You might be an entrepreneur and right now you are wearing many different hats in your business. You find yourself on Canva designing content for your business. Or perhaps you are working for a company and would like to upskill and teach yourself a few design tricks to make your presentations look professional.
In this article I share 15 quick-to-learn design tips to take your designs from sad to grand. Whether you are a beginner or an entrepreneur needing to wear the designer hat, these tips are practical and easy to get you started on creating beautiful designs.
KISS – keep it super simple
As a beginner it can be fun to explore designs by using many different decorative elements, colours, and stylistic elements. Yet, the more elements you have on the design, the more difficult it can be to balance the items. The role of the designer is to balance elements until it has a pleasing effect.
Rather than overwhelming yourself with all the elements, keep it super simple. Less is always more. A minimalist design can make great impact, so don’t be afraid to remove something from the design if something feels off.
Design fundamental #1 – colour
In keeping things super simple, you can focus on the 3 fundamentals of design. Let’s start with colours.
Limit your colour palette to 3 colours as a beginner. This will help you to focus on balancing a limited colour palette. The more colours, the more difficult it becomes to balance the design. The aim is to find colour cohesiveness in your choices.
Here’s a quick crash course on the colour wheel:
- Your primary colours are red, yellow, and blue. When red and yellow are combined, orange is the result.
- When red and blue are combined, purple is the result, and when blue and yellow are combined, green is the result. Orange, purple, and blue are called secondary colours.
- Tertiary colours are the colours that arise when mixing a primary colour with a secondary colour that sits close to it. For instance, when blue and green are mixed, the result is teal. Teal is a tertiary colour. And so is pink, mustard, and lemon-green. These are your more uncommon colours that sit in between the primary and secondary colours.
In choosing your 3 colours, think about colour combinations that work well together. Here are a few colour combinations to consider:
- Complementary – colours that sit across from one another on the colour wheel.
- Split-complementary – 1 colour that sits across another on the colour wheel, but instead of choosing the colour it sits across from, choosing the 2 colours on the side of that opposing colour on the colour wheel.
- Monochrome – different combinations of the same hue of colour (i.e. different shades of yellow).
- Analogous – colours that sit next to each other on the colour wheel.
- Triadic – colours that are equally spaced on the colour wheel i.e. yellow, red, and blue.
The next thing to consider is the psychology of colour and neuro marketing effects of colour. Specific cultures and groups of people share associations with colours. For instance, in western cultures, blue has a calming effect, and yellow makes people feel happy. There is also a reason why fast-food chains are often branded in a similar colour palette of red and yellow (think McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King). Colour psychology shows that people associate red with hunger and yellow with happiness, so when you get hungry and want to feel happy, you might think of these fast-food restaurants.
The next thing to consider in choosing your colours is your brand colours. For consistency and professionalism, always use your brand colours and colour combinations that complement the brand colours.
Tools to use for colour combinations:
Design fundamental #2 – fonts (typography)
Like colour, it is recommended to limit typography choices. Again, less is always more. Limit your designs to a maximum of 3 different typography choices. For simpler designs, you can focus on 2 typography choices.
In choosing the typography, it is highly recommended to use a single font family as a beginner. Rather than choosing 2 separate font families, you can play with the styling of the font by using the different font styles withing the family (bold, italic, thin).
If you do choose 2 different font families, ensure that the fonts complement one another – they should either share the same style of font (both fonts should be san serif for instance – see next paragraph for font style breakdown), OR contrast one another in a way that feels cohesive.
More importantly, font styles can inform the mood of the design:
- Serif fonts are fonts with little shoes. Think Times New Roman or Georgia. These fonts were traditionally used by newspapers and have an authoritative and old-school corporate air to them. In using them, you are telling people your brand is formal.
- San serif fonts are fonts that don’t have shoes. Generally, these fonts are highly readable and feel more casual than serif fonts. Yet these fonts are widely used because they are neat and simple. Think Helvetica or Arial. Using a san serif font can make your design feel more modern.
- Decorative fonts are fonts that are not used for reading, but rather used to make an impression. Sometimes these fonts are referred to as display fonts or handwritten fonts. They come in various formats: cursive, shapely, comic. They are always visual in some way. Handwritten fonts are often used for invitations like wedding invitations to give it a more personal feel.
Important to note is that every font is stylistic and will influence the mood. Thus, in choosing your font, consider your brand, and whether the chosen font aligns to the overall mood and personality of the brand. Also consider what the design will be used for and style the fonts according to the intention of the design.
Design fundamental #3 – alignment
Good alignment is key to a design that looks professional and feels pleasing. Humans will naturally feel like a design isn’t pleasing when the alignment is off. It will not feel balanced. Balancing alignment is the quickest way to make a design feel next-level.
There are 3 types of alignment: centre, right or left, and justified.
There are also sub-alignment types, like the space between letters/ characters (kerning), and the vertical space between lines of text (leading). On Canva this is called letter spacing or line spacing.
What is important to consider is that alignment between primary elements should be equal vertically and horizontally. Whatever software you are using, whether it is Adobe InDesign, Canva, or any other product, use the alignment option to ensure that elements are equally spaced.
Also follow your brand’s guidelines (style guide) for alignment best practices of elements like logos and image style treatment.
Remember that a good design is always a readable design. Readability means the design is legible and easily interpreted. If you aren’t able to read and interpret a design comfortably, it is likely that your viewer will also not read or interpret it comfortably.
