Become a Better Designer in 3-Minutes, No Matter Your Profession

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Story Time

A long time ago in a kingdom not far away I lived a different life. I was a college instructor at the University of Houston and Houston Community College. Each semester brought an array of young ambitious students who were eager to improve their lives. 

I taught courses in anthropology and was the "fun" college instructor, seriously it's hard to mess up anthropology. What students didn't know is that they would also learn the most fundamental aspects of design during the semester. 

Before their first essay was due, we would go through a simple exercise. I would pull up two essays from previous years. One was easy to read. It was left-justified, had a basic font, was consistent throughout, sized images appropriately, used sub-headings, and had 1.5 line spacing. 

The next essay was all over the place. It was left-justified then centered then right-justified, the fonts changed from page to page (a sign of plagiarism - let's save those stories for another day), there were no sub-headings to break up sections, and at times the font color would change.

I would ask the class, what are your initial impressions and who do you think received the higher grade?

The responses were always the same. 

"The first essay is way better."

"I bet the second essay was written early in the morning the day it was due."

"Mr. Avery, I bet you failed the second person."

I would then blow their minds . . . the essays were the same, just formatted differently. I know, shocking, calm down.

After the collective gasp was released from the room, we would discuss the value of aesthetics. Formatting an essay is the equivalent to a first impression. A properly formatted essay shows the reader that time and effort was spent on the essay and the author respects the reader. A poorly formatted essay shows the reader it was rushed and the author doesn't value the time of the reader.

You might think I am overvaluing aesthetics. Sure, that's why good looking people are treated poorly and North Dakota is a hotbed for tourism. Come on, we know visuals matter and most of us use visual displays of our work more and more as technology infiltrates every aspect of business. No matter your job, you likely write emails, create Word documents and/or PowerPoint presentations, and post items online. Proper design means you are detail-oriented, care about your work, and will stand out compared to those who don't do the basics. 

In just three minutes you can elevate your work documents, presentations, sales materials, proposals, or anything else you present in your job. Okay, let's start the clock, give me three more minutes and you will leave with fundamental design skills. 

Contrast

One of the most important rules of design is using proper contrast with text on a background. If we were really fancy we would examine "Figure and Ground" from Gestalt Principles, but we just need the basics. 

Here is the rule, light text goes on dark backgrounds and dark text goes on light backgrounds. That's it! You don't want dark text on dark backgrounds or light text on light backgrounds. Make it easy for the reader with proper contrast.

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Justification

Text justification is the one thing which my students would notice immediately from the above story. The poorly formatted essay would be all over the place, some text would be left-justified and in others, it would be centered. Why!?

Here is the rule, a vast majority of the time you should left-justify text. At times, full justification looks more professional, especially for long documents. Yet, 99% of the time, you won't go wrong with left-justification. Also be consistent. If you feel courageous and center headings, do so for the entire document/presentation. 

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Color Choice

I know you. 

You are ambitious, you make bold decisions, you are marching toward being an executive. You add a shape here and there in your PowerPoints, you change the color of your headings. Here is the issue, you choose from standard color choices and pick one which is too bright. Recently, I was meeting with a potential client and looked through their current collateral. They were using bright red for their headlines. I asked, why? There was no good answer. 

Here is the rule, choose soothing colors for any shapes, elements, or if you change the color of text. It's really not that difficult. Don't pick the brightest color and do yourself a favor. Google "color theory" and read some of the top articles. You will be way ahead of those around you with just a little knowledge on how color impacts our senses

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Go Make The World Prettier

Was that under three minutes? My newborn daughter was crying so I had to take a break. 

Most business documents and presentations actually turn people off because they are formatted poorly. With a few simple changes, you will stand out as the supreme individual in your company who is multi-talented and creative, along with your other skills. 

Doing these small steps will give you an advantage in every step of your career. Trust me, this is what I do daily for clients, I improve their brand. Oh, you want to see my work!? Thanks for asking, here is a link to my client portfolio.

Until next time, go make the world prettier and improve your job skills with the above tips. 

Matt Avery