27 May 2009

Busting the Myths: What Graphic Design ISN’T

by Tracy Grady Design

Design isn’t free

Asking a designer for a few concepts before committing to hire them is like asking a clothing boutique if you can take a garment home and wear it for a while before deciding if you’ll pay for it. No store would agree to it, and with good reason: there’s no guarantee you’d ever return to pay for the goods. A designer who provides design concepts without a signed contract is at risk of losing their ideas: the prospective client could easily take those concepts elsewhere. Always get a signed contract first, and better still get a down payment too.

Design isn’t copying

It’s reasonable (and often very helpful) when a client gives examples of designs they like and which have a similar feel to what they’re seeking for their design brief. It’s not reasonable when a client provides a design and asks for a designer to create exactly the same thing for them. Don’t ever be tempted to lift another designer’s work, whether you’ve been asked to or not.

Design isn’t random

Every time a prospective client approaches a designer, it’s because they have a problem which needs a solution. This statement underpins all professional design work. Working out the right design isn’t a matter of going with your favouite colour, or some fashionable patterns you found last week. It takes research into the client’s field, their target market and how the design is to be viewed. The right design may not necessarily be beautiful, but it does have to be effective at getting the message across.

Design isn’t IT

This one may not surface very often, but it has for me. A few years ago I worked on a design brief for a group of people who referred to me as the “IT person” throughout. I found them great to work with: very communicative and cooperative, except that my explanations that I was a graphic designer (with no IT training) went unheard. I’ve also occasionally encountered a client who, in the course of a meeting, asks me to help sort out the problems with their email program or their internet connection. Usually these requests come from someone who, again, doesn’t understand where the designer’s role starts and ends, only that you’re a person who is “good with computers”. It’s best to politely decline, and explain that your role doesn’t extend to technical support for their software or hardware.

Design isn’t web hosting

For that matter, design also isn’t printing, marketing, internet security, SEO, or other services which naturally follow on from design. Some designers do offer one or more of these as a supplementary service. However, for the most part, these services will be referred to a third party (e.g. a printing house, web hosting company or SEO firm) and no responsibility for these falls on the designer.

Design isn’t copywriting

Designers rely on their clients to provide any text required for the design brief. The text may be drafted by the client themselves or by a professional copywriter. Unless otherwise negotiated, the designer doesn’t provide copywriting or proofreading services. It may be prudent to include this in the contract or Terms of Service signed at the beginning of the design job.

Design isn’t a hobby

This isn’t to say that aspects of design may not be a hobby for some people. My point is that graphic design is a profession, with a skill set that requires training, and a good understanding of established techniques and rules. It deserves respect and should be treated accordingly.

Design isn’t neat software

Photoshop is a very popular piece of software. It’s also easy to pick up the basics through night classes, books or tutorials online. Having a grasp on some powerful graphics software (I mention Photoshop simply as an example) isn’t enough to qualify someone as a fully fledged designer, though. Professional designers make use of a range of graphics programs, and know which is/are appropriate for a given design job; they understand how to take a design concept and prepare it for publication (print or screen); and very often the major conceptual work for a design is carried out well away from a computer, using a pencil and sketchbook. These days graphic designers are trained in the use of software programs, but these are just one component in the many tools of the profession.

Design isn’t clip art

If you’re skimming this article, I’ll cut to the chase: don’t ever use clip art in a professional design. If you’re a client, don’t accept the use of clip art in a design.
Design uses a whole range of different materials from varying sources. In some cases, photography or illustrations may be commissioned specially for a design brief. In other instances, stock images may be used (I will be talking more about this in an upcoming post). Stock images are photographs or illustrations obtained from a stock library. There are many stock libraries to be found online, offering a broad range of licensing arrangements for their images. Clip art images may come bundled with software you already own, but in design terms they represent the lowest common denominator of image use. There are so many sources of images which are far superior, even for a low budget, that there’s no reason to use clip art. In particular, the use of clip art to create a logo is fraudulent; it’s certainly original design work.


Design isn’t filling up all of the space

One of the fundamentals of good design is balance, and a key aspect of balance in design is working with negative space. This means leaving an empty space or spaces in the design, in order to emphasise other details elsewhere. Negative space is also important for making a design easier to read and take in. It’s visually powerful and utilised in graphic design everywhere you look: from packaging to magazines, billboards and television advertising.
If a client asks for all of the space to be filled up, ask them why. Sometimes it’s unavoidable (this is usually when there is a lot of content to be placed in a small space, like on a toothpaste tube). Otherwise, if it can be avoided it should be.

Design isn’t an afterthought

The value of good design cannot be understated. It can get a company noticed, make them stand out from the competition, provide professional credibility, or it can be one of the foundations of their brand identity. Good design is a legitimate investment in a company’s future. The best clients are the ones who understand the value that a well-researched and well-executed design brings them.