The simple answer to this question is: whatever looks good and does the job. But that’s hard to quantify, so let’s break it down. Here are the basic rules to making yours designs not look like crap:
The information is readable.
Believe me, I’ve seen people screw up this basic requirement. Back in art college, I and a couple other students were tasked with making a poster for our art show, and I actually got into an argument with them over some stupid font they thought looked cool, but was totally illegible. They wanted to use it for where the show took place, when it was, and all the other important information people needed to know to go see the fucking thing.
To make extra-sure what you’ve done is readable, take a step back and look at it from a few feet away. Then look at it again sized down to a thumbnail. Is the most essential information still readable at a distance or tiny?
You’ve committed no typographical horrors.
Now, you can piss off a typographer by doing so much as bolding text that doesn’t have a proper bold weight. There are tons of little rules, because typographers are the secret masters of the design world, but all you have to remember is not to do anything the type wasn’t already designed for. This means no stretching it out of shape – ever. No adding funky effects (this includes 3D-ifiying or changing it from fill to stroke). These are all terrible sins that will summon Zalgo, the type fiend.
But there are less nitpicky rules you should always follow to avoid making people’s eyes bleed. No really, stop stretching text and adding fake 3D effects. That shit makes type look like garbage.
- Drop shadows should only be used to make the text stand out over a complicated background – it should not be noticeable, because then it also looks like garbage.
- Stop with the eye-bleeding colors for contrast. If it makes people feel like they’re being punched in the face, it’s too damned much. Also, please don’t use gradient fills to make things look metallicky, because it always looks super dumb and fake.
- Stick to one or two typefaces (three maximum), learn about pairing fonts, and learn how to fix bad kerning. There are tons of decent display fonts for cheap or free, but the space between each letter is not going to be perfect. Pro typographers spend so many hours making every possible letter combination perfect that those fonts are worth real money.
- Oh yeah, and if your font came free with Windows, don’t use it for display text – as in anything you don’t want to look like you farted it out in a cubicle while pretending to be working.
Your layout leads the eye in a logical way that aids the viewer in getting all the information.
This means doings things that make sense, like header hierarchy. All that means is making sure your titles are bigger than your subtitles and so on. It also generally means putting the important stuff at the top (and/or left in the west), or center of the layout if it’s a minimal design. If you take a step back from your work and find it hard to get the essentials at a glance, you need to fix that, because people won’t give you enough time to explain your bullshit if their first impression is, “This is bullshit.”
You’ve left enough white-space to give every element breathing room.
This is about more than legibility, and applies to type an imagery. If you cram everything together when it just won’t fit, you’re going to give your viewers a headache. Don’t cram the page until you make people barf their brains. Less is more. Layouts look better when there’s some empty space chilling out in there. In fact, pro designers will tell you the negative space is just as important as the content, because it frames the content. I’m continually amazed at how increasing the leading between lines of text can make a meh design look better. There’s also cool things you can do with negative space once you learn to pay attention to it.
Remember grids are your friends.
Whether you use the rule of thirds or golden ratio doesn’t matter as much as knowing how to align every element to every other element. Use a grid. Whether you’re working on paper or the computer, use a grid. Even if you’re making a poster for a hippy’s psychedelic shoe farm, use a grid.
You have your colors under control.
Barring any psychedelic shoe farm posters, where the goal is to lead a stoner’s eyes around and around the page to make him go, “Woah!” choose a single color scheme and stick to it. Adobe’s got a great color wheel app online, and it’s free. Remember that bright colors draw the eye, so keep your powerful colors powerful the same way I limit my swears per blog post.
Your Photoshop work doesn’t look like a four-year-old spread poop all over it.
Again, I’ve seen this, on some poor soul’s self-published book cover. I don’t even know what the “designer” was doing using the airbrush effect behind all the text with baby-poop brown, and behind the bad cut&paste job around the stock model, and all over the background. It was like virtual projectile diarrhea over everything. How someone can look at that and go, “Yep, a job well done.” – it boggles the mind.
You get feedback and advice from good designers.
This last point I’ve added thanks to Alicia’s comment about finding a mentor. Feedback is critical, especially when starting out, and not just from clients. Clients can have awful taste in everything. Their happiness doesn’t guarantee that you didn’t produce an unholy abomination, it just means you got paid. You’ll still miss opportunities for more work if what you put in your portfolio looks like a dog turd. If you live in a vacuum, sealed off from other professionals, you will never learn their tricks. Get a mentor!
There are tons of books and online resources that go into design in more detail, but following the rules outlined above will at least make your designs look like they weren’t done by someone’s blind grandma. Next time I’ll try to puzzle out what makes great design as I struggle across the competency plateau on my way to mastery mountain, because I sure as hell haven’t reached it yet.by