Being a good designer is not just about make things look pretty, it’s about solving problems. Whether you design for the web, have your hands in printed marketing materials, or design large scale projects, it’s all the same: You need to know your audience, solve the problem, make it look amazing, and stay within budget. Sounds easy enough, but any one of these can trip you up through the design process.
Before we start, let me just say that before you do anything, do your research. Get to know the client, and get a feel for their product or service. The more you know about them, the better equipped you’ll be in your first meeting.
1. Know Your Audience
Your audience may be a client that wants nicely designed internal assets for themselves or assets they can use to showcase their product or service. Or you may be working more with the person who is organizing the project for their client. This last scenario can be a little tricky because they are the “middle man” who is interpreting what the client is asking for. In any case, make sure you listen and ask questions.
The more you understand the project, the quicker you‘ll be able to solve the problem. Don’t be afraid to be in the conversation but be wary of brainstorming too much and over-offering in the initial meeting. I’ve seen designers paint themselves into a corner by promising more than is required, wanting to make a good first impression. In the end, the client is happy, which is great, but the designer—not so much. The project grew but the budget didn’t.
The next thing to do is read. If you’re designing marketing assets, like flyers, brochures, or a web page, the easiest way to understand your audience is to read the content and understand it (if it’s not too technical!).
Once you are comfortable with client meetings, you may run across an instance when you want to guide them in a different direction from what they think they want. I’ve been in meetings where the client says “I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it; let’s have you design a <fill in the blank>” or “Here’s what our competitor is doing, do this.” On one hand, it’s great to know what they like, but mimicking someone else’s work is not going to help them stand out. When they’ve explained the job and what they are trying to accomplish, don’t be afraid to suggest a different medium. They may think they want a direct mail campaign, but you think an eNewsletter may benefit them more. Meetings can be tricky, but if you listen, and ask the right questions, you’ll come away with what you need to get started.
2. Do Your Research
Now that you know what the project is, take a look at competitors, just for grins. It’s always a good idea to know what the competition is doing. But once you’ve done that, look for your own inspiration. Look around town at retail windows or favorite things you’ve collected in your home; take a nature walk or visit a museum ‑ ideas can come from the most unlikely places. Look at fabric or building materials for texture, color or foliage for organic shapes. Don’t limit yourself to web searching for what others have already done. I’ve known designers who carry sketchbooks with them or who use their phone to snap photos—anything to keep inspiration at hand. Whatever method you use, keep your eyes open, and document your ideas. You never know what you’ll come across in your travels.
3. Make it Look Amazing
This is the fun part! Now that you’re inspired and have tons of ideas, start designing. But hold up, let’s talk old school for a moment. Sure, you can sit down at the computer and dive into InDesign or Illustrator, but let’s take a step back. All you really need is a pencil and paper to get started. Drawing your ideas as thumbnails can help you weed through the mundane solutions and get your brain thinking about the more exciting ones. These things can help you from getting tripped up in details, like choosing a typeface, deciding on a grid, or looking at supporting art like photos or illustrations.
Once you have some layouts or designs in mind, fire up your favorite program, and get started. You’ll work a lot quicker if you have a direction, and from the looks of your sketches, you probably have plenty! One thing to keep in mind: make sure you know which piece of software is right for your project. Always use Illustrator to design logos or art because the art you create can be resized without compromising the integrity. Since Illustrator uses Bézier Curves (named after French mathematician and engineer Pierre Bézier), your art can be sized large or small without changing the crispness of the line. Too often I see logos designed in Photoshop, which is pixel based, that can look pixelated when enlarged because you are, in fact, enlarging the pixels. The result is a very pixelated, very blurry version of your logo or art, and is unusable. I’ve also seen page layouts produced in Photoshop instead of InDesign, all I can think of is they don’t know how to use InDesign. The point is “Get trained!” Just remember to use the right tool for the right job, and the process will be just that much easier.
4. Budge Your Time & Money
Budgeting both your time and your money can be tricky. When you’re starting out, it always takes a bit longer to get where you’re headed. In time, you’ll develop your own style, have your favorite stable of fonts, and your favorite software shortcuts. One thing I’ve learned from experience is to make sure to keep track of your time. It will keep you honest (I designed that logo in 1 hour – or was it 10!) and help you take the guesswork out of doing your next estimate. The easiest way to do this is to get a program that allows you to keep track of your time, create estimates and subsequently turn them into invoices. I’ve used Billings Pro for years; I love that I can start the timer and concentrate on my project, and if I walk away from the computer, the timer shuts off after a few minutes. This tool is invaluable for a freelancer or small business owner. After all, you’re a designer, not an accountant, and you'd much rather spend your time designing, than doing your books.
So now that you’ve got the method down, go out and find some new clients. As a photographer friend of mine says, “Do Good Work!”
Debra Novara's love affair with design and the outdoors was truly realized when just two weeks after graduation she landed in Denver with nothing more than a backpack, her portfolio and a pair of skis. After 20+ years of designing for the Denver market (and skiing every resort) she returned to Michigan where she continues to work in the design industry as a member of the NHLS Marketing team. In addition to receiving awards for her design work, Debra has taught design at universities, served on multiple design panels and is recognized as one of the founding members of the AIGA-Denver Chapter.