Avoid the clown suit

How to get better at graphic design…

There are more amateur and semi-pro graphic designers working today than at any point in human history.

Presentations, instagram posts, websites, the cover of your kindle book or the logo for your podcast–anyone who’s touching a phone or a computer is called upon to do design, and most of us could get better.

  • Understand the difference between good graphic design and simply putting ideas on paper.
  • Acknowledge that you want to get better and realize that you can.
  • Improve the picture in your head.
  • Learn the skills of making that picture real.

Understand the difference: Simply throwing type or a picture up will definitely put the information in front of people, but it won’t carry with it all of the care, insight and professionalism you want and need.

We don’t tolerate typos in commercial products, and the market has the same feeling about design that’s lazy or out of place.

Graphic design represents an emotional commitment to the work. Long before we read the words or understand the images, we see the layout. Kerning and color and weight and form arrive in our brains before we have decided what the words on the page actually mean. You wouldn’t wear a clown suit to a job interview, and yet people dress up their ideas in clown suits all the time.

Getting better: If you are sure that you’re already good enough and that feedback is simply annoying, you’re probably not reading this. For the rest of us, there’s the chance to say, “I’m going to move to a higher level, and that means leaving this level behind.” Don’t defend your work with the generous critic. The entire point of getting better is to eagerly abandon the approaches you were taking on your way to gaining new skills that are more effective.

The picture in your head: This is a huge step. If what you’re designing looks right to you, then it’s never going to improve. The leap here is to go shopping. Find ten websites that succeed by whatever measure matters to you. Go to a bookstore and find ten book covers that represent the level of authority and professionalism you seek. Go to the Dieline and compare 40 package designs. Check out the difference between the photos you’re taking and the ones that are on the most successful online retail sites. Find some heroes. Understand the genre you’re working in.

Make the picture real: And now–copy them. Step by step, learn what you need to learn to make something as good as your heroes. A direct copy is not what you’re going to publish, but at least you’ll understand how to add the level of care and signalling and understanding of genre that’s needed to get the emotional element of your point across.

Once you know how to do good lighting, color choice and typography, you are welcome to abandon it. But it certainly pays to know how and to make it your choice.