Design Tips
Business and marketing-focused design tips for designers and non-designers alike.
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Subliminal messaging

Text hierarchy and the secret map

Color, size, and placement of text can help people understand what’s important and what to read first. By establishing a set of two or three text styles throughout your document, readers will begin to understand how things are grouped together, positioned, and related to other elements on the page as well as the document as a whole.

It doesn’t take much. You can make small choices to help define different styles of text: like setting headings to be large, bold, and purple, or setting quote-blocks to be double spaced, grey text. As long as you use and place them in a consistent manner through your document or presentation, the design system will start speaking for itself - readers will know that large bold purple text signifies a new major idea or heading. This becomes the building blocks to the secret map a reader will use to navigate your design work with ease.

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Crop with care

One size doesn't fit all

When cropping images for a presentation, it’s a good idea consider how you position the subjects within the image. Especially when dealing with people or headshots, the placement of the face inside the crop can give the illusion that the person is looking one way or the other. This can be used to your advantage if you have a slide (for example) that has content on one side and space for a headshot on the other - the placement of the headshot in the frame can help balance the overall slide by alluding that the subject is facing toward the center of the slide instead of away.

Additionally, you should strike a good balance between the size of the subject relative to the background. You don’t wanna make your subject feel small in a big empty space, but you also don’t want them to feel like a huge face smashed into a tiny little box. Regardless of headshots, cropping an image should always consider one major thing: is there enough space around the primary subject or focal point to provide enough context for the viewer to understand what they are looking at - that’s key.

Design Tip

There's nothing wrong with black and white

Take a break from color, just for a bit.

Sometimes picking colors is just too much, or the colors you’re given are just too hard to use. Perhaps there are too many formats, too many choices, or too many images to use in conjunction the graphics - remember, there’s nothing wrong with going to black and white.

Using a greyscale approach can be a welcomed relief for the occasional social post or brochure, even for the most flashy and high-contrast brands. You don’t have to go all-in either: use one color from your graphic identity to accent and tie the design work back to the brand. One thing to keep in mind when using a greyscale color palette is accessibility. When using multiple colors, contrast (while it might not be pleasant) is achievable via color differences, but in the land of grey, you’ll need to be careful to maintain enough contrast between the background and your content to ensure it’s easy to understand by everyone.

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Design how you speak

Make your presentations with more impact

Probably most applicable for presentations... design your slides in the way that you’re going to talk about your slides.

Instead of building really complex slides with loads of “great info,” use a bunch of slides with only a few bits on each. When you present them, move quickly and transition between them based on the cadence of your talk - let the slides be the visual compliment to your talk, not the visuals of your talk. Now, I’m not suggesting that you put two words on hundreds of slides and fly through them for your next pitch. Instead, I’m encouraging you to consider the delivery of what you want to talk about and focus on how your slides and transitions can be designed to have the most impact.

One easy way to start implementing this method is to break your presentation up into sections of thought - perhaps before you’ve even started working on the slides themselves. There might be four or five slides that look relatively similar containing the thoughts followed by a bold, contrasted slide with the important nugget, result, or takeaway. I call them impact slides. If your presentation is mostly white, the impact slide should be black: its there to wake everyone up, indicate that there’s something big or important about to be said, as well as help you keep track of your own presentation and timing. If the next thing that you are going to talk about is on the next slide (instead of in one corner of a super busy slide), you’ll have to move on to that topic and are less likely to get lost or go off on a tangent.

The amount of time you spend on a slide, combined with the way you deliver or transition between them, can have a lasting impression on your audience - it also has the added benefit of making you look extremely coordinated. Next time you start building a presentation, think about it as a talk instead of a PowerPoint.

Design Tip

Line spacing & anxiety

Add space not stress

The way you space the lines in your document can have a huge impact on the way your document feels. Things like legal documents and contracts have tiny, tight spaced text so they can smash as much information as they can – but I don’t know anybody that loves reading those. On the other hand, adding too much space between your lines can make your work look like poetry or feel too whimsical, and to that end, it might not be taken seriously.

Striking the right tone with your audience is key, and while messaging is a big part of that, the display of your message needs to match it. Tight line spacing can cause readers to feel anxious since so much information is packed in such a small space. Additionally, using a tight line spacing can also make it difficult to make out letters that drop below the baseline, like a p or g, since they will often compete visually with the line below them. The answer isn’t necessarily to double-space everything though, too much space between lines can be exhausting to read, and if printed on paper, will require a lot more of it. Striking the right balance isn’t necessarily a science, but can have a lasting effect on how your brand, presentation, or collateral is received.

Depending on the type of text - whether its a subheading, blurb, or body copy, it’s usually a good idea to stick with the line spacing that comes by default with your font, since it was set by the typographer. If you are going to change it, I recommend having a few people look at it before you distribute, and be sure to read their face when they do.

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When in doubt, start with context

Lots to be learned, like knowing what you shouldn’t do first

Whenever I kick off a new project, big or small, I always start by understanding the context that surrounds my design problem. By taking the time to ask the right questions, you can learn a lot about what not to do and things to avoid. Lots of people will tell you to question everything and push forward with new and brilliant ideas - and that’s true. But really good design pushes the envelope while also solving a problem within a context - so take your brilliant idea and tune it to be easily understood and used. As a quick example, remember that only half the world reads from left to right...

A good way to get a sense of how well your design works is to imagine handing it over and presenting it without saying a thing. Does the project speak for itself?  Is it designed in a way that the client can relate it? Does your work speak to both a large audience and a local one?

Here are some other good questions to ask yourself or collaborators when trying to define your design problem:

  • Who's it for?
  • What's it for?
  • Are there any assumptions?
  • What business problems already exist?
  • Who's your client's client?
  • What's the best format?
  • Is there any existing branding to work with?
Design Tip

Don't burn everyone's eyeballs

Working with text and background color

Feel that burning in the back of your eyeballs? If you’d like the people you pitch to become clients, its best not to blind them with eye-burning text during your first meeting. The reason you have a headache is the contrast of opposite colors used for the text and background in the image on the left. Consider the colors you’re using when placing text and titles. It’s a good idea to maintain a balance of contrast and color. Try using a neutral combined with a bold color - same powerful contrast, less burning sensation.

Here are a handful of examples that borrow from the first set of colors but use other combinations and are easier to look at...

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