Top 5 Amateur Design Mistakes

Recently I gave a talk at the DVA Workshop here in Cincinnati. I spoke for about an hour addressing some topics regarding the current climate of the design business, and what potential designers face in the search for a great art director gig. One of the things I presented was an observational list of the Top 5 mistakes I see in a lot of amateur or “early professional” design portfolios. I purposely left out any visual examples.

Weak concepts.
This is a fairly easy one to pick apart. Your concepts have to be distinct, original and hold up no matter the process or presentation format (print, screen, web, etc). A weak concept consists of elements that look like they are “after thoughts”; type elements with no distinct graphic appeal, art elements that lack appropriate “polish” & look unfinished; like you created them in a hurry. The worst possible example of a weak concept is when a designer presents several options that are basically copies of the same concept, only with different color or font choices. As a designer, you need the ability to quickly assess the needs of the project and execute distinctly different creative options that address those needs. You can mess around with fonts or color options in the creative process but then you’ll pick ONE of a few of these options to present to the client (or in your portfolio).

BAD compositions (dead space, bad overlaps, tangents, etc)
I’m a stickler for classic composition in design. The  elements in your design must utilize the basic elements of art (line, shape, color, form, texture etc.). The designer must utilize these elements to create an aesthetically pleasing arrangement. How these elements work together is up to you. If you create a design with dead space, you are wasting the potential of your design. In design, a good tangent is when you utilize the elements of design to point to an area of interest: hopefully the thing you WANT people to pay attention to. If you create a bad tangent in your design, you are basically calling out a flaw in your composition by visually pointing to something that is NOT important.

BAD typography (too many fonts, weak fonts, weak balance of weak fonts)
Good font choices can make a good design look awesome. bad font choices will wreck your final art! I see a lot of designers make this mistake. They want to make a design (flyer, business card, etc.) that is visually interesting, but the selection of too many contrasting “WOW” fonts make the design impossible to read. This is a net minus for your project and might get you fired! When you design, you must use type to your advantage, since it’s about 90% of what makes good graphic design work. Pick a good “designer font” for your body copy and safely use ONLY the fonts in that suitcase for the bulk of your copy (i.e. if you choose Helvetica Neue, use ONLY its' versions of bold, italics, etc). Once you’ve done this, you can then use one or two maximum visually contrasting fonts as your headlines or “impact” fonts. If you balance the ratio of copy fonts vs. impact fonts correctly, your design will have great visual organization, will make the splash you want and will have copy the target audience can actually read. A win all around.

Not considering how the design is used (web, print, club, retail, direct to consumer, etc)
This is another common mistake. We designers tend to work towards showing the art on a sheet of paper from a CMYK toner printer to show the client. Many times, we do not present the work in the context that it will “live” in. You can create an awesome logo design, but if it’s not legible when reduced by only 50% for example, or if the design doesn’t work well when reduced to a single color, or WORSE when it doesn’t look right ON the actual product; it’s a weak design.

This is especially true in packaging design where it's critical to mockup your package as a box, label, etc. and look at it in the conditions where it will be seen by the consumer. For example, you should acquire the ability to show your package on the shelf where it will be sold, along with competitive products and store-quality lighting. Strengths and weaknesses of the design will become abundantly apparent here. The same holds true for non-packaged designs. If you create a brochure, business card or flyer, print out a 100% sized mockup cut and folded appropriately to present to your client.

Not understanding print process (flexo, gravure, offset, color matching, etc)
Prints from a CMYK toner or inkjet printer can vary wildly from each other. The comparisons to offset, flexo, or gravure printing is even more inconsistent. Use color matching systems (i.e. Pantone) and match your designs to those swatches. Get yourself a pantone swatch book if you don’t have one. When you print out your proofs on your printer, compare the PMS color on your print to the appropriate PMS number swatch. When you can make your colors match visually, you can more confidently present this to your clients. As you gain more experience, you will learn how to adjust your design to match the final printed process. Many of the best designers I know have a great working knowledge of the print process as it affects their designs.

This is by no means a definitive list; there are MANY topics I did not go into here. It is a great sfor a designer to assess where they are in the business and how to navigate yourself to better projects. In my next blog post, I will speak specifically about packaging design, as it’s a specialty of mine.

Thanks and let me know if this has been helpful! @brandedsucess on twitter or fb.com/brandedsuccesscinci on Facebook.

*Substrate means the substance you are literally printing ON (paper, plastic, fabric, etc). Most of the time it refers to paper.

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