After being in the design field for 20+ years, I'll share some advice that I typically discuss with young graphic designers about ways to grow as a designer and have a lasting career.
Wow…It’s been 23 years that I’ve been in the design industry. So much growth and change in my skills, confidence and mindset have happened over that time. When I entered the workforce as a newly-minted graphic designer, I remember the daunting feeling of “Can I really do this?” As I slid into the chair in front of a Mac in my first role as a graphic designer, I began to find my groove. Putting together the puzzles of design projects energized me. As I grew in confidence, I began to look more broadly to seek out all of the elements that could tell a broader story in design. As I’ve mentored new designers throughout the years, I recognized some consistent advice I typically share with early career designers. It's about time I wrote some of it down.
1. Focus on the goal
What’s the purpose of the work? In order to truly communicate the message, the project needs to be focused on achieving a goal. As I review a variety of design projects, this is the first point I look to be sure the work is ready to move forward. In the initial creative meeting, we've already established the mediums that we are planning to use to roll out the communication like perhaps mailers that connect to a website, digital ads or email and social. My initial feedback is distinctly focused on how the project is helping to achieve a goal, communicate a message and fit in with the overall project plan. There is a place for decorative design but, as an advocate for purposeful, communicative design, it needs to look good and do the work it's meant to.
2. Design to communicate to an audience
As designers, we all have uniquely creative viewpoints. Those viewing our work do too and the work needs to speak to them. A versatile designer researches their audience and can design pieces that speak beyond their own viewpoint and connect to the audience.
By focusing on the communication of the message to a specific group of people versus just making it look good, the work will do its job. If a project has multiple audiences, design for the one that requires special attention. For example, I design Messiah University’s alumni magazine. The age range of the audience for that is recent grads who are around early 20s to alumni who graduated 50+ years ago. Keeping in mind the readability for an older audience, it's important to minimize reverse and small type. With the attention to these details, it’s still highly readable and the design of layouts is modern which appeals to the broad audience.
There are many ways to strengthen the communication of a theme or idea to the audience. Check that the work tells the full story. Did the elements (imagery, text and graphics) that were provided by the client tell the full story? Are there other elements that you can suggest that would better communicate the story or the brand? Providing image alternatives in the first draft help set up the project for success. Setting up photo shoots, finding stock imagery, working with illustrators often fills the gaps in visual communication that a designer can see.
3. Embrace the grid
Whether it’s print, web, editorial or ad design, a grid helps to visually organize information and elements. It builds visual hierarchy between design elements and carries the eye from one area of the piece to another.
At times, I’ve shown non-designers pieces that lack the structure of a grid and they just can’t put their finger on what feels off. The non-designer has difficulty verbalizing it but can sense that the inconsistency feels uncomfortable and unbalanced. The subtly a grid and invisible sight lines create improves the retention of the message. The viewer feels comfortable looking at it and isn’t distracted by “what’s off” and can focus on the visuals that help convey the message. Some designers may find a grid constricting and I’m sure with different types of design work it might be. The majority of the time it gives a balance and cohesion to the design that makes it feel purposeful and easily understandable.
4. Hone your eye for the details
I’m not an advocate for perfection. Too relentless a pursuit of perfection can hold a creative hostage. BUT as designers, we need to refine details to strengthen our work. Clients can’t tell you that the margins are off or the story is filled with straight quotes when the designer should use typographer’s or the alignment of the imagery or quote is off. The designer should look for these details as they move through the refinement process and not just call the project complete since the client approved it. Check that the grid is consistent, the images fully fill the boxes and the elements in the layout are truly the right resolution. Often an image can be pushed up to 120% and retain enough resolution but any higher than that risks pixelization.
Once you know the details, you’ll know where you can let go and where you can hold on.
FYI..here's some useful info: turn on those typographer’s quotes on in the preferences or use these shortcuts:
“ Option + [
” Option + Shift + [
‘ Option + ]
’ Option + Shift + ]
Fielding feedback and a career that lasts
A seasoned designer often knows well how to manage a variety of feedback on their work. As a young designer, it's helpful to recognize that some clients don't know quite how to provide feedback in a meaningful way and sometimes need help to better communicate how a project needs to be reshaped. View feedback as a chance to hear other viewpoints and drive your design forward rather than let it feel like negative criticism on you. Most importantly, be sure you have reasons why you made specific design decisions. That will help build a more confident, stronger designer that can present purposeful ideas well.
We all got into graphic design for the creativity in a career. Some days the work is more creative than others. Always having an artistic side hustle has helped me balance out the less creative projects. Stay on top of your skills and always look into new trends and more efficient ways to work. It will keep your creative spirit moving forward as your career ebbs and flows. View your career as a journey. Embrace opportunities to try something new and your career will expand in unexpected ways. No one's path is the same. Forge your own.
Check out my design work from the last 10 years of my career at behance.com/nancysoulliard (Pre-2009 projects have been retired from my portfolio). Or view the range of my work including my artistic side hustles at nancysoulliard.com
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