Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Playing with design - seriously fun ways to seriously improve your graphic design skills

by Mike Brennan

Good design isn't easy, and yet increasingly, it's a skill we're all meant to have. From creating a Powerpoint presentation or simple flyer to designing a cool-looking web page, design is something that most of us are involved in; either at work, at home, for business or pleasure.

The problem though, is that while it's relatively simple to produce our own materials - the software is getting easier and the sheer range of options wider - no one ever thought to teach us exactly how to design well.

And despite what many believe, good design is about much more than good looks alone. It's about conveying messages; reinforcing a brand; it's about functionality, form and fitness for purpose.

Like anything, there are rules and guidelines to help make great design happen, and I'll be taking a look at some of these in later articles. But first, we're going to play with a few ideas; quite literally play, in fact, because after all, learning is always easier when it's fun.

Don't think for a moment you're being short-changed, however. The following activities are carefully designed with a very specific purpose in mind: to really start you thinking about graphic design in a particular way. The right way.

Activity 1 - working with type; making type work

I'm going to start by giving you a list of words. We'll be using these for all the activities, so if there are any you really hate, go ahead and choose another. Remember, though that one aspect of design is the ability to take on any project and make it great - not just the stuff you prefer to work with.

The words are:

friendly - powerful - elegant - frosty - trustworthy - romantic

Got those? Frosty isn't quite like the others, but it's there for a reason; a bit of a wild card to get you really thinking about the projects.

OK. Now I'd like you to open a computer program that lets you work with text. Anything will do, whether it's Word or something snazzier.

Type out the words, and when you're done apply a font to each that, in your opinion, best matches the emotion or feeling the word conveys.

So for example, you'd be looking for a happy, cheerful kind of font for the word 'friendly',

If the whole thing sounds just a little crazy or even childish, don't worry, there's a method in what might seem like madness. So just relax and try to enjoy your font matching exercise. It's probably more of a challenge than you think, and the results might surprise you.

When you've succeeded in making your words actually look more 'frosty', or 'elegant' or 'romantic', I'd like you to take things one small step further.

This time, I'd like you to find a color for each word that seems to reinforce its meaning even more. Finding a 'friendly' kind of color shouldn't be too difficult. But what about a 'trustworthy' one? Or a 'powerful' one? See what you come up with!

In yet another variation, you could even experiment with the point size of your text; or introduce formatting such as italics, caps or bold. Try to decide if that makes a difference to your results.

So what's the outcome?

I'm hoping that, just by working through that simple exercise, something of the truly powerful nature of type started to make itself clear.

Those who are new to design quite often choose fonts on a hunch. Perhaps they do suit a project's mood by giving a sense of elegance or fun, for example. But once you start really thinking about type as a tool that can help you communicate complex visual messages, the likelihood is you'll begin to use it just a little more effectively.

Say it (three times) with color

We're now going to use the same list of words, but this time with a special emphasis on color - three different colors, in fact. The concept we'll be working with often stumps inexperienced designers, but it's a vitally important one. We're talking color schemes.

First though, we'll need plenty of colors to work with. Grab some scissors, dig out some old magazines and prepare to cut out blocks of solid color, roughly the size of a matchbox.

If you can, take your samples from adverts - at least a couple. And don't get rid of your ransacked mags; put them to one side for later use.

I'd like you to find examples of the following principal colors:

red; pink; blue; purple; green; yellow; orange; white; brown; black; gray

Better still, if you can find a few shades of each - lighter and darker blues for example - it'll make the exercise much more rewarding. I know this can take time, but hopefully you'll find the results worthwhile. And since this is actually a three-part activity, you'll be getting plenty of value for your preparation efforts!


Take the list of words I gave you earlier, and sorting through your swatches, choose three that seem to 'work' for each word. Pink, for example, might be an obvious choice for 'romantic', but which two additional colors would you choose?

What's more, I'd like you to select three colors that not only accentuate the meaning of the word, but look really good together as well.

To help you make these decisions, it might be an idea to lay the swatches side by side or even slightly overlapping so you can easily imagine all three in a layout. Don't be afraid to experiment - that's partly what this activity is about. Color often defies expectation, and sometimes it's worth NOT following your initial instincts. Could green work as a 'frosty' color, for example? Perhaps, but it really depends on the two you choose to go with it.

Guessing games!

Once you've completed your 'color-word' groups, you might like to have a little fun testing the results.

