Like many people on the Internet, I’m a self taught graphic designer. I’ve never taken a graphic design course in my life, and in my opinion, it’s a strength. Design is something you can definitely learn yourself, and there’s a wealth of information available on the Internet to do it. This collection of graphic design tips especially for a beginner designer, will shortcut a lot of learnings that I’ve picked up over the years through trial and error!
1. Never underestimate simplicity
A mistake many beginner designers make is to cram too much on their canvas. Too many colours, too many typefaces, too many elements. This creates a hectic feeling in their design and doesn’t allow the design to breathe on the page.
Regularly ask yourself: what would my work look like if I removed this element? Would it benefit? Of course you’d never do this with a key focus point for your design, but for background or supporting elements it’s good to always sense check.
2. Pair photography with colour blocks
Cue hipster photo.
Photography and design go hand in hand. It’s something I’ll be covering throughly throughout this post, discussing how best to pair text and photos to achieve a great composition.
One of my favourite effects to do this is to pair a colour block with a stunning shot. It’s simplistic, yet effective.
3. Stick to two typefaces…
And NEVER more than three per canvas.
If you’re working with text, one of the best ways to create a feeling of style and not of clutter, is to keep the amount of typefaces reduced to two. This is one of those examples where less definitely really is more.
4. … And make those typefaces fit like a glove
In the image example above, you can see that both the heading type and the supporting tagline both complement each other. Font pairing is a fantastic way to make your design ooze with class.
Play around with what fonts work with which, often you’ll find that a sans-serif body or supporting font will work well with a serif font for your header. It really is a case of trial and error.
Some resources on top notch typeface pairings:
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5. Offset your dominant colour
Using a strong colour palette is one of the most important processes of graphic design. A good palette can make of break a piece of work, and every designer knows how frustrating working with a boring palette can be.
Whether you’re working with a great palette or a boring one though, offsetting your dominant colour is a great way to add variety to your work whilst still keeping it simple. Here’s an example of colour offsetting:
Notice in this work by Dylan Casano, the colours of the eyes, instead of a harsh white, have been designed to complement the background colour. This helps to keep the feeling of the piece relaxed.
6. Play around with typeface weights
Using variants of one font family in a design work will add a little variety and visual interest without creating a feeling of clutter.
Check to see which weights the typeface you’re using has available, and try to use a bold type for your design heading and a light or book variant for your copy. You could end up producing some much more interesting.
7. Stop boxing off your content
Ask yourself whether you need to put that thing you’re creating inside a box.
So much of modern web and app design is boxed off, that often magic can be achieved if you simply remove an element’s constraints and let it breathe. A fantastic animated example of this lies in one of InVision’s design tips videos that can be watched here.
8. Copy and repeat
Repetition is one of the only guaranteed methods of improving in anything in life, but it’s particularly true of design.
Find a piece of work you love, and try to recreate it.
You don’t necessarily have to do anything with that piece of work, in fact, it’s probably better not to if you’re copying something identically. However the process of copying and iteration will speed up your learning more than anything else.
The question “I wonder how they made that” is one you should be asking yourself all the time.The question 'I wonder how they made that' is one you should be asking yourself all the time.Click To Tweet
9. White space is valuable and powerful
Do not underestimate the power of whitespace in your work. One of the best examples of whitespace in modern graphic design has to be Apple. Rarely are any of their product images hard edged, instead, they use shadows and eons of empty space.
All of this is considered, none of it accidental. Apple is famous for it’s simplicity and minimalism, and it’s graphic design is no different.
Next time you’re working with text on a large canvas, choose a high quality typeface and centralise your type. Leave the rest of the canvas white and have a look at the result, you might be surprised just how good it might look.
10. Make your colours pop
On the internet, you have on average 8 seconds to capture a viewer’s attention.
So you better make that design pop. Colour is one of the best ways to do this. Instead of choosing a muted colour palette, try going for something with a bit more oomph!
High contrast palettes like red and black, yellow and black or whites with vibrant background colours will work great for this.
The colour pop technique is a great idea if you have a short amount of text that you need to have as much impact as possible with.
11. Create impact with the knockout effect
One of my favourite typography effects – one which is especially effective in logo production – is the positive negative knockout effect.
I’ve only recently started to employ this effect, and it’s one that I’m definitely going to keep in my design toolkit. This fantastic video tutorial will walk you through how to pull it off.
