Designer Advice

Learn A Design Vocabulary.


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Make no mistake, you are in a sales position when you are working as a professional web or print designer. You will called upon to sell your work to coworkers, managers and stakeholders."

Whenever I'm asked by a new designer if I have any career advice, I always answer with the the following: learn a design vocabulary. By that I mean, learn how to properly communicate your work. Despite what you may have been told by well meaning professors and instructors in college, “Show don't tell” won't cut it in the business world. Sure, we'd all love for our work to properly represent our point of view. Letting our interface designs and identity concepts do all of the explaining is a romantic notion for any creative. But the reality is that as professional designers we spend as much (if not more) time discussing our work with clients and coworkers as we do creating it.

So how does someone learn how to properly communicate their work? The answer is, through practice. I've found that learning to discuss a concept in at least two different ways is a good rule of thumb. Let's break that down further:


Type Selection


Typography is a fantastic place to begin discussing the genesis of your concepts. Ask yourself why you selected the type in your project. The wrong answer is because you "liked the way it looked." Instead consider what the font you've selected communicates. Is it strength? Is it dominance and contrast? What do the tails and terminals of the type convey? Does the type selection have a whimsical nature that supports the messaging and tone of your project? Does it work for or against the narrative of the product or service you are designing for? If you don't understand the nature of serif and sans-serif selections, learn them. For example, serif type is thought to assist the eye as it travels in a linear pattern. Thusly, serif type is thought to enhance legibility. There is some debate on this issue, but traditional serif fonts perform very well at reduced point sizes ( More to the point, serif type is often associated with historical precedent. How does that information benefit your design? Make thoughtful decisions about how you construct your work, and arm yourself with the "why" as you make your visual choices. These considerations will absolutely make you a better designer.


Interface concepts are often only as good as the photography that supports them. In an ideal world, we would all have the ability to direct photoshoots for all of the projects we create. But 90% of the time we rely on stock for our designs. That doesn't mean you can't make excellent creative choices with existing photography. Audience is key. You have the opportunity to place the viewers of your work in the context of the images you select. Be considerate about who you are appealing to. A tightly cropped image of a smiling stock model might look pleasant but ask yourself if that model represents the market your design is intended for? Consider the use of text placed over your photo selections. Be concious of the visual real estate needed when setting copy over UI elements like hero images.

I also urge you to consider diversity. Stock photo resources are seeing a proliferation of racial diveristy among there options. As designer who has been utilizing professional stock repositories for over a decade, I can tell you it is a welcome development. Many projects present designers with the opportunity to make work inclusive and reflect consumers from multiple ethnographies. Record these image decisions mentally or note them as you work. When called upon, explain your image selections and how you anticipate they drive the messaging of the project. The rule of explaining your work in two ways applies with imagery as well. For example, discuss why the image framing works against your design and why the subject matter reflects the target audience.


Red Green Blue


Ah yes, the challenge of color. This topic could fill an entire book (and often has) on the theory and practice of color selection. For the sake of brevity, lets just zero in on how you can use color to support your concept or design narrative. We use an RGB (Red, Green Blue) color standard for web and interaction design because light is emitted from our devices in red green and blue. These RGB color primaries are mixed to produce a massive range of colors visible to the human eye. With such a large spectrum of options, it s easy to overdo a design with too many color selections. But more to the point, when communicating your color choices be conscious of how to describe your palette. Learn how tints and shades of color can shift the mood of your concept. Tints and shades are achieved by adding white (tints) and black (shades) to your base colors. Tints can soften an interface, making the interface elements appear less weighty and dense. Conversely, shades can be used to compliment brand standard colors. For example, subtle shade variations a brand color can often be added to elements like text-based color links. If a brand color value is too intense and fights readability, tints and shades can often come to the rescue. Familiarize yourself with color saturation and temperature (warmth or coolness). Use these practices thoughtfully and understand how they alter the tone of your work. The goal is always to understand your intent and be able to communicate it when called upon.

I'll Know it when I see it

All professional designers have encountered the rejection of an idea. We've all probably also heard the dreaded, "I'll know it when I see it," response. When you explain your design choices thoroughly and efficiently, you just might divine what specifically is blocking sign-off. Maybe your interface is very effective but a client simply doesn't like the font? Perhaps the layout you've constructed is great but the color selection doesn't suit the opinions of the stake holders. You can often save yourself from scratching an entire concept once you've educated the powers that be on why you've constructed your work. When you've armed the people reviewing your efforts with good information, you might be surprised at how providing insight or education can make the editing process more revelatory.


Learning to sell your work


I've encountered brilliant interface designers who make the thoughtful considerations outlined in this piece inherently and effortlessly - yet when called upon, these same designers can't communicate them. Make no mistake, you are in a sales position when you are working as a professional web or print designer. You will called upon to sell your work to coworkers, managers and stakeholders. The question is: are you going to be prepared to deliver an answer that satisfies?

I'll give you a peek behind the professional curtain. Good design doesn't always win. Often, a designer with the ability to properly defend their aesthetic decisions walks away victorious. I've seen designers with less successful creative concepts sell because of a solid design defense. It happens. And it happens often.

Consider a quote from Mieke Gerritzen (artist, designer and director of The Image Society): "Good design goes to heaven, bad design goes everywhere." Keep in mind, the contents of this article aren't about arguing your way into production. If your work is weak, nothing is going to save it. However, arming yourself with a good design vocabulary goes a very long way.

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Eric Nardo

Eric designs, codes and only occasionally writes (if you've unfortunately read his work, you know why). He also never remembers that he has a twitter account.