February 2011

Tips For Young Creatives: Who do you think you’re talking to?

Continuing on with the commentary about How magazine’s recent 29 Tips for Young Designers article by Doug Bartow, we’re on to the fourth tip: define your audience. I’ve worked with a lot of designers; I’ve worked within a company setting and as a freelancer; I’ve looked online and have been the recipient of design and I can easily say one mistake many designers or creative types make, me included, is not always being considerate of the audience who you are designing for. This is a double-edged sword and isn’t as clear cut an issue as one may believe.

Different audiences respond differently to various messages. In my opinion, successful designers are those who don’t really see themselves as artists or designers; they see themselves as marketers. Those in the advertising field will tell you that coming up with any successful campaign involves lots of research. You probably got into your chosen creative field so that you didn’t have to do research! Sorry buds, but graphic design is like any other professional line of work – it takes research, it takes knowing your audience, it takes time and some trial and error.

When I first started out as a graphic designer, I often designed things that I liked. If it looked good to me, I deemed it good design and called it a day, shut the door on it. That’s why when I look back on some of my early work, I cringe. It feels dated, a tad juvenile. Nowadays, I am constantly looking at other people’s work for inspiration; I usually start each design task with the question of, “Who do you think you’re talking to?” meaning if my audience is 56-70 something year old women into gardening, I had better not design something that a college freshman would jump on. Sometimes, I often will do something of a “red pill vs. blue pill” approach to design to present to the client: one is tame and in line with what is expected and has been done before to appeal to a certain group; the other is usually a bit more out there and pushes the standard. In the end, it’s rarely an either/or situation but a compromise of the two.

When you set out to do your creative work – look back at what’s been done before and see what you can do to “remix” it. Yes, take the approach of a DJ would to a song and take something people already like and make it a tad bit better. Don’t go too far out and lose sight of what made the original thing appealing to begin with but don’t always play it safe and deliver what’s been done time after time. This seems a bit paradoxical but I’ve found this approach has helped me produce some good work that all audiences have responded to. Keep in mind that whether you are a graphic designer, photographer, web designer or writer you’re first and foremost a communicator. Don’t just create eye candy but create a piece of work that has a purpose and connects to a specific audience. Only by doing this will you create something that has a lasting impact and impression.

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Tips for Young Creatives: What’s Your Type?

Have you ever been asked, “What’s your type?” If so, it’s probably been in reference to the type of guy or girl you’re into and not in reference to typography. One of Dough Bartow’s 29 tips for young designers in the latest issue of How magazine was not to fear type but to master it. I decided to add my two cents to this cornerstone in being a good graphic designer.

When people think of graphic design, they usually think of graphics – pictures, colors, composition, images, visual. A major part of being a good graphic designer is having a good grasp on typography. Now, you may be taught some of this in a class but it’s one of those things that you often need to pursue on your own and get a grip on earlier rather than later in your career. Typography can make a break a design piece. If you work with publications, fonts and type will be even more important than the images you may use or create. Think of good graphic design like a burlesque show – you go to a show like this with the intentions of seeing a woman do her thing but everything has to come together for you to actually enjoy the show including her looks, her outfit, her dancing, how well she interacts and connects with the crowd and so on. Graphic design is much like flirting or being a tease in that the images and design have to be alluring enough to get you to examine a piece more closely to get the main message. You can’t go about doing that with bad type as it’ll quickly turn your audience off.

What makes good typography? Too many factors to get into on here. Know the difference between Sans Serif and Serif fonts; one will work well in small, tiny print in a publication while the other will be easier on the eyes for a short online piece. Be wary of using free online fonts. I know, you probably gasped and clutched your pearls at that. There are some good ones out there; there are a ton of really bad ones. The problem with many is usually within the fine details; the lack of a built in bold or italic version of that font, the spacing between the characters being too lax and far off and fonts that are simply too hard to read for both young and older audiences.

Know all the little terms such as kerning, leading and tracking – these little terms help make typography and type heavy pieces easier to read and more professional looking. For example, tracking that goes below -30 would squeeze the characters together too much and make it extremely hard for the reader’s eyes to differentiate between the characters; aim for your leading to be 3 points sizes more than the font size for a large body of text; the usual minimum threshold for readability is 7 points so try your hardest not to make the size of your font smaller than that. Also, learn about the license restrictions of your fonts. This is something they don’t talk about in most classes and yet it’s important to know when, where and how you can use certain fonts because if the creator of that font were to find you used it in a manner that goes beyond the terms of use, they could sue you and win. See, suddenly that question of “What’s your type?” doesn’t seem all that easy to answer, does it?

Typography may not be the funnest or most thrilling part of graphic design or being a creative guru but mastering it will set you apart from those who don’t take their craft as seriously as you do. If you want a good go-to source on typography consider referring to the books The Elements of Typographic Design by Robert Bringhurst, Thinking with Typeby Ellen Lupton or Grid Systems in Graphic Design by Josef Muller-Brockmann.

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Tips for Young Creatives: Be Careful of the Bridges You Burn

A couple days ago I mentioned the article by Doug Bartow in the January 2011 issue of How magazine on tips for young designers. While the article may have been geared toward those in the graphic design field I believe his tips are ones that apply to people in all sorts of creative career paths including (but not limited to) writers, video and audio, film, painting, etc.

