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The Most Important Things in Graphic Design

Not everything you do will be brilliant, but sticking to the fundamentals of graphic design will help you in the long run. Before you head out into portfolio reviews and interviews, everyone needs to make sure you have mastered these fundamental aspects of graphic design as best you can and I will add to this as things come to mind. These are things that I believe in and based on looking at student work over the years. When students are going out with sloppy work, or logos that won’t work, or not paying attention to kerning, or reversing type that’s too thin, or too many fonts – it looks like amateur work at best. It doesn’t help you and it doesn’t help the school either. And we all want our schools to have a strong reputation, that way when your resume lands on someone’s desk, you’ve already scored bonus points as if you came from SCAD, MICA, or another reputable art school.

Boring is better than bad

Boring is not great, but it’s better than bad. I’d rather see your work look like something from the International Typographic Style Movement than sloppy.

Become a Zen master

This is a frustrating line of work. Learn to let frustration roll off your back or you might want to consider a career that’s less stressful.

Start with a solid foundation

Check out this quick .PDF to see how studying the Internatioinal Typographic Style can inspire you to begin your graphic design projects with a solid foundation that can then be “decorated.” Balancing a solid foundation with tasteful decoration is the secret to an aesthetically pleasing design.

Understand font size, line length, and leading

This game might help

Use optical kerning

For non-display and non-script fonts. Make it a global default in InDesign so you don’t forget.

Use a baseline grid, margins, and columns effectively

It’s not about following your grids religiously – I used to make that mistake – but your grids and columns are simply tools to help you line things up and create a cleaner, more professional looking layout. Use them!

Try to use a single font family

A good approach is to choose a workhorse font – a font with many different styles that can handle multiple situations such as body type, headlines, captions, etc.

When asked to do a logo, sketch a BUNCH of ideas

And most of them won’t be used, and might not even be that good, but that’s okay. You only want to show the client no more than three, but whether you are working for yourself or an art director, give some options. Logos are difficult, no doubt about it, but be sure to offer something that will work along with your more “daring” ideas. A plain typographic logo is better than one that won’t reproduce well.


You cannot judge how your type will read or how your logo will look at .5 inch – so print it out. Same goes for stroke width – and .PDFs are great and here to stay, but they really suck at displaying stroke width.

Use appropriate fonts for your logo

Don’t use a font that is too thin for your logo, or that can’t be read when scaled down. Keep the font styles to a minimum, you want a logo that’s easy to read. If you are using reverse type, you better make sure it won’t get lost when the logo is scaled down.

Save italics for italic text

Meaning don’t use italics for “decoration.” Save your italics for when they are needed, according to the writing style you are following such as MLA or APA.

Your professor is just one opinion

Be sure to get multiple opinions from other professors, students, and even non-designers. But don’t feel obligated to make everyone happy – just look for patterns indicating problems with your work. Over time as you see these patterns and become more confident in your work so you won’t need to ask for opinions as often.

If it’s too thin, don’t reverse it!

Meaning don’t make it white (or whatever the color of your paper is). This goes for lines, font’s, serifs – don’t risk it.

Be careful with pairing fonts

The old school rule of thumb is to pair two fonts that are extremely different or extremely similar, and I think this is still true. You should also do your own studying and research and here are a few links to get you started:

Best Practices of Combining Typefaces

A Beginners Guide to Pairing Fonts

Hang your punctuation

InDesign can do most of the work if you choose “optical margin alignment” from the “story” palette for each text box you want to align. Then quotation marks, periods, dashes, and more will all slightly stick out from the column giving it a more professional appearance. Bullets are a bit more tricky, but basically you indent them and then use a negative first line indent so they look like this:



Use Tabs Effectively

Tabs can be a quick way to create two columns without a lot of hassle. Tabs can also create multiple columns. If you find yourself using a bunch of tabs, and then realize you should have used a table, don’t worry – InDesign translates tabs and paragraph returns into columns and rows, respectively. And vice-versa. A simple example of how tabs can clean up your text is shown here:


Use whitespace!

I have seen a trend of students working in small dimensions, and forcing themselves to cram their content into these small areas. In reality, you’ll probably have to cram content from time to time due to lack of budget. But for items in your portfolio, I recommend working larger, or adding more pages. Create interesting section pages, balance heavy body text pages with full bleed photos or something. If you feel your work is too text heavy, or feels too cramped – do something about it.

Study User Interface Design

Because it’s the future. And studying user interface design can help your print skills. People talk as if print is some free-for-all where anything goes. It’s not. User interface design is rooted in clarity, empirical data (example: finding which color button works best on your target audience), common sense, conventions (example: make buttons look like buttons), and organization. There is no reason to exclude any of these tactics for your print design. Here is a great article on the new IOS7 I couldn’t have said better myself. The only caveat is if someone were to point out “what if Apple is setting a new convention?” They’ve done it before, right?