Last week I tackled the question, “What makes good design?” to spell out the rules of basic competency. But knowing all the rules and putting them into practice doesn’t necessarily make someone a great designer. Mastering the art requires a more – that “more” requires intuition and the ability to recognize what’s needed on a project by project basis. This is where things get tricky and require tons of practice. Here’s the more difficult rules I’ve discovered. Also, many of them work for every art, including writing.
Your imagery has to communicate as much as the type.
Sometimes the imagery is the type, if you’re doing funky things like making letters morph into horses, but when you do make sure people can see the horses. I know from experience how working on a design can give you tunnel vision, making you imagine you’re communicating a whole lot more than you actually are. You can spend hours arranging a bunch of swoopy lines into the shape of a cowboy, only to have the first person you show cock their head, decide they have the right-side-up image upside down, and turn it over saying, “Is it supposed to be an elephant?”
This also goes into what I was saying about symbolism a few weeks ago. People, designers and clients alike, can get way too caught up in the significance of their chosen imagery when it doesn’t communicate squat to anyone outside their circle. You can’t think like a Freemason when you’re trying to bring people in, not exclude them.
Make sure the tone fits the project’s intention.
Just like a story’s tone has to fit, like dark tones to horror story and so on, the design of a logo or whatever has a ton of unwritten rules about what works for what and what doesn’t. These can be tricky things like cultural significance, something even pro designers screw up once in a while. I saw a guy on a design forum ask for crits on something that screamed “Mexican restaurant” (that wasn’t for a Mexican restaurant) and he didn’t realize it until other people pointed it out. This is why feedback is your friend.
If you hang around design blogs enough, you’ll read tons of articles on psychological color theory. A lot of this is Kandinsky-ite marketing woo, but there are trends you should be aware of, otherwise you might get pantsed in a Mexican restaurant situation. I won’t list examples because they could change tomorrow, which means a good designer has to keep her ear to the ground. Tone doesn’t just mean color either. It also extends to typefaces, geometry, etc.
Looking good is not enough.
A good-looking design is a competent one, but that doesn’t always make it great. Looking good alone isn’t enough to be memorable. It has to be compelling. This means it speaks on personal level to the people you want to reach. You have to know what you have on your hands and who you think will want it in their hands too. If that means doing a book title in a hideous green booger font because you’re targeting ten-year-olds um … so be it?
Don’t just follow the trends.
Counter to what I said above about keeping your ear to the ground, if you just follow whatever trends you find, you’re still only wading in the competency pool. A great designer makes the trends, and does that by inventing. If you’re trying to communicate a specific idea, do an image search to find out what the clichés are and do something different. The true master knows how to do a balancing act between what people will instantly “get” because the idea seems obvious at a glance, and yet it’s not the first idea to come to mind – because the latter has already been done by everyone else. This leads to the next point:
Don’t go for the first idea that comes to mind.
I need say little to elaborate on this. Come up with a crapload of ideas and give yourself at least a week to mull them over. You may not always get that time if you have an impatient client who wants the work yesterday, but that’s a compromise you sometimes have to make. You have to tell that client, “You can have it fast, cheap, or good. Pick two.”
Scrap the idea when it’s not working.
This is another intuitive skill that can only develop with practice. Most people, while learning the basics, will work an idea to death because they don’t have the confidence to say when it’s done or when it’s done for. You’ll feel something’s wrong in the pit of your stomach. You may not be able to put a finger on it, so put it down for a week (if you can) or get someone else’s opinion on it. What you need is a fresh pair of eyes.
A master knows when to break to the rules.
Someone once asked on a writing forum I frequent, “How do you know when to break the rules?” I answered: you’ll know when to break the rules because you’ll know what the rule is and why you want to break it. I’ve heard pro designers give similar advice as, “Make sure everything you do is deliberate.” This doesn’t mean cutting out messing around, denying any chance of serendipitous discovery. What it does mean is once messing around time is over, follow through with deliberate choices.
Of course, you won’t know whether or not your experiment was successful until it reaches someone else’s brain and they respond to it (or fail to), and this is what most of these rules come down to. Design is an art of communication. If your design doesn’t communicate a damned thing, it’s failed, and you’ll only figure that out through trying. Last of all:
It matters even when it doesn’t matter.
Every chance you have to do something related to your work is an opportunity to get more practice. It doesn’t matter if it’s good, but it does matter whether or not you put the effort in. If you only care when it’s important, you’ll suck more often when the stakes are high. The best illustrators sketch and doodle every day. The best writers put enough care into their posts on the internet to be intelligible to other human beings. The best designers still care about kerning when doing small charity jobs for their moms. The person who thinks, “Eh, good enough.” and does a half-assed job whenever possible with always be mediocre.by