Timeless Graphic Design Advice (Part 1)

by . March 8th, 2014

Recently, a friend asked me to teach her the basics of Graphic Design.

I had a hard time answering.

Generally, teaching someone how to use design tools, isn’t the same as giving someone advice on getting started . Especially today where design isn’t just as simple as putting text on a page or crafting a logo for a company.

There’s more aspects to consider.

So I thought to myself, if I were starting today – where would I start?

We bombard our beginners and teach them concepts and software that phase out just as they’re finished mastering them. We tell them to think out of the box but adhere to trends. We recommend workflows and process’ just as new updates and techniques come in. We are a fast paced industry that requires its professionals to stay afloat of trends to survive. There’s a bigger scope of learning for people just starting out today. 

It’s easy to get lost in the swing of things. So, if I had to create a short-list; condense what I feel are words and phrases that have taken me further as a designer and what I feel newer designers should know.

01 01. Designers are Problem Solvers before anything else. 

The main reason why people go to designers is because they have a problem. It can be a small business needing more sales or say, they’re looking for a specific type of person to attract to an event. The first step in any design is to realize what that problem is. Problems take the forms of all shapes and sizes – and it’s your job to solve it with visual output.

When you’re talking to the client, the best way to fish for this is to ask them questions like: What do you want this website to do? and How do you want this design used? 

You have to understand the purpose of the design and the work you do. When you don’t, you might turn up something that is visually great but doesn’t meet what your client hired you for. You end up falling into a pattern of revisions and edits that could have been avoided if the underlying problem was understood.

Know your problem so you know your approach.



 02. Knowing your tools is secondary to knowing what to do with them. 

You can have a masterful grasp of Photoshop, Illustrator and HTML – but it’s pretty hard to make it in the field if you don’t know about what you’re producing. When you have an idea projected it’s easier to just base from there and go all out.

The best thing I learned from years of art school is to thumbnail. The art of colored roughs and mock-up are pivotal to the creation process. It shows your client what to expect so that from the start their inputs can aid your design, rather than you end up scrapping days worth of work. Always think about what you want to happen before you start it.

[pullquote]Many desperate acts of design (including gradients, drop shadows, and the gratuitous use of transparency) are perpetuated in the absence of a strong concept. A good idea provides a framework for design decisions, guiding the work.

Noreen Morioka [/pullquote]

Tools can be learned and bought while concepts are invaluable.



03. Good Concepts elicit emotion.

Technical know-how helps but the best work is something a person responds to. We as human beings are capable of triggering a whole list of emotional responses and as designers it’s our job to steer them to the emotions that we want our work to produce.

The best works feel like a strict punch to the gut. The best works leave you with a sense of awe and wonder. This makes your over-all concept more memorable. The more people remember your work, the more successful your design is. Emotional responses are the easiest way to trigger memory.

[pullquote]The only important thing about design is how it relates to people.

Victor Papanek[/pullquote]



 04. Let your project work for you and not the other way around. 

When dealing with clients, you want to form a partnership instead of a love ’em and leave ’em scenario.

It’s important early during the first meaning to establish the scope of the project – so that shocks don’t come a long way down the road. Thinking ahead during the first phase of planning is crucial. If a client asks for a website for example, you have to know what you’ll actually be doing.

Does he want something that’s static? Does he need it to be responsive? What features would benefit him? When I’m designing, will I be using his material or will I have to write the copy? Will he need photography? How much research and testing will have to be done?

Sometimes, you have to read between the lines of what your client is trying to say. Sometimes when someone who asks for a ‘new logo’ isn’t just asking you for pixels but to re-shape the brand and the brand identity.

I try to list the potential needs and wants of the clients before I go to any meeting. During the meeting I try to clarify the amount of work that needs to be done, and then I negotiate what I can do in my client’s time frame at this price. Be honest and be real about what you can and cannot do.

Figure out if you’re the right designer for the job and work things out accordingly. If at the early stages – you two aren’t meeting eye to eye, start recommending alternative solutions and explaining limits. If they already seem problematic during the negotiations stage, reconsider the job altogether.

It’s easier to work things out at this stage rather than going further down the road and finding yourself at a loss.

Also, never do work for free.



 05. Talk about your achievements and your work.

To cut it short: modesty doesn’t land you projects.

The Design Industry is an industry tailored to first impressions. Your portfolio and your experiences are the first considerations an Art Director or a Client makes before they ask you to work with them. They want to work with people who they think can deliver so it’s important to create that impression. It’s perfectly acceptable to showcase your work. your awards, your mentions and your nominations. It’s alright to list down your proficiency with your tools. The more you talk, the more you open yourself up for opportunities.

In the Advertising Industry, it’s important to be charming, approachable and confident. If they can’t trust you to sell yourself, how are they going to trust you to sell the product? This concept also applies to feedback. We all have work that we never want to see the light of day, but the more and more we post and publish – we get feedback. We get to see where we can improve as designers.

This is not to be confused with a free pass on arrogance. If you give the impression of being a headache. It’s harder to convince a client to work with you. Find the right point between the two.


To wrap it up: always use a concept, know what you’re getting into before you agree to anything and design with purpose. I’m imparting a little more graphic design know how on the second part of this post, where I’m covering concepts such as the importance of networking and research.


If you want us to add something or have anything to contribute or to say, let us know in the comments below. If you like where this series is headed, feel free to like, share or tweet us! Follow us to be in the know about when we roll out our next part!