As a non-designer, watching a designer work can be a mystifying experience.
How did they know which fonts to use? Why do those colors look so good together? How is this event poster making me feel so excited?
There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to design, which is one of the reasons why beginners find it so hard to learn.
If you’ve got a designer in your workplace to create graphics for you, you’re in luck. But if you’re like thousands of small business owners we’ve been speaking to recently — it’s likely that design is making your life really tough.
As part of some exciting plans we have to make design in the workplace amazingly simple, we’ve put together this checklist of 12 crucial things designers consider to create beautiful visual content.
Ready to make sure your design is looking its best? Throughout the design process — planning, designing, reviewing — try asking yourself these questions:
01. Does it have a focal point?
Writers often talk about giving their articles or books a “hook” — something that attracts readers and pulls them in. In design, a focal point serves the same purpose. It could be an image or graphic, a headline or promotion, or other text/lettering.
Take this magazine spread as an example. What do you look at first? The food, right? That’s because the design was carefully planned to cause you to do just that. The simple, black-and-white typography and illustrations make the vibrantly colored, detailed photographs stand out. Plus, if you look closely, you’ll notice on the left page that the shapes of the text and line embellishments frame the photograph, guiding your eyes there.
You can’t emphasize every part of your design, so you need to decide what’s most important. That image or piece of information — your focal point — should generally have the most visual weight (i.e., stand out the most at first glance). You can draw attention to this part of your design through size, shape, direction, position, color, texture, or other qualities.
Here, the number 5 attracts attention first (an appropriate choice, since it’s drawing viewers in with the offer of a discount): it’s the largest, the boldest, and the only number or letter to be highlighted with an inner line.
02. Does it have visual flow?
After a focal point gives viewers a place to start looking, then your design needs to be organized in such a way that their eyes can navigate the rest of the layout easily. This is often referred to as hierarchy — which simply means that the design elements are arranged, sized, and spaced in such a way that it’s clear what viewers should look at first (i.e., what’s most important, the focal point) and how they should proceed through the rest of the design (should their eyes move down the page? across? from one section to another?).
Because when design elements are all over the place without any clear organization, the eye doesn’t know where to look — the design has no sense of flow. Things that can impede flow include having no focal point (or too many), no hierarchy, or a cluttered design.
To improve the flow of your design, try one of the following:
- Use repetition. Design elements that repeat — like bullet points or numbered lists, or lines or shapes that lead the eye to the intended destination — can make a design easier to navigate. Plus, when used in moderation, repetition helps create unity in a design.
This illustration features repetition in a number of subtle ways that guide your eye through the composition. Horizontal lines are repeated in the clouds, the rocky hills in the background, and the water, while vertical lines appear in the palm trees, the surfboard, and the girl’s bathing suit. These repeated patterns lend depth, movement, and a cohesive feel to the design.
- Divide your design into clear sections. Organizing your design in a way that makes sense — whether that’s with headings, sections bounded by boxes or frames, accent colors or graphics, or something else — will go a long way in enhancing flow.
- Use sufficient white space. Clutter is one of the biggest obstacles to visual flow. You can avoid a cluttered design by ensuring that there is enough white (or blank) space in between and around your design elements so they don’t look too crowded. White space can also help divide your design into sections.
The design below establishes a clear hierarchy, making good use of both sections and white space. On the left side, the various font sizes and arrangements highlight the most important information first — the event name and its location and date. All the elements are spaced fairly consistently and don’t look crowded, making the information easy to read. The different colored boxes in the background separate the design into distinct sections, each with its own purpose: the primary information, the event sponsor logo, and the RSVP form.
03. Is it balanced?
Don’t do the design equivalent of making viewers want to straighten a crooked picture on a wall — don’t let unbalanced elements or alignment that is a little “off” distract from your design and its message.
Symmetry is one of the biggest contributors to a balanced design. A symmetrical design is equally balanced on both sides of a central axis, either vertically, horizontally, or radially (radiating, usually circularly, out from a central point). The human brain finds symmetry attractive, but besides being aesthetically pleasing, a balanced design also has a practical purpose: it helps you establish a hierarchy for your layout and prioritize your content.
