It may seem like a no brainer, but I’m starting off with the easiest rule in the book. I’m not saying you need to hit command + S after every minor change, but getting into the habit of hitting that keyboard shortcut every so often can save you hours of work. Trust me, there is nothing worse than spending a couple of hours refining a project, ideating, or just knocking out a quick design when Illustrator crashes or InDesign decides it’s done for the day. In that heart-stopping moment, you wonder “when is the last time I saved?” Low and behold, you have to start from scratch.
Believe me, it may be annoying at first to try and remind yourself to save your files every 10 minutes, but after a while, you won’t even realize you’re doing it. It will become second nature and a crucial part of your workflow to get to a small stopping point and just hit command + S to save the day (literally!) Basically, just look out for your future self.
Another no brainer here – PROOFREAD YOUR WORK! This is something that is actually built into most programs these days. It’s as simple as letting the computer dig through your text and suggest useless changes before it actually catches something you missed. Totally worth the 3-4 minutes it took to go through the file. Painless even.
However, I recommend printing off everything you design, reading through it thoroughly and marking it up pen to paper. Having a physical print out and focusing your attention on a hard copy will help you catch spelling and grammar issues, sizing problems and even weird layout mishaps that just get missed on the screen. Once you feel good about the file being typo-free, pass it off to a coworker or a friend to read through, mark up and give feedback on the visual layout. This is essential, especially after you’ve spent hours with your eyeballs on this project. A fresh pair of eyes is the best thing for your work!
Set up a Grid
Lay the foundation for your design project! Set up a system of columns and rows in your document that will help guide your design choices when it comes to background, typography or other elements. Set up a grid, follow that grid, but also break the grid! Confused yet?
The grid grounds your design. It allows you to work within constraints that feel logical and comforting for the viewer. Breaking your grid in small, intuitive ways, gives a sense of excitement to your design. It creates a focal point, a sense of disruption and should be used sparingly. Try to break your grid in a way that draws attention to the focal point of your project. There should be a reason for breaking the grid! Check out this book for more information on Making and Breaking the Grid.
I’m throwing in a technical tip here. This is something I learned in college during my foundation years at school, but it has stuck with me for almost 6 years now. In Adobe programs, under the Character styles, you can set your default kerning settings to certain numerical values, Metric or Optical. ALWAYS set your file up to use the Optical setting. This setting adjusts the kerning of your document based on the typeface you have selected. It accounts for weird ligatures and spacing that may get missed otherwise. This setting will save you some time when you get to the point in the process when you need to go through your document with a fine-toothed comb and adjust letting and kerning on a micro level (which is also very important!)
The Golden Ratio
Oh the Golden Ratio. Another fundamental learning from my college days! If you aren’t familiar, it’s basically an ideal ratio that is inherently aesthetically pleasing. It’s incredibly important in how the consumer views, comprehends and responds to your design. This becomes increasingly important when designing communicative pieces. Using the Golden ratio when applying type sizes to your headers, subheaders, and body copy can help create a full-proof type hierarchy (or at least a pretty solid starting point.
The Golden Ratio is made up of the line height, font size and the line width using the ratio of 1.68. There are Golden Ratio Calculators you can use to help determine your ideal Character styles. The coolest part, these Golden proportions live in places where form and function combine to produce a beautiful, effective and useful result. This is usually the answer when people respond with “I don’t know why, but I just like how it looks.” The viewer is pleased but can’t place their thumb on the technicality of the Golden ratio.
Don’t be afraid of white space…
Repetition of Elements
When it comes to taking on a large project that involves several printed pieces that will live as a family or a long-winded booklet, you need to keep in mind the importance of consistency. Understanding from the beginning that continuing elements throughout your project help keep viewers grounded, interested and familiar is vital. Without the repetition of elements, your audience can feel lost, confused and generally just feel disconnected from your work.
Give yourself some exploratory time at the very beginning of the project to define your visual system, if it’s not already defined by a larger set of guidelines. This will set yourself up with the proper toolkit to tackle your project effectively. Just be sure to carry visual elements from previous sections throughout your work that are reminiscent of your system. Think of it as a house, you want the interior to feel cohesive, and well thought out. You want your furniture to be from the same era, match the textures and paint throughout the home and enhance the overall aesthetic of the home. That’s exactly how you should approach your upcoming project. Start big, with a concept that excites you, and narrow it down to specific typefaces, colors, elements that speak well together and will tell the same story throughout your design piece.
In closing, there are so many basic rules to achieve a quality design piece. Learning and practicing just a few at a time will help you turn rules into habits as you grow as a designer. The more work you put in at the beginning of a project to set up the technical side of things, the easier it will be for your design to fall into place.