10 Common Mistakes for Young Designers

Matcha Design - Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A good design is a practical design but with the complexity of platform compatibility, industry requirements, demanding clients to the stress of meeting deadlines; achieving greatness in design isn't as simple as you think. In the interest of young designers everywhere, here’s a list of 10 common mistakes you should avoid if you want to become a successful and professional designer.

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1. Designing everything (everything!) in Photoshop
Yes, Photoshop is the industry standard, and it’s great for editing photos (hence its name). But even if you work with vector graphics within the program, the images that come out of PS are raster (pixel) graphics, and have an inherent upper limit to how large they can be scaled before they get fuzzy. Unless the designer provides the raw PSD files to your clients, they’ll be stuck with static images which may not apply to other uses in the future.

2. Flattening images as JPEG
Far worse than the Photoshop-only designer is the designer who exports all their final images as JPEGs. Besides being a lossy format even at 100% quality, JPEGs don’t support transparency. Better hope the client never wants to put that logo you designed on a different background.

3. Images too low- or high-resolution for applications
We hear a lot of “Why is my logo blurry when we print it on a huge banner?” or “Why does my website load slowly when we put this image on it?” from clients. The answer to both is usually dpi (dots per inch).

If, say, a logo was designed to be printed one inch wide on letterhead at 300 dpi, that means the logo is 300 “dots” across. When printed one inch wide, each dot is 1/300 of an inch square, which is just about indistinguishable to the naked eye. But blow that image up to three feet across, and now each dot is around ⅛ of an inch square! Most print programs will try to help smooth overscaled images by blurring the edges, making it into a big mush.

On the other hand: some modern cameras will create very large images, often 5,000 pixels wide or more. If a client takes one of these images and tries to add it to their webpage in a sidebar which only displays 2 inches across on most monitors (96 dpi), they’re squeezing 5,000 pixels into a space 192 pixels wide. Web browsers will normally just drop excess pixels, resulting in 25 pixels removed for every 1 pixel displayed. That gigantic image is therefore 625 (25 x 25) times bigger than it needs to be! That’s a lot of excess data to be downloaded, resulting in slow load times.

4. Not knowing CMYK vs RGB
For people designing on a computer screen, a color can look exactly like you want it to look. But take that graphic to a printer and suddenly it’s not the right format; either the colors come out slightly wrong, or the printer may not be able to print it at all. As it turns out, you designed the graphic in RGB (the default in many applications) but the printer needs CMYK.

RGB colors are designed for computer screens, which start out black and mix tiny phosphors with varying degrees of red, green, and blue light to form colors. CMYK is a printing format, which starts with a white page and introduces varying amounts of cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink to form colors. The result of RGB color depends on the monitor (which is why it’s vitally important to keep them calibrated, especially if you’re designing print graphics). CMYK depends on the type of paper and inks used by the printer. There are a number of different standardized CMYK formats, so make sure you get the right one from your printer ahead of time. Keep all these factors in mind and what you design will look like what you print.

5. Too many effects
Special graphical effects are a lot of fun. Most graphics programs come with a bunch of them installed, and there’s a thriving economy based on purchasing new ones. Many designers will often find or buy new effects that just look cool and then search for a reason to use them. This often results in some hilariously overwrought designs. Take it from us, the number of times you’ll really need to cover a logo with rainbow-colored plastic wrap, with a generous garnish of steam and snowflakes, is a very, very small number. Buying the right effect for a specific application is fine. Using your favorite effect all the time? You might want to keep your finger off the trigger.

6. Misusing color balance and perception
Enthusiastic young designers will often apply color to a design without any real thought toward the overall piece. Often the end result is something dark on one side and light on the other, which gives the perception of imbalance, or a preponderance of “color-popping” elements all gathered together in one spot, which makes the rest of the design look flat and dull.

Every designer has heard of the “psychology of color,” and beginning designers will lean hard on this. If the color red denotes “boldness,” for instance, a designer can easily decide that if every possible element in a design is red, that make it “extra bold!” Or worse, the designer might try to combine “boldness” with “nature” and create a nightmare of red and green with nothing in between. A good eye and a little finesse go a long way toward keeping colors balanced without letting them overwhelm the structure of the piece.

7. Reliance on stock images & icons
Setting up a photo shoot is an expensive and time-consuming process. For a designer on a deadline, stock images are very useful. However, they require some due diligence.

Unless you’re purchasing exclusive image rights, thousands of designers have seen the same images you’re seeing. If a stock image or a set of icons really excites you, chances are they’ve gotten someone else excited as well. It’s usually a good idea to take a look around to see if anyone else has used them prominently, especially in the same industry as your client.

8. Importing images straight from camera
Modern cameras are amazing pieces of technology, but they’re not perfect. In particular, they tend to take “flat” images to help preserve data at both the lightest and darkest ends of the color gamut. Importing these images straight into your project will make them seem washed out, especially next to bold graphical elements.

One of the most useful skills a designer can cultivate is photo color retouching. Knowing how to make colors “pop” without losing important data in other areas is an art as much as it’s a science. Practice, practice, practice.

9. Lack of naming conventions
Many software packages include slicing software which will divide up a large graphic into smaller ones, usually for the convenience of web designers. Unfortunately, each “slice” that comes out of the image often has an arcane filename like “image-slice-02.jpg.” This is fine until the next time the site needs to be updated and you have to figure out exactly which piece is “green-slice-5.gif.” A few minutes naming each slice will save hours of headache later.

This also applies to the names of your files, your folder hierarchy, layer naming conventions, and anything else digital. The sooner you get into a good naming convention, the faster you’ll be able to find your files and elements and work on down the line.

10. Forgetting to save regularly / overwriting files
This isn’t necessarily a mistake made solely by designers, but it strikes designers more often than not. When you’re in the groove, getting closer and closer to the end of a project, with each tweak inching you inexorably toward the goal, it’s easy to forget about hitting Ctrl-S every so often. This is when your computer gets you. Be aware, use auto-backup if at all feasible, save often, and hopefully you won’t lose hours of work in the blink of an eye.

The opposite of this problem is opening a file with the intention of reusing some elements in a different project, moving things around for a while, and then carelessly saving over your only copy of the original piece. This heartbreak can easily be spared by getting into the habit of immediately saving your file with a different name the moment you open it.

Bonus. Lack of humility
We appreciate the effort a designer goes through to earn a college degree, and it is rightly something to take pride in. However, out of college, a degree is only one step, not the entire journey. You’re not through learning from others, you just have a good solid basis to build on. Knowing software suites makes you useful, but not a master; a master is someone who can create good design without any fancy software. You may discover that you have to unlearn some things, take ill-advised shortcuts, or put up with new problems you never dreamed of. Real-world experience will temper your knowledge in unexpected ways. Relax, learn, and enjoy the journey.

About Matcha Design
Matcha Design is a full-service creative agency specializing in web designprintidentitybrandinginterface designvideo productionstill photography and motion design. Using our passion for excellence, multi-cultural background, and award winning practices, we consistently provide high-quality, custom, innovative solutions to meet the diverse marketing needs of our clients. For more information, visit www.MatchaDesign.com.