This logo has two kinds of symmetry going on. If you were to draw a vertical line down the center of the design, the right and left sides would be more or less identical in layout — a reflection of each other. Additionally, the sunburst in the center features radial symmetry. Combined, this creates a perfectly balanced, visually appealing design.
Poor alignment can also throw a design off balance. Make sure text and other design elements are aligned with document margins and to each other. Using one type of alignment throughout for paragraphs of text will look the most consistent and balanced. Turning on the grid feature in your design program can be helpful for alignment purposes. (In Canva, you can turn on grid lines with the following keyboard shortcuts: Cmd+; for Mac and Ctrl+; for Windows).
04. Do your typefaces work well together?
Typography is a key part of almost every design. So how well your chosen fonts work together has a big influence on the overall attractiveness of your project. If two typefaces clash, that might distract from your design’s content and message.
Learning how to choose fonts that harmonize well together can be a tricky task — part learning typography basics, part practice, part personal preference, part intuition. For most designs, choosing one serif font and one sans-serif font is a good starting point.
But no matter what fonts you choose, it’s important that the mood or personality of your typeface matches that of your design and supports its purpose (More on this under point #9).
If you’d like a more in-depth look at some concepts to consider when pairing fonts, check out our guide, “10 Golden Rules You Should Live By When Combining Fonts: Tips From a Designer.”
05. Is your text readable?
If no one can read the text on your design, then that kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? You don’t want people squinting, trying to find your phone number or read an address. You can accidently make your text hard to read in a number of ways, including:
- Size. Sometimes a font will look much larger on screen than it does printed. You want to make sure your font size is appropriate for your design’s final form. For instance, a very large font is impractical for a business card, just like a very small font is impractical for a design that will be viewed at a distance, like an advertisement on the side of a bus or a billboard. If possible, print out a proof of your print design or do an online test with your web design to ensure that all your text is easily readable before you finalize your project.
For this business card, typefaces in all caps increase their readability at small sizes, and the contrast between dark and light colors also helps.
- Color & Contrast. If the colors of your font and background clash (neon green text on a red background, as an extreme example) or are too similar, the text may be hard to read. Similarly, too little contrast (say, white text on a light grey background) can be difficult to see.
- Style. Some fonts are easier to read than others. Simple, clean typefaces (without a lot of embellishment) are best for body copy. Display fonts (the fancy or unique ones with lots of personality) are best used sparingly and at larger sizes. Save those for when you want a word or phrase to really stand out, rather than using them for paragraphs of text, where they’re hard to read.
The badge below effectively combines a script display typeface with a couple simple, sans-serif fonts. The typography styles (which match the retro feel of the piece) lend relevant character while maintaining legibility.
06. Does it balance form with function?
A design can look pretty, but still not serve its intended purpose as a communication tool. One of the challenges of graphic design is balancing form with function — you want your project to look nice and be visually appealing to its audience, while still communicating its message successfully.
When designers lose sight of the message and focus solely on the appearance of a design, the project can look overdone; the graphic design part of the project becomes a distraction rather one part of a carefully crafted whole that has a job to do — whether that’s selling a product, advertising a promotion, showing your qualifications for a job, gaining more followers, or anything else.
This illustration for Doritos corn chips marries form with function in a really effective way. The imagery and colors are not random, but were chosen specifically to enhance the theme of the design and support the brand. The mountains (as well as the flock of birds and the sun) look like actual Doritos chips, and their colors correspond to different flavors.
07. Does it have contrast?
Contrast is both visually appealing and functional — it can emphasize certain elements of your design, making them stand out as more important.
Contrast isn’t just a color thing, with opposites like black and white or opposites on the color wheel like red and green. As a design tool, contrast can involve shape, scale, typography, or other elements. However, like with almost any other design concept, it can be overdone. You should make sure that the contrast in your design isn’t so dramatic that it’s jarring, unless that’s your specific intent.
The packaging design here uses contrast in multiple ways. First, color: The black accents make a strong statement against the vibrant yellow and orange and the bright white background. Also, shape: the curving, organic forms of the illustrations at the bottom contrast nicely with the straight, geometric letters of the text (but also complement the round shape of the packaging).
Used to best effect, contrasting design elements highlight each other’s differences, but do so in a complementary way.