One of the key criticisms I have of my entrepreneurial clients who do their own design work, is that they do not leave enough space in a design. Leaving empty space serves a very specific purpose. It allows the reader or viewer to absorb the information easily. Think of a crowded supermarket. If the shelves are spaced too close to one another or the store is too crowded with products, it is difficult to find what you are looking for. In design, we call negative space, breathing space. It makes the overall design look balanced, not too crowded, and is thus easier to read.
Don’t fill up your pages to the brim! Rather leave some space for breathing.
Negative space also helps to pull focus to specific elements.
Furthermore, in design we work with margins. Every design has an empty margin around the page, where no text or important visual elements are placed. This adds to the breathing space. Margins also have a practical reason for existing: when printing documents, the printer’s edges might shift, and if text lies in that margin, it might get chopped off. Therefore, margin spacing is always a good idea.
Remember that I mentioned the designer’s job is to create balance between elements? Visual hierarchy plays an important role in creating that balance. Essentially visual hierarchy is when elements are placed in opposition to one another in a way where one “ranks” higher than the other. In other words, when an element is placed to be seen or read over other elements.
What influences visual hierarchy? Things like colour contrast and the size of elements can influence the importance of their order. For instance, a title or heading will often appear larger than paragraph text. Also, a creative way for the title to stand apart, is to use a unique font like a display font to create visual separation and hierarchy.
Another consideration is the way the eye naturally reads – humans follow patterns to read. In most cultures, we read from left to right, top to bottom. And we tend to rely on that when we interpret designs. Patterns to consider:
- The Z pattern – The Z pattern is when the eye scans from top-left to top-right and then lowers the focus to bottom-left, ending the path at bottom-right. This is generally done with simpler designs and websites.
- The F pattern – For text-heavy documents or designs, the eye scans from left to right, over a series of lines.
Keep these patterns in mind when designing.
Create designs that lead viewers through it in a way that seems logical. It’s all about making sure the key information pops out when it should.
Cohesive design elements
Sometimes you might find yourself creating a smorgasbord of elements, and even when you drop multiple elements, and focus on minimalist representation, it feels off. The elements don’t feel like they match one another. The problem could be that the elements that are being used together, aren’t cohesive in style.
This is specifically apparent in infographics, or designs where graphics are used alongside text. What happens is that the graphic in choice doesn’t match the font’s style (the font’s weight; edges and curves of the font). Stylistically your design elements should match. A quick tip is to ensure that the graphic matches the font in weight. A bolder graphic would suit a bold weightier font better.
Consider the background
The background of a design is often overlooked. The focus is after all, on balancing elements in the foreground, right? Well no. The background is a very important consideration when designing. It makes part of the whole design.
For beginners I recommend to KISS – keep it super simple. A flat coloured background is a great starting point. There’s also nothing wrong with a white background.
Don’t use photographs as the background. This is tricky even for the best designers out there. The problem with designs where photographs are used in the back, is that the visual hierarchy falls out of balance. It isn’t easy to make text jump out when it is placed on a background.
Additionally, when using darker backgrounds, like brown or dark blue, remember to keep text legible by changing the colour of the text to a lighter colour. It’s all about making elements stand out against the background.
Relax your eyes often
When you start to feel that you are unable to solve the “problems” and create balance, it is time to step away from the design. When stepping away you are giving your physical eyes and your creative mental eye a break. It gives you resting time to re-evaluate the balance of the design.
You can also step further away from the design and look at it from a distance. This difference in perspective can influence the way you perceive the balance.
Print it out
Another way to perceive the “problem” differently, is to print the design. Seeing the design in a printed format also offers another perspective.
This is also a bonus for designs that will be printed out. It is always good to see what the design will look like in its printed format and actual sizing. You will be surprised at how many times I’ve designed something like a business card, and realised the fonts were too small when I printed the design. By printing it, as you design, you give yourself the opportunity to catch flaws, before the proper printing job.
Create a moodboard
In researching for your designs, a moodboard is always a fun and creative way to be inspired. I create boards on Pinterest for projects. This helps me to put all the ideas I have in a single place for my viewing. I can see which inspirations work well with others and which don’t. Scrolling on Pinterest also inspires me.
Replicate designs and make them your own
If you see designs that you really like, and would like to build your design skill, replicate those designs in your free time. This is a great way to start sensing into the design skill.
When you do see something that would work for your project, always try to make the inspired design your own. This will help you to take your design to the next level. It’s not about copying. Rather, it’s about feeling inspired by someone else’s beautiful concept, and then making something unique that suits your brand.
Trust your intuition
You might have noticed that I mention the word “feel” a lot. Designing is a skill, and that skill is sensory to an extent. You can learn the design rules, but some of the best designs are the ones that break the rules in creative and meaningful ways. The reason some designers can do that, is because they use their intuition. When something feels wrong, trust that. It is indication that the design doesn’t feel balanced. And important to note, when something feels right, trust that more as that is an indication that the design is balanced.
And it does come with time, the more you practice your design muscles, the more attuned you will feel to your own design intuition.
Have fun with it! And don’t take it too seriously
Design is a craft. And crafts are there to make our lives better. Don’t let a design stress you out – that’s your intuition telling you to step away for a bit and gather your creative energy.
To have fun and practice your craft, I recommend taking Canva templates and altering them into differentiated design layouts that feel like yours. Change the colours. Change the fonts. Switch up the visual elements. Play around. It’s all about seeing what you can create with a template practice, rather than perfection.
Now go forth and explore!