Graphic Design Mistakes

While I was watching the NATS game last night (Goooo NATS!), I came across this article on Digital Synopsis that I thought, "I have to share this!". This article talks (and shows some great examples) about many common design mistakes that I come across often with provided artwork. I find it necessary to address this again, like I did in my "The Importance of a Graphic Designer" blog last year... Some people have an eye for things, that's true.... but formal training for the specific medium you are designing for is invaluable.

Here are my thoughts on the 19 mistakes addressed in the article.

1) Using words instead of visuals.

You know the saying, "a picture speaks a thousand words", right? Sometimes a visual does a better job of painting the full picture than an overload of words used to describe something that can best, simply, be shown.

2) Poor readability (long lines of text)

This is going to tie into inadequate use of white space and overall composition balance. You never want to have more than 50-60 characters per line. You'll have to adjust spacing and font size, or column size and justification to establish good flow. Viewers don't want to have to move their head the length of a football field to read your message.

3) Too many fonts

And this is a big one and a pet peeve of mine. In all compositions, you never want to use more than 3 fonts. You can use different variations of a primary font to establish hierarchy (ie, a bold version for headers or an italicized version for emphasis). To understand this, you have to have a good grasp on typography and the vibe that different fonts give off. San serif fonts are less formal and more modern than traditional fonts with serifs. Some script can be incredibly formal (and hard to read) while some script can be exceptionally more playful. Fonts need to be chosen based on the overall message and be consistent with branding. This is going to tie into many of the next broken rules, but especially #11 and #12.

4) Bad Kerning (the space between letters in a word)

Novice designers may be guilty of not paying close enough attention to how a lower case t looks next to a lower case i in some fonts and will need to be adjusted in order for the letter to appear properly. Kerning can be adjusted to balance space on lines (especially if you are justifying on both sides).

5) Poor color combinations

Basic color theory is more in depth than what goes well together based on the color wheel. Using complimentary colors instead of colors that clash with another or don't provide enough contrast (#8) can cause a design to fail from the start. Research color theory to understand color meaning and be sure it complements the message.

6) Inadequate use of white space or lack thereof

There is no need to fill every nook and cranny of your design space. Adequate white space provides a clean, modern, balanced look while excessive white space can lead to an empty look. Inadequate white space can look cluttered and confuse the viewer, leading them to not know where to look first and distracting from the visual hierarchy.

7) Arbitrary element placement

Scattering elements haphazardly makes the entire design look unintentional--- unless your design's mood is chaos, this is hardly ever a good idea. Again, balance.

8) Lack of contrast

Monochromatic doesn't have to mean "without contrast". Monochromatic designs can and should still have contrast. If you're designing in grayscale (just an example), you'll want to use each end of the spectrum. Placing a 50% gray object over a 60% gray background is going to be subtle (and that's great if it's not meant to be a primary object in the visual hierarchy) but if it's text, your viewer's eye is going to glance right over it most times.

This is where complimentary colors can be a stellar design element. Use of primary colors with an accent color is a hallmark of successful modern branding. Using shades of blue as your primary color palete can create a soothing or corporate look but adding a pop of orange as your complimentary, accent color against the palette allows viewers to get a sense of what is important. If you were to use purple as your accent color, there wouldn't be enough pop against it since purple is made from blue (and red, in case you missed that in elementary school).

9) Improper Scaling

Look at the header of this blog. What looks more important? The word MISTAKES, right? Why? Because it was scaled to call attention to it in the title of the blog. Primary words or words that are intended to be emphasized can be scaled larger --- just as in when you are creating a heading, sub head and body copy in an article-- you can do this in a title as well.

I find that sometimes when I do this, clients often don't understand the flow or why I have chosen to call out certain words in one element (like the title) but it's basically establishing the visual hierarchy the same way you use different variations of fonts (bold, italic, etc).

10) Ignoring the rules of visual hierarchy (and misunderstanding

the hierarchy)

For an in-depth look at visual hierarchy, this is a great article. Elements of visual hierarchy are established with:

- Size.

- Position

- Negative Space (or white space)

- Color

- Contrast

- Repetition

- Alignment

The visual hierarchy in design generally follows the AIDA model.

A – attention (awareness): attract the attention of the customer.

I – interest of the customer.

D – desire: convince customers that they want and desire the product or service and that it will satisfy their needs.

A – action: lead customers towards taking action and/or purchasing

Elements of a good design will use all of these 19 rules in an inherent, sometimes subconscious effort to follow this model.

11) Illegible text

I see this all the time. You have a busy background and you want to place text over top of it. Chances are, you're going to need to doctor up the image area behind the text in order for it to be legible over the background-- you're also going to need to bring that color wheel into play here to make sure that text pops from it.

12) Improper/Poor font combinations

As mentioned above-- different font styles have different vibes. Digital Synopsis has another great article about Font Psychology. Just from this article alone, I found dozens more about the psychology behind font choices and their impact on design. This lets me know that I'm not alone in emphasizing to clients the meaning behind different font styles. Seriously, check out that article and the article linked below from Crazy Egg that's full of fun info graphics about font style.