For each of your groups, select any of the descriptive words in addition to the correct one. So that's two words in total, the right one and a wrong one. Write these onto slips of paper.

The next step is to show someone each of your color groups, together with the pair of words you've chosen. Ask them to guess which of the two you actually had in mind when selecting your colors.

This isn't by any means a 'scientific' test, of course; to start with, correct guesses depend a lot on the word pairs you choose - 'friendly and trustworthy' are probably harder to distinguish apart than 'frosty and romantic'. But even so, I'm betting the results will prove quite interesting!

Even if you're given the wrong answer, ask why the person chose this option. Again, their reasons could be really useful to your greater understanding of color.

Piecing the puzzle together

The final part of this activity is just like working with a jigsaw puzzle - a very unusual jigsaw with a very specific purpose.

What I'd like you to do is grab the magazines you cut your swatches from, and fit as many of the colors as you wish back into their original locations.

Sounds too easy or a little bit strange?

Well, depending on the state you left your magazines in it could be harder than you think! But seriously - the real point of the exercise is to ask yourself the following questions for each piece you fit into place:

What does this color 'do' for the design I took it from? Does it evoke any particular mood or feeling? What other colors did the designer use it with (if any)?

If the swatch was taken from an advertisement, what was the product? Do you see any connection at all between the product and the colors used? Would you have chosen the same colors to advertise this particular product?

I hope, by now, that the point of the activities you've just completed is fairly clear, and that you'll really start to notice the ways in which color works. And even more importantly, the ways it can work for you. Not just as something that looks good on a page, but as yet another way of adding meaning and coherence to your designs.

Picture this

The final activity is a fairly complex one, and you'll probably need a fair amount of time to complete it. But it's a lot of fun as well as a great design exercise - and quite a challenge, too!

This time, you can work by hand or with image editing software such as Photoshop, Fireworks or any equivalent. It's entirely up to you, although if you want to work digitally I'd say you need a good basic knowledge of the software to get the most out of the activity.

We're going to be introducing a new element, an image - although (like it or not) we'll still be using those words, too!

Any image will do: a landscape, person or animal, even an object. The subject itself shouldn't matter in the least, although the image will need to be fairly large so you can work with it easily.

For digital work, I'd choose something that's at least 700 pixels by 500 (at 72 ppi) or an A4 sheet if you're using paper. You'll also need six copies of the image (those working by hand might want to print more just in case they make mistakes).

Again, access and duplicate the image any way you like - find one online, use one of your own shots, print it out or make photocopies.

The next step - which I have a feeling many of you will have guessed already - is to modify each of the images to impart the sense of one of the words. Change the image any way you like, but not beyond recognition, as you'll want your results to look like a series that's obviously based on a single source.

If the idea isn't yet clear, as an example I'll choose the most famous image of all: Leonardo Da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa' (some readers will know her as 'La Gioconda', but whatever she's called, she's always lovely).

My next move might wipe away that famous smile, however, because to create a 'frosty' version, I'm going to draw in a couple of icicles hanging from her nose. And after that, I'm planning to replace her healthy glow with a chilly-looking blue tint.

Get the idea? The possibilities really are as limitless as your imagination, so go ahead and let it break loose. But I hope you utilize the insights you've had about color; that if you use text, any fonts are carefully chosen; and of course, that you'll give plenty of thought to any other visual 'clues' you use to represent each of the words.

If you're working digitally, you'll find the exercise a great way to practice your editing and manipulation skills, and you can try introducing selections from other images, too.

And if you're working by hand, go wild; have fun! It's back to those magazines for collage elements, together with pens, crayons, paint and anything else that helps you transform your images into something truly spectacular.

But perhaps the best part of all is something you might not have yet realized. Because this, quite possibly, is your first truly 'professional' design job.

Why? Because I'm asking you to work to a brief. And what's the brief? Quite simply, the requirements generated by the words themselves. It may be a fairly 'open' assignment, but manipulating images to capture the essence of words is a specific instruction all the same.

So congratulations in advance! This activity can lead to a really exciting series of images, which could easily form part of a portfolio, too. In fact, I've frequently used this exercise with highly experienced professionals - just changing the words to make them MUCH tougher to work with. A real challenge, but they loved it. Here's hoping you do, too - and feel a lot more confident with design as a result.

About the Author

Mike Brennan has spent most of his working life involved in both design and copywriting - particularly in the field of advertising and marketing.

He is the publisher of clickspiration.com, an online advertising portal aimed at the needs of affiliate publishers as well as the advertising and creative industries.