How to Improve your next Graphic Design Project

We hear Graphic design tricks from experts for unloking your creative juices and smoothing your workflow..

Whether you’re fresh out of university or the creative director of a huge studio, some days there will be a sneaky problem that you just can’t solve. Improving your skill in transforming a brief (and a blank piece of paper) into an ending, beautiful and effective design is a never-ending task-often aided by a little outside inspiration. We spoke to some of the most successful graphic designers and upcoming talents to mine their collective knowledge for tips, ideas and new approaches that will help your craft and beat creative block.


1. Start with a blank sheet

I encourage designers to start with a blank sheet of paper and turn off the Mac when coming up with ideas. Free from the distractions of the Internet, Photoshop or fonts, sketch out your ideas unedited and raw. Artistic ability is irrelevant. If your client is an orchestra, go and listen to them in conect. As Bob Gill says, “Don’t sit at your computer, waiting for lighting to strike” – it won’t.

2. Ask the right questions

Questions everything. In some cases it may be necessary to question the brief, and it’s nearly always important to question underlying assumptions and how they may affect what you’re trying to achieve for your client.

3. Be ambitious

Always push to keep the big ideas scribbled on the small bits of paper in the first stage of a project. One day you will get them through and then you, too, might end up having to work out how to get a cannonball lodged in a pub sign (see opposite).

4. Collaborate from the outset

Most of the best ideas come from discussing a project arround a table with everyone scribbling away. Collating early sketches gives you a good launch pad when starting to visualise the project on screen.


5. Step away from the screen

Work with pen and paper. The more you do off the computer, the less constrained you will be by pixel perfection. When the shape of a design is ready and there is an idea, the computer becomes a bit useful. Idea first, grid last.

6. Divide and rule

There’s no accounting for how people read – from beginning to end without a break; flicking through from the back; scanning words and pictures. Build some signposts into your layouts, such as subheads in long text, descriptive caption to help the reader or images to break up the next.

7. Use a 12 – column grid

A great starting point is to work with a 12-column grid. This allows a great deal of flexiblity, as it can be broken and thrown off-kilter to dis guise it – area division can appear loose yet formalised, page furniture can flow over images, and content can run off edges.

8. Sort out your priorities

It’s essential to have a hierarchy of visual elements. Without one, it’s a bit like all the instruments in an orchestra playing at the same time and volume: a mass. Not only that, but many clients start out with lots of massages and images, and they are convinced all are equally important. Help them see things from their audience’s perspective, to identify what’s most important, what can take a more secondary role, and – where possible – what could be removed and kept for another, more appropriate piece of communication.

9. Communication over decoration

Commercial posters are not art prints. Your clients are investing in you because they want their audience to do something – buy beans, book tickets, think differently about a political party. As well creating as a stunning, engaging design, remember the basics of communication. Don’t forget to include the details – what a product or event is, when an event is happening, how to book tickets etc.


10. Shoot in-house

Try shooting your own project photography: it will improve your thinking and the originality of your solution. I often set up simple shoots for small-budget projects, sometimes using available light or portable studio lights. If you need to commission a full-on shoot, involve the photographer early on – then they’ll take your ideas and really make them sing.

11. Trust in the photographer

The idea you have for a picture never quite looks the same when you look through the lens. Work with the photographer to create the best possible shot, not a substandard version of what you imagined.

12. Make smart use of stock

Stock photography has a bad rep, some of it justified, especially with hideously cliched corporate imagery and other photograpic eqivalents of clip art. However, a lot of the image problem is down to laziness among designers, who can resort to stock photos as an easy option. You need a clear brief as to what sort of stock image to look for, and what you want it to say. Be selective and discerning, and have a good eye for what makes a well-taken photo. Stock photos will often need cropping, too, in order to focus on the aspect most relevant to your brief.

13. Plan your shoots

If you are doing your own photo shoot, think about the content and the massage. Do scamps before the shoot so you know what you want to achieve, and think about where the images are going to be used. Don’t shoot everything in portrait orientation if you’re producing an A4 Landscape brochure.

14. Build relationships with illustrators

Working with an illustrator should be a rewarding experience for them, you and the client. It’s an opportunity to articulate a message with a defined look, and create something memorable and unique. Commissioning an illustrator successfully is about building a relationship and working with them in an open and honest way. It’s worth rereading a brief before you send it to an illustrator and trying to imagine how you would respond – does it match up with what you actually want?