Image courtesy of Crazy Egg

13) Inadequate leading (the space between lines of text)

Line breaks and spacing lend themselves to organization and flow... when you have text all bunched up with no spacing (between letters, between words and between lines), the reader feels rushed. Spacing allows the reader/viewer to pause and digest the visual content.

14) Use of low resolution images (& not using vector art)

Ya'll know how I feel about this as blogged about here, so I won't drum too much into it--- but I don't want to see an add in a magazine that is so blurry and pixelated because a client didn't provide proper artwork. It is always my goal to reach out to you until I drive you bonkers, provide you with instructions on how to make your artwork the best it can be. It's a reflection of you and a reflection of EVO as a company. Low resolution images present you as though you don't care about your image-- and if you don't care about your image, how are you going to come across as trustworthy, caring, etc to your potential clients? A lackadaisical attitude toward your image is very offputting and the fix is simple!.

15) Striving for complete symmetry instead of balance

This goes back to white space and composition as a whole. Every element in the composition has visual weight.

Symmetrical balance occurs when the visual weight of design elements evenly divided in terms of horizontal, vertical, or radial. This style relies on a balance of two similar elements from two different sides. Although it is easy to create, symmetrical balance isn't the best way to evoke emotion because viewers sometimes feel like it was too "planned", formal or forced.

Asymmetrical balance occurs when the visual weight of design elements are not evenly distributed in the central axis of the page. This style relies on items we have already discussed like scale, contrast, color to achieve a balance within the irregular. We often see a design with the big picture offset by the small but visible text balanced because the game contrast, color, etc. Asymmetrical balance is more likely to arouse emotions because it can look intentional without feeling forced and is often informal.

16) Forgetting about the content (having content that doesn't jive with the brand, message or isn't sending a cohesive message)

Imagine you're designing a flyer for an upscale landscaping company that designs high end outdoor oases. Typical landscaping companies might use graphics for flowers, a bright green lawn, a lawn mower, using a green color palette. We know from the color theory discussed above, that green isn't necessarily the color that screams "high end" or formal. Just as you wouldn't have a picture of a dump truck hauling soil for this flyer (confusing message), you wouldn't want the colors to clash with the formality of an upscale, modern brand.

17) Using cliches (overloading with stock photography versus unique, custom imagery)

As bad as it is to use low resolution images, inundating the viewer with images that are clearly stock photography versus custom images of your actual product or service tends to feel cheap. It's worth the investment in a good photographer to provide custom, quality, high resolution images for you to use in your marketing material. Stock photography is fabulous and often gets messages across- but you don't want to use too many in one piece. They're generic and if you're looking to appeal to the human in (most of) us, we want the personal touch of YOUR product, YOUR employee or YOUR service.

Cliches can make you seem like you didn't have the creative vision to drive your design and you relied on someone else. They can be accents to your piece, but they shouldn't drive the composition as a whole.

18) Failing to design for the medium. (Designing in a low resolution, rgb web space versus designing for wide format, press or digital print)

Again, you know how I feel about this. We've discussed in detail why web designs don't translate to print designs. For one, designing images that aren't intended for print don't usually have to consider bleeds or margins. If you send us a low resolution, rgb file with no margins, I'm always going to ask you to correct your file. RGB will cause color shifts since digital printing is done in CMYK. Files without bleeds can be short trimmed to the document edge, but shifting occurs during printing and cutting which may lead to a white hairline of the paper showing at the edges, taking away from your intent-- or worse, if you had no margins, important elements or text may be cut off. It's important to consider the final visual space of a background image as well, if it gets cut off in a not so ideal place, it could lead your background image to have an entirely different meaning. If you see only half a picture... the imagination fills in the blanks and who knows what your viewer will come up with!

Don't end up like these examples that Tiffany found-- they had me in stitches!

19) Inconsistency.

Last, Inconsistency. You know your message and audience, but your audience itself may not. If you're not using your brand's colors, fonts or styles it becomes difficult for your viewers to associate the design with your brand-- which is ultimately your goal. It basically all comes down to seeing the bigger picture from the beginning and avoiding these common mistakes that create an incoherent composition without balance, too many fonts, poor color choice that leaves your viewer feeling confused.

If you're ever having trouble with something, I am always here to help.


About Heather

Heather has been into graphic design since she was a little kid, growing up passionate about designing for print. She graduated from Penn State with degrees in Art and Advertising and then pursued studies in Publications Design at the University of Baltimore. Over the last decade, Heather has designed publications for major communications companies in Baltimore and North Carolina, before settling into her role as a print design specialist here at Evolution Printing in Manassas, Virginia back 2016. She loves the tangible aspect of print and sharing her designs, ideas, knowledge and experience to help clients get the most from their projects.

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