Maybe I’m a little weird, but I’ve always loved unpacking after a move. It seems like I always rediscover some long-forgotten treasure.
Our move this spring didn’t disappoint… I found a bunch of my old design school projects.
And to be completely honest, it was a little embarrassing.
Because even though I would love to believe I was born a design genius, the truth is I was not. Not even close.
Those old design school projects were a good humbling reminder of where it all began. Of all the design mistakes I made in those early days.
And in this email, I want to share the worst of those mistakes so you don’t have to repeat them.
Because even though it’s scary to a lot of us designers, the truth is it’s easier than ever to do this work yourself. There are so many solid resources helping small business owners make their own graphics.
Personally, I think that’s a good thing. It means design is accessible to even the smallest of new businesses and all of us who are bootstrapping our way to success.
But it also leaves us open to making those early design mistakes in public. And while a few design mistakes won’t break your business, imagine how much more progress your brand could make if all your designs looked great from the very start!
So if you’re one of the awesome determined creatives DIYing their graphics, here are the top 5 design mistakes you want to avoid:
1. Not starting with content
Seeing my old assignments made me remember how I used to work. I’d get an assignment and start immediately looking for photos or fonts or colors. Put everything into a new document and spend hours fiddling with the layout. And then I’d add text and rework everything again.
If you’re jumping into design as soon as you get an idea for a new marketing piece, stop right now.
Because even though this method can get you interesting and even beautiful designs, it’s not the way to land on graphics that get your message across. And that’s a lot of work for something that may or may not help you move your business forward.
How to fix it: Focus on your content before you start to design. What do you need to say? What information will your audience need to take action? Write it out, edit, and revise until you get it perfect.
Then, move forward to your design, letting the content guide you in making intentional decisions. Choose your background, fonts, and colors based on what’s going to help you get your message across in a way that aligns with and builds up your brand.
2. Using too many fonts
One of the gems I uncovered was an all-text poster that made use of a monstrous amount of fonts. I don’t remember what the assignment was, but since I got an A, it must have been to make a cluttered impossible-to-read mess.
Fonts can be so tempting! I completely and profoundly understand that.
You lay out your text in your 2 brand fonts only to see a perfectly whimsical gorgeous font on Pinterest. You start to wonder if your brand fonts are really all that great. What if you try this font just on one thing? Those 2 fonts are getting boring and you don’t want to bore your audience.
But every font has its own strong voice. And the more voices you add to a design piece, the more confusing and overwhelming it becomes.
How to fix it: Stick to your brand fonts. If you don’t have brand fonts, choose 1-3 to use from now on. Here’s a whole post on how to choose the best fonts for your brand: How to Choose the Perfect Fonts for your Brand
Limiting your font choices is so good for your design and building your brand. It makes everything flow together and look cohesive. It looks professional and well-planned. And even though we all fear boring our audience, consistency makes you recognizable and trustworthy to your people.
3. Using the wrong colors
This one really hurt my ego. Somehow, I forgot about all my color struggles and convinced myself that color had always come intuitively. Yeah, not so much. I got stuck using the same kinds of colors for all my projects for a while. Whether they made sense or not.
Color is tricky because it’s one of the most powerful design tools. It can evoke all kinds of subconscious reactions, emotions, and thoughts in people. It’s the shortest, easiest way to visually communicate tone and set a mood.
The right colors can make all the difference in a design, which is why your color decisions should be intentional and well thought-out. You favorite color, or even your ideal client’s favorite color, isn’t always the best choice.
How to fix it: Decide what tone you want to set, what you want your audience to feel and think when they see your design, and choose your colors based on that.
I wrote an in-depth post about how to choose colors a while back. So if you feel like you need a bit of color theory and a little color psychology to help, you can read that post here: How to Use Color to Attract your Ideal Client
4. Not giving things room to breathe
So many of my design school projects showed how much trouble I had with negative space. In fact, I remember this being the biggest lesson I learned those first few months at my first design job. Negative space is just as much a part of a design as images, text, and color.
Negative space is the design nerd word for the empty blank areas of a design. It’s the space between design elements like images and words.
Our tendency is to use up all the space by making text bigger or adding images or decorations. We see empty space and we naturally want to fill it. Even if the thing we fill it with is totally unnecessary or distracting.
Being intentional about negative space can help make your content readable, draw attention to important elements, add clear separations between chunks of content, and give your piece a feeling of balance and orderliness. Good use of negative space looks polished and professional.
How to fix it: Start by setting a margin for your page. ¼” is good for smaller pieces like business cards and 1” is great for letter size. Then, plan out where each piece of your content will go and see if something needs more negative space around it.
Put your content in the middle of your page and scale it up or down from there, paying attention to the space around your text and graphics.
5. Breaking text up in weird places
It was probably a whole year into my first design job when I designed a huge banner for the largest department in the company. It went to print and got delivered and professionally installed on their biggest wall for everyone to see.
I was so proud… until someone pointed out that the banner looked like it said “respect no one.” What was supposed to read as a list of corporate values (respect, number one) instead read like a punk rock anarchy button that belonged on a tattered denim jacket, not a customer service office. I was so embarrassed.
In the day and age of templates and copy-paste, mistakes like that can happen so easily. You can plug your text into a template and let it do it’s thing, deciding which words are larger and where paragraphs begin and end.
How to fix it: Don’t let your design app decide on its own what to do with your words. Instead, you decide intentionally which words go where and tell the design app what to do.
And proofread. Even get a second pair of eyes on your design if you want to be really safe. Make sure your text lines aren’t breaking up your content in weird places like the middle of a sentence or your address. Or even changing your message completely.
I seriously think it’s awesome that you’re designing your own graphics. Creating your own branded materials can be so fun and rewarding.
And I hope that even though I’m a little embarrassed to share these stories, they’ll help you improve your designs and grow your business.