08. Does it make good use of the space available?
Different design projects will allow you different amounts of space to work with. It can be a challenge to create an attractive, balanced design within the limits of a design’s physical specifications. But large or small, from business card to billboard, you can apply a couple basic principles when laying out your design:
- Proximity. Proximity — placing related elements physically closer to each other (and separating unrelated items) — is a simple concept that can make a big difference in your design. Grouping related pieces of your design automatically gives it an organized layout and creates logical sections.
- White Space. The concept of white space in a design basically boils down to giving your design elements some breathing room. This could include margins, blank space between and around different pieces of the design, line spacing, and more. For most designs, you’ll need to find a happy medium for the amount of white space you include in your layout. Too little space makes for a cluttered, crowded design; too much cancels out proximity, and design elements lose their relationship to each other. But a well-spaced layout is not only nice-looking, but is also easy on the eyes, literally — it gives viewer’s eyes room to travel around your design.
This website design surrounds the focal point of each section (the product for sale) with plenty of space, so viewers zero in those items. Lightweight fonts create the illusion of even more space and ensure the products are the clear center of attention.
09. Is the mood of your design appropriate?
Color schemes, typography styles, and other elements can give your design a definite mood — perhaps playful, serious, or sophisticated. You want to make sure those design choices create a mood that matches the purpose of your design, so you’re not sending mixed messages.
This banner, for example, was created for a kid’s coloring contest that was part of an Oktoberfest celebration. So, appropriately, the colors are very autumnal, and the font choices are fun and whimsical. A serious font and drab colors just wouldn’t have the same impact and (more importantly) wouldn’t match the mood of the event.
10. Is the color scheme harmonious?
Colors have deep, subconscious significance — emotional, psychological, cultural — and can play a huge role in how your designs are perceived. But besides considering the moods colors can portray in your design (the summery energy of aqua, coral, and yellow; the elegant sophistication of black and gold), you should make sure your use of color in general is well thought out.
Similar to the combination of different fonts mentioned earlier, the result of combining different colors should be a harmonious one. Barring a specific, intentional purpose, you want to avoid colors that clash badly or using too many colors all at once. When in doubt, using a color palette tool or even reading up on basic color theory (and color schemes like complementary, split-complementary, analogous, and triadic) can be helpful.
This logo design features a number of colors, but the ones that stand out the most are the shades of orange at the top, the navy blue banner in the center, and the shades of purple at the bottom. This is a split-complementary color scheme (choose one color, plus the two that flank its complement on the color wheel): yellow-orange, blue, and purple. This type of color scheme has strong visual contrast, but has the benefit of being less jarring than a complementary color scheme (think red/green or purple/yellow).
11. Does it match the brief?
If you’re working off of a creative brief, sticking to the decisions already made in that brief will make your design more likely to look good to your client, boss, or whoever was involved in creating the brief. If you go completely off brief and do your own thing because you think it looks better personally, you risk not only upsetting those people, but also getting negative feedback on your design and wasting your own valuable time.
If you’d like a basic creative brief template to use for your own work and tips on good questions to ask when creating an effective brief and planning a design project, you can get those here.
12. Are your images and final file formats high quality?
Let’s say you’ve created a beautiful design that you’re really proud of and it’s time for the project to go to print or go live online. But you get your hands on a printed copy, and the colors are all wrong. Or you hop online to check out your handiwork, and all the images and graphics are blurry and pixellated. What happened?
Issues like these can crop up when you save a file with the wrong settings — perhaps using the wrong color space, at the wrong size or resolution, or in the wrong format. That’s why it’s so important to have a solid understanding of the correct resolutions and format requirements for different print and web design projects.
For a comprehensive look at the differences between print and web design, as well as specific recommendations for making sure you get the color, resolution, and format right for your design, check out our article, “Graphic Design for Print vs. The Web: 15 Vital Differences You Need To Know About.”
Design in the workplace is hard — but not for long.
You may not be a designer, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have what it takes to get your DIY marketing materials or business branding up to scratch.
Next time you start work on a design project, ask yourself these 12 questions. And if you think they’ll be useful, you’re going to love what we have in store with our latest product: Canva For Work.
Stay tuned on the blog for the next couple of weeks — we’ll be tackling all the issues that people face while designing in their workplace. And remember, you can get early access by clicking on the link below.