15. Photos must work together

When choosing photographs for a layout, get them to ‘talk’ to each other. Go for pictures of a similar scale or play large and small subjects off against each other. Make the reader turn over the page to see what’s next.


16. Turn Logos on their head

If you’re having trouble getting a logotype or headline nicely letter-spaced, just print it out and look at it upside down. You’ll see the letters as abstract shapes and it will help you spece them evenly.

17. Fit your type to your audience

Think about the age and culture or background of your target audience. You wouldn’t use a graffiti stencil for a brochure targeted at OAPs (well you might, but probably not). Check whether the brand has a typeface you need to use. If it doesn’t, push yourself to find something different, not the ‘nice and safe’ typefaces that are overused.

18. Push type of the limit

Test your type in extreme or unusal situations – what does a typeface look like at 300pt, in tight columns, as a standalone strap line? Look at the typeface alongside imagery, in colour, in isolation; also look at different typefaces and then refer back to your typeface to weigh up how it compares. If the project has an online dimension, check if you can license the font for web use.

19. Bespoke type speaks volumes

Creating a bespoke typeface is an opportunity to communicate much more than text on a page; it’s a chance to challenge the conventions of typography, experiment, and create a communication device that’s an intrinsic part of a bigger idea. For the Injured Jockeys’ Fund, we constructed a typeface inspired by the patterns found in UK regulation racing silks (left). The beauty here is in having a typeface that not only conveys a powerful massage, but also contextualises it within the subject matter.

20. Print it to really see it

When copyfitting, get into the habit of printing it out. How something appears on screen is very different to how it looks on paper, and printing something will help you better gauge the adjustmentd that may be needed. If you’re strapped for space, you can use incrmental line specing, if your type is say 10 on 12pt, then use a half-line return (6pt) betwqeen paragraphs. Although it will throw copy off any baseline grid, the text will balance again on the next paragraph return and save you space if needed.


21. Give weight to paper

We recently worked with the University of Oxford to update their fundraising campaign report. It was to be sent to over 170,000 alumni worldwide, so it needed to be printed on a lightweight stock to keep postage costs down. We settled on a bible-type paper stock.

22. The importance of blind testing

The quality and weight of the paper you print on can make ir break your piece of communication. As an experiment, take three very different, blank sheets of A5 paper and put them in an envelope. Blindfold a client or colleague and ask them to open the envelope and explain what each ‘leaflet’ might be advertising. You’ll be amazed at how much people will read into feedback from their sense of touch.

23. Get to know the printing process

A little knowledge of printing can go a long way to making a good project a great one and can help you stretch a small budget. Learn the process, meet the printers, go on site. Think about using overprinting; two colours can make three colours, three make seven. Be clever and the results can amaze.

24. Use materials to trigger emotional reactions

Choosing the right materials is as integral to the execution of an idea as the choice of typeface, words [and] imagery. Paper and print in one colour. If you want it to look and feel not-for-profit, use a recycled board and print in one colour. If you want a brochure to signify that a company is the best in the business and their price tag is justified, then throw the kitchen sink at it.

25. Sometimes it’s good to be frugal

Lavish brochures are increasingly a thing of the past, and you can turn today’s constraints into a virtue. When faced with a limited production budget for a recent annual review. We kept the document loose-bound. This reduced costs, any by borrowing the feel of a newspaper it put across the idea that the review addressed current issues of importance.


26. Turn restrictions into an asset

Sometimes what seems like a problem can actually inform the solution. Our job as creative thinkers is to transform the lacklustre into something brimming with imagination and flair. Last year we were designing a brand environment for Deloitte at the World Economic Forum is Davos (left). The space we found the solution, a 440-square-metre anamorphic installation that made a virtue and an immersive experience out of the fact that people had to pass through it.

27. Keeping fussing over colour

If you don’t have to stick to brand colours, then think about where the piece will be seen and what colours would work to make it really eye-catching. If it’s a printed piece, find out how it will be printed, whether you can you use special links and how it needs to be set up. Always remove any swatches wghich are not used and ensure the atwork is setup with the colours as specced.

28. Do it yourself

Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. When budgets or time frames are tight, get stuck in and have a go yourself.

29. A dash of humour works wonders

Wit grabs people and can make a communication memorable – smiles don’t go out of fashion. Creating a twist or something the audience needs to ‘get’ will give them a moment of realisation that they won’t forget in a hurry.

30. You can’t check work too often

Always check your copy. Get others arround you to read it and ask clients to check and approve it even if they’ve sent it to you. It’s really easy to skim over copy you’ve been working with for a while, and that can result in a costly mistake.