12. Add impact with a photo to your knockout
An alternative to the positive negative knockout is to use a photo knockout. This is an effect often used in videography, as the video can ‘knock through’ the foreground solid creating a really dynamic effect.
Its not all doom and gloom though, as it’s a wicked effect to use for static type too.
It’s also a super easy effect to accomplish too. Simply layer a dark solid over a background photo, now place text on the top. Select the area of your text, and delete this selection from the background layer. You’re done! You can then lower the text opacity to zero, and the background opacity to fit.
13. Sketch first
Just because most of us tend to work first and foremost with computers, doesn’t mean we should forget our roots. Chances are, if you’re a creative person you’ll be able to sketch up a basic idea of your design work before making it on a computer.
If you’re trying to create icons or an illustration, try to sketch a basic mockup of your concept on paper before moving onto your computer. You’ll find it helps your thought process because you already have a basic representation of what you’re trying to create.
14. Scan your sketch
As an extension to the above tip, there might be times you completely nail it with your sketch. If this happens a great option is to scan it into your computer – you can use a phone camera to do this – and import the scan directly into Photoshop or Illustrator.
Now build your design as normal, but use the scan as a background guide. This is a great way to capture some personality and individually into your work.
15. Flat design can go a long way
Flat design has been all the rage on the Internet for the past couple of years. We’ve seen a move from slightly garish flat design into slightly more classy, implementing techniques like long shadows.
Beginner designer, flat design is your friend.
Simplicity is key when it comes to flat design. More important than your use of textures, or shadows, is your sense for spacing and alignment. These are slightly less technical skills to master, and you’ll find you have a greater chance for creating something that looks great using flat design techniques.
16. Utilise character and paragraph styles
When working with large type based documents like eBooks, it’s very easy to let your basic principles slip across pages. Headers being ever so slightly in different positions, with different line heights or font size.
Tools like Adobe Photoshop and InDesign have built in tools to ensure that all of your characters and paragraphs have consistency between them. These tools can save you hours of scrolling between pages, highlighting and inspecting to make sure your styles are set.
Simply select your header, apply header style. Bam!
17. Align like a boss
Alignment is something that can bring a piece of design work from looking meh, to looking woo. It’s a very simple way to make your work feel organised and classy.
Images in an asymmetric grid, tick.
Headers, sub-headers and paragraphs aligned, tick.
18. Use italics sparingly
I have a love hate relationship with italics. Many designers will tell you not to touch them unless you’re in a word processor, others sing their praises for certain design work.
Personally, I’ve used italics to great effect in a few projects.
But only a few projects.
Italics should be used with great respect. Done well, they can complement your headers and sub-headers, but used for long sentences it’s a recipe for disaster.
19. Respect page balance
Symmetry and balance is something you learn throughout your process to becoming a great designer. Your document should be weighted evenly on the left and right, or up and down in certain situations.
It sounds like something too simple to list, but balance can be something that affects your design work hugely. If a piece is slightly off balance, you might be stuck in a
This illustration from Smashing Magazine illustrates design balance brilliantly.
A key point here is that design don’t have to be symmetrically identical to be balanced. Purely the weight should feel even on both sides of the canvas.
20. Texturize that bad boy
Textures are another example of something that seems like a small element, but can go a very long way to making your project look much more professional.
When a texture is done well, it can add new dimensions to a piece of artwork. Be careful though – they can easily detract if done badly.
Here’s a simple YouTube tutorial for how to add textures to text in Illustrator that is well worth a watch.
21. Separation lines for impact and style
Using line separation for the right piece can bring a minimalist piece up to scratch, if you’re struggling to make it look complete.
Often a simple 3 pixel line below your header and above your sub-header, or between image and title, will go a long way to making your work have a little more personality.
Tip: instead of a solid line, try adding half lines either side of a small text string.
Parker Estes has a great example of this in this piece:
22. Multiply over your background image in Photoshop
Ever tried adding text to a design, where the backdrop mainly consists of a photograph? Of course you have. Making that text legible is often pretty tough, because the contrast of most background photographs won’t allow for the text to pop.
As you can see, the text feels like an afterthought as opposed to being a major focus point for the image.
This can quickly be fixed.
Simply put a dark colour layer – this can be black or perhaps a dark red or blue – directly above your photo background. Now set the Photoshop blending mode to ‘multiply’ and watch the text come to life, whilst the image still retains the benefit of the background. Adjust the layer opacity to suit.
