Strategies for creating clean and engaging design
My career and life in graphic design began before I even knew it. In 2005, I was hired by a small print company to work in its billing department. After a year with the company, I had proven myself to be a hard and reliable employee with an eager mind, having learned a significant amount about the industry and process of print. Shortly after that one year mark, an opportunity opened up and I took the position of preflight tech and night manager, and it was because of this that my life’s trajectory was forever changed.
With that position came my education in Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. More importantly, and without initially realizing it, I undertook my journey of understanding what good and bad design looks like. Being a preflight tech meant that I had to look at every single file that came through for print to ensure that they were correct. Soon, I was analyzing the designs and breaking down what did and did not work for them, and that opened the floodgates. I was smitten, and started furthering my self-education in graphic design while practicing my skills in my free time, and in the years following, I was able to proudly proclaim that I was a graphic designer. Momma, I had arrived.
With that self-proclamation of arrival came a greater understanding of my responsibility as a graphic designer. While developing my skills, I also developed a style and habits that I now hold as my philosophies. In this post, I’m going to share these philosophies that I hold dear, and maybe, just maybe, I can share knowledge with you.
Typography Is Everything
Okay, forget the shallow part and let’s dive into the deep end. In my humble opinion, typography is the most important part of graphic design, and also the hardest to master. It informs you of everything
that you need to know about whatever you’re viewing right off the bat. Depending on the
typeface, and how it is used, it can either be captivatingly immersive, or dull, blasé, and utterly destroy any hopes of a design being engaging (looking at you every graffiti typeface ever created). I wholeheartedly believe that it provokes more of an emotional response than anything in design, even color.
A serif typeface, such as Garamond, can convey elegance and maturity. The font choices within Garamond allow for a deeper understanding, whether you’re going for a strong and pronounced approach by using Garamond Bold, or more of an inviting and graceful feel with Garamond Swash. Conversely, you have sans serif typefaces like Helvetica. It is a very contemporary and fresh type, no matter which era it’s used in, and exudes a clean and stylish feeling that can fit any design. Knowing how to combine these two styles of type so they work seamlessly together can allow for some really expressive and dynamic designs.
My favorite thing about typography, by far, is the versatility at which it can be used in a design. You can create an entire composition that is based entirely on typography alone, with no other visual graphics, or you can use small font size to accent an image as a means of drawing the viewer’s eye to pertinent information. It is the basic understanding of typography that separates good and bad designers, but the constant study, practice, and mastery of type are what makes good designers great.
Less Is More
The saying goes, two is company, three’s a crowd. This applies to graphic design, but I like to think that a crowd can be fun at times, but anything more and you’re tempting fate with disaster. This rule never applies to my jokes though. More is more. The ease at which we can create and add almost anything to a design sometimes allows us to go a bit overboard. As a designer, I understand the importance of embracing minimalism and using the philosophy of less is more, to enhance my designs.
My approach with minimalism is an all-encompassing one, working with type, color, spacing, and sometimes imagery to achieve the most aesthetically pleasing design conceivable. I begin by determining the focus of the design and build outward from that point, with each element working in harmony with one another. I try using no more than three colors and typefaces each, presented to utilize negative space in such a manner that every element is allowed to breathe and naturally flow to the next. Of course, some rules are meant to be broken, and the one that I most commonly bend to my will is that of spacing. My creative direction is determined by what best represents the design, and how I use each of these elements is decided based upon that direction.
Minimalism is a deceptively difficult style of design to conquer. Simplistic in its appearance, decisions can be toiled over for hours before a satisfying outcome presents itself, but the payoff for your patience will come back to you tenfold in growth. Honing this technique is key to becoming a consistently great graphic designer, so ditch all of the unnecessary fluff that comes with purchased actions and the stale nature of stock photos. Simply remember: less is more.
Control Audience Expectations
Have you ever looked at a design and wondered what in the hell is happening? There might 10 colors, 6 different typefaces, poorly cropped images bathed in outer glow, and no clear information. Is it a performance or a birthday party? Is it at a bar or a restaurant? Was this person on acid when they created this? Are your eyes okay? As graphic designers, it is our job to not only present uniquely stylistic artwork, but to do so in a manner that is comprehensible and immediately informs the audience of what they should expect.
First impressions are everlasting and inform people of what they should anticipate. If a poster looks terrible, people will associate whatever that poster is promoting with a tub full of hot garbage, and no one wants to sift through trash. Part of controlling expectations comes with having a grasp of what makes a design good and being able to execute it. Delivering a clear message is key to good design. This is why it’s imperative that we understand the fundamentals of graphic design.
None of this comes with a sacrifice of style, but quite the contrary, as developing one’s style is a major component of controlling the expectations of others. The further you develop your techniques and methods, the more consistency and good habits blossom in your work. No one wants to deal with a designer that’s all over the place, not knowing what to anticipate. Those factors will separate you from average, stagnant designers, and people will come to expect the best from your work.
Use The Platform of Design
Graphic design, and art as a whole, has a long history of giving a visual representation to important social and political issues, past and present. As a voice of the oppressed, graphic design can serve in the capacity of protest and activism art, penetrating the consciousness of the masses to encourage change in a positive direction. Whether to inform, to commemorate, to lend support to, all of the above, or anything in between, one of the greatest responsibilities an artist can endeavor upon is to serve as an honest and insightful historian acting in good faith on behalf of the people.
We need not look any further than Emory Douglas to understand the impact that art and graphic design can have on the social and political construct. His work shaped the visual identity of the Black Panther Party and provided some of the most iconic images of the Civil Rights Movement. At its height, the party’s newspaper, aptly named The Black Panther, had a readership of over 200,000. It is Emory’s enthralling and thought-provoking imagery that has remained indelible, maybe more so than the publication itself, as he continues to be the guiding light of the protest artist.
The march towards progress is never made without resistance, and this is no different on the graphic design front. Governments throughout the world have long used their resources to produce propagandistic art to further their agendas. In hopes of quelling any opposition from the creative proletariat and nullifying the influence of the activist artist, there is no shortage of examples in which regimes defiled the nature of graphic design, using it as a means to propagate outright lies and fearmonger. Jim Crow era posters and art, as well as wartime propaganda created to demonize the Japanese, are only two that standout. In each, the US government used design to create racist, stereotyped caricatures of black and Japanese people, steeped in lies that were meant to push public sentiment towards fear and hatred of each group. This is why, in any era, it is vital that graphic designers lend their skills as an organ of the oppressed - providing iconography for those who are not seen as iconic, having had their icons destroyed.
When I was a burgeoning designer, I was lucky enough to have a mentor who would offer guidance. I am in no way an expert in my field, but I do have experience paired with a desire for growth, and I hope the philosophies I’ve listed help you in your journey to becoming a better graphic designer.