The second tip following “sweat the details” (which I posted about last week) was to play nice. Now, this sounds like something we all learned back in elementary school and have been told by our parents as we were growing up. You would be surprised by how we forget this savvy business rule as we get older. Working, especially in today’s economy, gets stressful. Our first reaction rarely is to ” let it go” and  in all fairness, it’s hard to just let something go when it really gets to you. So what do we do? We pick at it, we think about it non-stop, we complain to our friends, co-workers, family about it and usually we let those little things build up and seep into our professional careers and work. We’ll belittle a client who doesn’t have the slightest idea what a person with your creative talents really does; we’ll refuse to go beyond our definition of our given profession because we think or say we’ll never be compensated for our hard work; we’ll get online or go out in public and completely tear down somebody or a group of people because we think it’ll make us feel better to vent and let it all out.

Be careful of the bridges you burn in your career. Let’s get honest and real – we all have bad days, we encounter people in our careers who really seem to defy logic and reason and in some cases we are undervalued and mistreated. That being said, there is no reason for us to completely burn bridges in our professional careers that will leave us up the creek. You can’t anticipate the future or what’s to come. Say you’re laid off (which I have been) and all of a sudden you need references or help with leads on a new job. If you’ve played dirty and have had a reputation for not being a team player, you may find it a tad bit hard to find someone willing to help you out in your time of need.

The same goes for what you do online. We’ve heard countless stories of how seemingly nice people at work suddenly turn to the darkside online. They’ll go on Facebook and will rip a certain co-worker, they will complain about how much they hate their job, they will rant on and on about things related to their career giving you the impression that perhaps this person is in the wrong line of work. Don’t be that person. I’ve personally adopted a policy of not talking about work outside of the confines at work, and complaining while you’re at work seems like a waste of time. If you have nothing but complains and negative things to say about your job, you should probably be seeking new employment elsewhere.

So people, play nice. It’s harder than it sounds and takes more effort than simply ranting and raving about the downside of being a professional in today’s economy, but it’s worth the effort.

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Tips for Young Creatives: Why Successful Designers are Great Communicators

I’ve been going through the January issue of How magazine and came across a great article where Doug Bartow, the principal and design director at id29 in Troy, NY, offered 29 tips for young designers. I graduated back in May of 2006 and nearly four years, nine months later I’ve come to rather big conclusion about my college design education experience – it really feels worthless. Don’t get me wrong, I learned some things while attending college and it has been nice having a journalism background as a graphic designer but when I’ve zeroed in on my design courses in particular I’ve realized I really graduated having been told or taught little to prepare me for real world design.

Young designers really have it bad these days. Most probably have a background similar to mine – they grew up loving art, enjoying drawing and making things and then showing them off to the world to marvel at. I went through that phase most artists go through with thinking I could never make a living off of being an artist … until I found out about graphic design. Being a graphic designer, or graphic artists as I’d like to think of myself, has kept me employed from May of 2006 through the present. It’s gotten me internships, freelance work and all around it’s been enjoyable. A lot of what’s made me a good designer though isn’t what I learned through a class but lessons I learned outside of college and on my own while trying to stay afloat and relevant. That’s why I liked Bartow’s article and would like to harp on his 29 tips for young designers. I’m still young(ish) at 26 and know I’m still learning but I’d like to put my perspective and thoughts to some of his points over the course of the next month.

Bartow’s first tip was to sweat the details. My college degree doesn’t say anything about graphic design or even art. My official degree title or track was visual communication. Designers are communicators first and foremost. When you create a poster for a concert, it can’t just be pretty but it has to clearly communicate the information and ideas pertinent to the event. If it does not get the point across, no matter how pretty it is, it’s a bad design. Something I’ve noticed with young people in general is that they have absolutely no concept of communicating like professionals. Everything is communicated with acronyms. LOL! IDK WTH these PPL are thinkn!

Communication is important to success. The sentence above looks ridiculous and I hardly take people serious when they choose to communicate with me in such a manner. I have clients who are years or even decades older to me who will send me an E-mail typed in all lowercase letters or one that’s decorated with profanities and obscenities. Really? This is your idea of professionalism and at times your idea of how to make a first impression? People, keep it professional.

I believe all graphic designers or creative types in general need to learn how to communicate in professional manners. That means in a way, you need to think of yourself less as a designer and more so as an editor or journalist. Edit everything you do to death. While Bartow recommends having a Chicago Manual of Style by your side at all times, I recommend going with AP Style as it’s the guide used by most publications and in other professional writings. Never write in shorthand. Get into the habit of communicating in sentences – start off with a capital letter, end with punctuation and have proper spelling and grammar running throughout. People seemed surprised that even on Twitter I write complete sentences and use punctuation and hardly shorthand anything. Sure, it may make me look or seem like a geek or an ancient old man but I have rarely encountered an issue of not getting a point across due to it.

When you are looking for a job, employers will be looking at how you communicate your ideas. They will notice grammatical errors on your resume, in your cover letter, even glaring issues that may be present on your design pieces. Anything you publish – whether it be online or in print, for work or for pleasure, to family or a friend, on a blog or for Facebook – should be edited, reviewed and easy to understand. It sounds a bit much or a bit of a pain but believe me, being a great communicator will take you far in your career.

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