23. Throw a white border in there for impact
This is one of my favourite effects, and can be used to create great impact and polish with a simple design.
The basic idea is to have a short amount of text that you want to bring focus to – it could even be a logo or tagline – and wrap this in a strong white border which contrasts with the background.
Looks impressive, but super simple to accomplish.
24. Never use misleading stock photography
Okay, so this is more a personal hate than a recommended design best practice, but can anyone else relate to hating random stock photography? Just because some guy is staring out at sea, doesn’t mean it’s a great shot to use for your hairdressing business.
Misleading stock photos are horrific for user experience, as they immediately present a sense of confusion, and are just generally awful. Stop that, stop that now.
If you’re looking for decent stock photos, here are a few of my favourite free sources.
25. Tools like Canva can seem like a godsend, but don’t rely on them
When you’re just starting out in design, tools like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign or Sketch can seem like a massively daunting process to learn. The thing is with these systems though, is that they grow with you. You are completely unrestricted.
Graphic design tools like Canva or PicMonkey have their place, but if you are even slightly interested in learning design, I would recommend against using them. In the short term they might be a good fix, but you will soon out grow their functionality. There’s a reason professional design studios across the world all use the adobe suite.
It’s far better to do things right from the start, right?
26. Simple icons break up flow and impress users
One of the best examples of creative icon use in the blog-o-sphere has to go to Melyssa Griffin. Using a creative set of icons for her call to action, she helps to break up the flow of her homepage whilst enticing her viewers to click through.
Breaking down these icons – they’re incredibly simplistic. A simple selection of simple line based shapes, with Melyssa’s brand colours offset to add impact.
Once again proving the win win situation of simplistic design. Often, less is more!
27. Scale it down
Along that less is more mantra… Scale can make for really interesting and exciting compositions.
Having a block colour, perhaps with a subtle background or texture, with a small amount of disproportionate text can actually sometimes help pique viewer interest.
Bare in mind there’s certain mediums you might not want to use this technique with, like Pinterest where you need to immediately capture the viewers attention. So keep in mind your medium.
28. Likewise, scale it up
You shouldn’t be afraid to scale text or elements so that they fill most of your canvas. This is particularly useful if you need to immediately communicate a a message in a clear way.
Play around with different scales for different elements – as above. “Are you” is a far shorter line than “Interested” so the type is scaled dramatically more to fit the grid.
29. Stay organised
Staying organised in your graphic design software is something I always used to disregard. I’d never worked with other designers, where you’d have to hand over files and they would have to pick up where you left off. This meant that only I had to deal with the disorganisation of my documents.
This is NOT sustainable.
You will thank yourself in months to come if you come back to your old files and find relevant layers packaged into groups, and relevantly named.
It might take you a little more time to set up, but it will save you a hell of a lot of time when maintaining.
30. Make a Dribbble account
This may seem like a somewhat frilly tip, but it’s something I wholeheartedly stand behind. How can you improve if you don’t have anything to work towards?
Dribbble is a source for inspiration and motivation for me every day. An incredible resource home to thousands of incredible designers showcasing their work.
If anything can get you excited about what great design can do, Dribbble will.
31. Rules were made to be broken
Design is something that lives and breathes. There are no rules, and certainly none that should not be broken.
Try everything, try it again if it did not work. Fall in love with iteration and the challenge of not being happy with something, but refining over and over until you crack it.
Guidelines like balance of design and symmetry are general guides and best practices; it certainly does not mean all work should be centre balanced.
Push boundaries. Break the rules.
32. Design. A lot.
There’s only so far that tips will take you in this field. Unfortunately, to get good at design you need to practise.
Practise a lot.
A great way is to use a website like BriefBox to get daily design briefs. Spend 20 minutes to half an hour completing one of these briefs. Actually making something is the best way to learn.
33. Develop your own style
As you begin to get better and better, the technicalities of design will become second nature. This will free you up to experiment and, as mentioned above, break rules.
Try to put your own spin on imagery that you are using for a source of creative inspiration. Don’t be afraid to copy, but always refine and rework the piece you are basing from. It’s also nice to give credit where necessary.
Soon you’ll find you’re beginning to develop your own style, which is essential for an online designer!
Any more graphic design tips for beginners?
Share your tips below for any budding designers. We’re all friends here!