Graphic Design Basics: Pay Attention to Detail
I know what it’s like to be starting out in this business, being overwhelmed with so many details, it’s hard to keep them all straight… then after a while, you become complacent and start depending on others (manager, art director, etc.) to catch your lack of detail and ask you to fix it. It’s easy to fall into this trap of becoming a “production” designer (someone who knows the programs and does the work that only others tell them to do), but I’m here to tell you to aspire to be better.
Do you long to move into a Senior Designer or Art Director position? Do you seek that high-praise that gets you noticed by your manager or other high-ups in the company you work for? Are you having a hard time finding work as a graphic designer due to a less-than-stellar portfolio? Then for starters, pay attention to every detail of your work. Even the least-creative work will be noticed if it’s laid out well and in a highly professional manner. In many cases these details are GD basics, and others might just need fine-tuning work to take your design from acceptable to exceptional.
Graphic Design Detail Basics – What Should Be Checked and Refined in Every Layout
First off, you probably know most of these basic things to watch for in your designs. As the owner and creative director of a small design group, I’ve done some interviewing and hiring of other designers, and when I ask questions about these basics I almost always get the right answer in return. But when I put a graphic designer to test in the driver’s seat and ask them to create a layout for me, no matter if they have 2 years of experience or 20 years, more often than not they seem to forget these basics immediately and proceed to create a design I wouldn’t show to my dog, let alone a client.
Many graphic designers today have become lazy and careless.
Harsh? Yes. And it’s the truth. So it’s time to call out these basics and challenge yourself to make it a habit to carefully adhere to them in every one of your designs:
- Live Area on a Page
- Look at any professional page layout in print, web, packaging, etc. and you’ll notice there’s an even amount of space around the inside of every outside edge of the page. This is a standard amount of space to keep the eyes looking inward, keep text or non-intended images from falling off the page and prevent it from getting cut off at press. Even the biggest symmetry anarchists understand that there has to be some order of white space and alignment around the edge of a page… referred to as a margin. If you’re designing an 8.5″ x 11″ document, that margin should be at LEAST 1/4″ or more, all the way around. Keep that area clear of text or images that are not a purposeful part of the background. When your layout is complete, pull away from it, squint/blur your eyes, and you should be able to see that invisible border… that’s when you know you’ve done it right. If you want to bring the left and right sides in to a full inch or alter the margins for any reason, that’s fine… as long as you leave that bare minimum of 1/4″. Text should never run closer to the edge than that. Seem pretty basic? I can’t tell you how many graphic design resumés I receive that break this rule in a horrible way.
- White Space Around Text
- Let’s say you have a layout with multiple paragraphs on a page, maybe scattered about with a few different images. Never, ever, EVER butt that text up directly against an image. Single most common sign of an amateur designer. There should be ample white space around the edges of the paragraph as well as the image. You can wrap your text, get funky with it, whatever — but just as you have an imaginary margin around the inside of your page, you also have that invisible margin around the outside of all your text. Keep spacing even between paragraphs as well. Any good designer will tell you that the placement of text on any document is 100% intentional… a layman may never see the alignment or perfect spacing that’s equal between all paragraphs, and a good design will guarantee that. If your paragraphs of text are scattered and spaced out with no rhyme or reason, it’ll be far more noticeable. Even the most random-seeming layouts have a mass of order behind them.
- Same comments as above in regards to white space around images, but images meant for the background can certainly break the rules and bleed off the page or go behind text. Just keep in mind that transparent background images and textures were popular circa 1998. We’re now in the 20-teens and clean, un-cluttered designs are where it’s at. If you’re going with a background image, make it a full-opacity beauty-shot with contrasting text over the top, or play with positive/negative space on your page… but I beg you, don’t throw down that 25% opacity and think it looks cool. It doesn’t.
- Line Up Every Item on a Page with Purpose
- All too often I’ve been handed a layout by one of my designers with a huge, proud grin and assurances on how much I’m going to LOVE it. I have no problem with new, creatively designed layouts, but I do have a problem with poor spacing and a lack of attention to detail. As I touched on above, there should be purpose to the placement and order of every element on the page. Take, for example, a multi-page catalog or brochure layout that has page numbers. Where are those page numbers located? Are they equal distance from the edge of the page on both the right- AND left-hand sides? Have you considered that you should align the body text to the exact left-hand line of the page number, or exactly .325″ right of the page number position? Are you leaving at least .25″ of space above the page number at all times in order to keep the layout looking clean and un-cluttered? Letting body text run too close to that page number will incur a messy-looking layout that’s probably too text-heavy.
- Think nobody won’t notice that you skipped those things? Think again. I don’t need to take a ruler to a layout to see that something is off, and neither will your immediate supervisor. If you start looking at every detail with careful consideration, the quality of your designs will noticeably improve. The quality of the detail is as aptly important as the creativity of the design. Take the time to critique yourself before handing your design off to a manager. Proofread everything even if you weren’t told to do it (any good manager will appreciate the extra effort). Measure out all your spacing and make sure it applies to everything on the page. I guarantee they will appreciate not having to mark up your design with a ferver.
- Chroma & Color Balance
- Ever notice when you put two opposing colors together, they almost “vibrate” to your eyes? That’s because the two colors you chose are too close to the same chroma, and it’s not visually appealing. Chroma is defined as the purity of a color, or its freedom from white or gray. Colors that are too rich and placed too heavily on a page are a detail every good designer takes into consideration. Don’t get me wrong, intensity of color can be good if it’s meant to be that way in order to call the viewer’s eye to a certain message or create visual appeal, but it should be done in an artful and purposeful manner. The colors shouldn’t be so contrasting that they become burdensome to look at, causing a viewer to look away in annoyance. If you must use the two or more intensely chromatic hues, consider placing them further apart in order to give the recipient’s eye a chance to adjust.
- Do I really have to say it? Honestly? SPELL CHECK. ALWAYS.
There’s certainly more I could add to this list, but if you have suggestions please feel free to leave them in the comments below. At this point though, I think you understand the seriousness of paying attention to detail. These may seem like little things that you already know… but do you actually do them on a regular basis and on every design you create? Be honest with yourself now. Because if you do, then great, but if you don’t then that very well could be the reason you haven’t received that raise, that second interview or that promotion you’ve eagerly been seeking. Show yourself, the clients and your management team that you aspire to be better… that you can be better. Not only will it make you feel more confident in every design you create (saving you from disappointment after viewing your work with red pen scribbled all over it), you’ll gain the respect and admiration you deserve.