn the basics of graphic design?
After 3 years at university learning marketing, and 7 years working in the advertising industry, when I went out on my own the last thing I thought I’d have to do was learn basic graphic design principles. But, as I’ve learnt, you can never know too much, and under no circumstances can you be an expert if you’ve never meticulously studied it. Every day’s a school day, after all!
“Just Google it!”
With the answer to anything and everything at your fingertips these days, it’s so easy for anyone to call themselves an expert in a particular field. If someone asks you a tricky question and you don’t know the answer, just Google it. If someone uses terminology you don’t understand, just Google it. If someone needs a quick favour of ‘a really simple’ task that you’ve never heard of before, just Google it.
We’re all guilty of it! “What was the name of that guy in that film?” or “how much flour in these cupcakes?” or “What’s the weather like tomorrow in Glasgow?” In fact we don’t even have to type it anymore, just precede your question with Google, Siri or Alexa and she tells you there and then without you even having to get to the end of your fingertips.
And there’s nothing wrong with it! However, when someone says, “I’m looking for a professional photographer recommendation”, the temptation these days is all too easily to think, ‘acht I can do that! I’ll just find a cool app for my phone and google some stuff about lighting’. And before you know it, you’re answering them with, “Well I’m actually a bit of an amateur photographer myself!”
Hands up who’s done this!
When I first packed in my ‘trade’ of marketing to become an Artist and Illustrator, I was incredibly guilty of this:
· Customer: “Can you design me a leaflet?”
· Me: “Yeah, no problem”
· Customer: “Can you make me a short animation of dancing sheep?”
· Me: “Sure, of course I can”
· Customer: “Can you paint me a full size portrait whilst dancing the Macarena with a bowl of fruit on your head?”
· Me: “Aye, nae bother!”
It’s hard to say no. And I was sure I’d picked up tonnes of graphic design tips as I progressed in my career due to working so closely with graphic designers and proofing their work before sending it to clients. I’d briefed in the job after all! But I was wrong.
How do you stop the vicious ‘Yes’ circle?
At the start I got away with what I knew – borders, margins, white space, alignment and contrasts to name a few. I Googled a few specifics – what typefaces work together, what colours complement each other etc. and learnt some rules here and there. But after struggling through a couple of jobs, I decided I needed to learn the proper principles of graphic design, or everything was just going to be bog standard layouts, rather than designs that actually work.
It might not be the answer you want to hear, but actually learning from the professionals on a ‘deep work’ basis will have you flying ahead. I don’t believe in quick fixes. Look for the video tutorials online, listen to the audiobooks, read the ‘how-to’ books, blogs and journals. Honestly, it’s sooo worth it!
What’s ‘deep work’?
I learnt this phrase from the book by Cal Newport: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World I learnt this phrase from the book by Cal Newport: ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’. It’s about battling the distraction of constant emails, calls and multitasking small projects in order to spend really focussed, uninterrupted time on particular projects to get the best results, fastest.
It might seem difficult now, but putting the time into this, will create amazing results in the long term, for all your work, not just your graphic design.
The best tips I’ve learnt about graphic design
So I wouldn’t be practicing what I preach if I was simply to give you the run down of the top 10 graphic design principles, would I? But here are a couple of tips I have learnt are from the experts from digging deep. You might want to take a look into further as they really are the fundamentals to start with:
Borders and Alignments:
My pet peeve is seeing a whole page of text centre aligned with a big heading at the top. It just screams school fayre doesn’t it? Before even starting your design, you want to create borders – for example, no text, images etc can go in the 6mm border around the paper. After creating your borders, you want to make sure everything is aligned to these. Nothing creeping in or over – most viewers won’t notice good alignment, but the majority will notice bad alignment. This is a big topic and links to spacing, leading, kerning etc, so it’s worth spending a long time looking into this.
Not everything has to be symmetrical to be balanced. Think about a seesaw. When I was a kid, both me and my brother both had to go on one side to balance with my dad on the other. It’s the same for graphic design – 2 small circular images on one side with a large square block of text on the other balance each other out. Similarly, a top-heavy design with your main CTA having lots of space at the bottom to really draw the reader in, creates a perfect balance.
This can often be described as a polar bear in a snowstorm. Don’t overload your page with content that has no room to breathe! One of the best ways to make people read what you’ve written is to give it space – like a minimalist living room – you paid a fortune for that sofa – you’re not going to cover it in cheap cushions are you?
In my opinion, the best example of alignment, balance and white space is Google. It’s clean and has one main call-to-action.