So, you want your website, personal brand, resume package, online store, brick and mortar retail space or restaurant environment to look good? If the answer is yes (which I would hope it is), then keep reading for some great tips on looking like a million bucks.
I know that not every one is a graphic designer (although it does feel like these days anyone with a copy of Adobe Photoshop claims to be a "designer"). There are some great ways to achieve a professional look without breaking the bank, wasting all of your time learning new software, or looking like everyone else out there.
How to Design Like a Professional
1. Stay away from overused fonts
There are a handful of easily-recognizable fonts that will make your designs instantly look amateur. If you are currently using one of these fonts, it may be time to reconsider.
Comic Sans is a casual script typeface that's inspired by comic book lettering. It reminds me of a cheap circus or elementary school newsletter. There are plenty of websites and forums devoted to the death of Comic Sans. Just don’t do it. A designer cries every time someone does.
Even if you sell Egyptian baskets, please don’t use Papyrus. I’ve seen it on bistro menus and movie posters alike (Avatar, anyone?). This particular font isn’t necessarily bad because it's overused (although it is), it’s just…ugly.
There are many great resources for fonts. DaFont and FontSquirrel are my top two for free fonts. A word of warning though—be careful when using free fonts. They have a tendency to look, well, free. More on that in #4.
2. Use the right stock photography
A classic sign of amateur design is cheesy stock photography. You know, where an ethnically diverse group of employees (all in blue and white button-ups) are laughing and looking at the camera in a generic office space? I’m not against stock photography. It’s important to find ones that are specific and believable. Some of my favorite stock photography websites include Lightstock and Stocksy.
If you’re on a budget, there are some free stock photography resources out there. My all-time favorite is Unsplash. I also subscribe to Death to the Stock Photo, which provides a pack of free photos to your inbox each month.
3. Use high-resolution photos
Still on the topic of photos, it’s important to use high-resolution photos in your pieces. What is high-resolution exactly? In designer-speak, it’s when a photo has at least 300ppi (pixels per inch). In layman’s terms, it’s a photo that is crisp/sharp and not pixelated. Pixelation is when you notice the individual pixels (small colored squares that make up the image).
The unfortunate reality is that most phones are not able to provide high-resolution photos. Yes, you may have a 12MB camera on your phone, but there are many factors that need to work together to create a high-resolution photo (lighting, white balance, shutter speed, ISO, etc.). You don’t have much control over these on your phone.
Another tidbit — pulling photos from Google or Facebook is not sufficient. Photos on the web usually have a resolution of 72ppi and are small. Facebook actually compress photos 80% (this is bad). More on that another day.
Your best bet for high-resolution photography is using a DSLR or good point-and-shoot camera. There are many economical options out there, depending on your budget. I use a Canon Rebel T3i and it works wonderfully.
4. Margins, spacing, and kerning
Margin/spacing is the area around and between elements. It’s important to use white space (breathing room) in your designs to draw attention to the important elements. In print, margins are important because they provide the space to keep your designs and text from getting cut off. Margins and proper spacing can create a clean and well-balanced design.
Kerning is the space between letters or characters in a piece of text. This is what separates the amateurs from the professionals. Fonts come with a default kerning/tracking setting. Some fonts (especially free fonts) do not line up in a way that is pleasing to the eye. For example, in a poorly-kerned font, the uppercase A and V sit farther away from each other than the rest of the letters. Depending on what software you are using, you may or may not have control over this.
5. Use drop shadow sparingly
With the popularity of flat design, the drop shadow effect tends to look dated. Drop shadow is when an artificial shadow is applied to an object. Drop shadow can work in more elaborate pieces, but let’s learn the rules before we break them.
I've created a video to give you a tangible example of applying these principles. Check it out below!