Have you ever tried to juggle six balls and keep them all in the air at once? Even with hours of practice, it’s hard work.
Great graphic design is a lot like a juggling act. There are six hypothetical balls that graphic designers have to keep in the air with every single deliverable. The ability to properly balance these 6 essential graphic design factors separates the in-demand, professional designers from the amateurs.
So what exactly is this ever-present 6-way graphic design balancing act? What 6 factors should all designers juggle throughout every single design project?
1. Branding & Visual Identity
Commercial messaging of any kind – design included – revolves around the company’s brand. But a brand is far more than mere visual assets like logos and colour choices. A brand comprises the message, tone, and feeling that the company wants to get across. It’s a graphic designer’s job to seamlessly stitch together tangible assets like logos and photography in a way that both makes sense and evokes the desired reaction in the viewer.
Applying a brand consistently across all touchpoints is also essential. Companies will occasionally rebrand, but once a visual theme is established, they shouldn’t deviate from it. When a brand’s assets all look slightly different, it can easily give a negative, slipshod impression. Steadfast brand consistency is instrumental in establishing a brand’s memorability and maintaining its value.
Related Reading – Brand Consistency: The Most Important Part of Branding
2. Colour & Texture
A lot of consideration needs to go into choosing the right colour palette for a design deliverable. Picking a colour scheme may seem simple to the uninitiated, but it can be very easy to get wrong.
Colour choices may well be dictated by a brand’s identity, but different colours can easily set the mood and tone of a design. For example, reds are generally seen as a warning or an instruction to stop, but they can also add urgency or a striking pop of colour. Blues and greens are often seen as calmer and more serene, but can also be used in very unique, expressive ways. Primary colours both draw attention and give a childlike verve.
Other elements of colour, like saturation (vibrancy/dullness) or value (lightness/darkness), can also influence the way that a piece of design feels. Muted colours are often considered stable and professional; funky brights are often seen as youthful and trendy; soothing pastels are often used to convey light, airy luxury.
Many graphic design trends revolve around colour: millennial pink (and it’s apparent descendant, green), vibrant gradients, and trendy neons all convey a certain image. This “extra baggage” may render them incredibly useful to some projects – and completely off limits to others. It’s also worth considering the recent Pantone Colour of the Year, a yearly forecast of colour trends.
So sadly designers can’t just pick spots on the colour wheel at random – unless they have remarkably good luck.
Texture is also an important consideration. Incorporating a depiction of crumpled paper; streaky, flaking paint; or folded brocade fabric into your design all provide an eye-catching sensation of realism to digital or printed designs. When designing for print, the card stock and printing methods employed also serve to incorporate the viewer’s sense of touch.
3. Image & Illustration Choices
Unfortunately, choosing images for a design project isn’t necessarily as simple as heading to your favourite stock image site. Ideally, all icons, photography, and illustrations within a design should be unique to your brand wherever possible. Designers have to find the sweet spot between an image’s appropriateness, use of colour, visual emotion, and the layout of the final deliverable.
Because stock images are available to anyone and everyone (especially ones on free stock sites) you do tend to see a handful of popular ones being overused. Using a recognisable stock image demonstrates that you’re using free or low cost assets rather than sourcing your own content – i.e., that you’re designing on a budget.
Quality designers usually have access to lesser-known image repositories and can source photographers for surprisingly specific projects. However, stock images do have their uses – especially if you need an imagea photo for a quick social media update, or to illustrate something that’s too large-scale for you to realistically obtain yourself.
Graphic designers can also alter an image (original or stock) to make it fit better with the document as a whole. This can be as simple as resizing or cropping the image all the way up to adjusting colours; changing or extending backgrounds; selective sharpening; “cloning out” distracting backdrop areas, and more.
Related Reading – The 7 Types of Graphic Design in Marketing
4. White Space & Balance
This is an element of graphic design that is often overlooked: each of your design elements need space to breathe. When a text block is tightly sandwiched between an image and an illustration for example, the design feels chaotic and claustrophobic. Yet leaving too much space between different elements can be just as confounding for the viewer – providing a sparse, disparate, poorly flowing experience.
Either way, poor use of blank space can be overwhelming. When readers are distracted by a document’s strange stylistic choices, they’re not digesting the message at hand.
Though the industry term is “white space”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this buffer space needs to be white in colour. For example, it can refer to the space between text blocks on an image backdrop or the space between icons on a solid colour background. The margins of a document also count as white space and should be similarly harmonised alongside the other elements.
Balancing white space can be a very different affair depending on the kind of document being designed. For example, a large-scale billboard poster will need a slightly different approach to white space than a 2-page A4 case study.
5. Font Selections
As the old saying goes, “what you say is just as important as how you say it”. Therefore, choosing the right fonts for your design is an artform in and of itself. Serif fonts give a traditional, stable, professional appearance, whereas sans serif fonts generally come across as modern, sleek, and clean, with a different kind of fresh professionalism of their own. Display fonts are highly stylistic fonts that are used for attracting attention with large scale headings rather than for blocks of long-form body text.
Hours of thought often goes into choosing the right words and putting them in the right order. Yet choosing a font that’s hard to read or that clashes with the textual or visual tone can destroy this carefully crafted message.
For example, a doodly font with hearts over the “i”s will look jarring and improper in a presentation from a finance or legal professional, yet it’s perfect for a more fun, frivolous brand like a toy shop or kids’ clothing brand. On the flipside, a reliable, solid serif font like Garamond or Merriweather would be perfect for the former, less so for the latter.
To avoid a confusing, cluttered look, it makes good design sense to stick to just two fonts within a single document – three maximum. Designers can play with text size, boldness (“weight”), and block capitalisation to form different headings and hierarchies. The fonts chosen also need to complement each other – much like with choosing a colour palette, it’s not just a case of picking two at random.
Additionally, quality graphic designers often have access to lesser encountered, premium fonts that may otherwise be inaccessible those outside of the graphic design loop.
6. Layout & Hierarchy
Now comes the most elusive part of graphic design. The part that hinges most on raw design talent. The part where the designer has to put each of the composite design elements together into a cohesive whole.
Designers need to remember the context in which the document will be seen and imbue the design with an appropriate, flowing, visual narrative. Seemingly simple concepts like leaving white space between things that aren’t semantically related and establishing an informational hierarchy can become shrewd, precise design decisions. It’s remarkably easy to confuse an audience by haphazardly cobbling together text and design elements. Being able to second guess how people will navigate a document and follow its overall “flow” takes a lot of practice and a trained eye.
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