Tips to Go from Design ‘Freak’ to ‘Geek’

Guest post by Ariane Criger who presented on  graphic design basics at our recent YNPN Des Moines’ Afraid to Ask: Design 101 workshop.


As a professional graphic designer, I like to call what I do ‘Design Geeking.’ It takes ongoing commitment to training and development to truly be an effective and successful designer.

But what about those of you out there that are in marketing or program management at a non-profit? Chances are you’ve been tasked with putting together a flyer, newsletter or web page at some point in your career, and have found yourself wondering, “How do I even begin?”

If your attempts to design are feeling more “freak” than “geek,” read on to learn tips to take your visual communications to the next level:

Building Blocks of Graphic Design
There are five main building blocks of Graphic Design: Line, shape, mass, texture and color. Keep these concepts in mind as you put elements together on the page:
• Lines help to divide or unite different elements, and can denote direction or serve as an anchor.
• Shapes are the root of graphic design and can help define the mood or message. Curved or rounded shapes are perceived differently than hard, angled shapes.
• Mass can refer to the physical or visual size of a design. Just because you can fit everything onto a page doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Consider how the amount on the page fits with the message you’re trying to convey.
• Texture can be physical or visual. Use textured papers or backgrounds like wood, stone or fabric to help set the mood.
• Color conveys emotion and status, but can be very subjective depending on cultural background, personal experiences and preferences. Use color to help define the mood of the piece.

Design Principles
There are four basic design principles that can help you create effective, polished layouts: alignment, contrast, repetition and proximity.
• Use alignment to create interest and structure, but always check legibility. Left aligned text is the best for body copy. Use centered and right-aligned text to add contrast or visual interest, but don’t use for body copy.
• Contrast occurs when two elements are different. Contrast adds interest to the page and provides a means of emphasizing what is important. However, if everything contrasts highly with everything else, you end up with competing elements and the reader won’t know where to look first.
• Repetition is the recurring of the same object. Repetition can create visual consistency in page designs, such as using the same style of headlines, the same style sidebars, or repeating the same basic layout from one page to another. However, excessive repetition may lead to boring and uninteresting compositions. If a design feels monotonous, try adding some visual breaks and white spaces where the eyes can rest for a while.
• Proximity is the closeness or distance of individual design elements. Close proximity indicates a connection.

Putting it together
Follow these tips to put all the elements together on the page:

• Use hierarchy to draw attention to the most important pieces. Visual hierarchy is the order in which the human eye perceives what it sees. Objects with highest contrast to their surroundings are recognized first by the human mind. When arranging the page, determine what are the most important elements – headline, body copy, image, logo, contact info – and use size, color, mass, placement to help create hierarchy.
• The eye reads the page like a “Z” (just like how you read), so the most important elements are usually located at the top of the page.
• Use grids to create order and a basic structure to the page. Grids can also help you determine where to best use white space. White space, or negative space, is the areas of a design that are devoid of text or graphics. In graphic design, white space is considered an important element of the overall design. White space can give emphasis, contrast, and movement to a design.
• Use columns to break up large bodies of text, or consider replacing excessive text with bullet points.

There are four main categories of fonts: Serifs, Sans Serifs, Scripts and Decorative (also known as Novelty, Ornamental, or Display). Follow these dos and don’ts:
• Do try using fonts from two to three categories instead of just one if your design feels boring or monotonous.
• Don’t use fonts from all four categories (although there are times rules are made to be broken).
• Do use script or decorative fonts to add emphasis or grab attention, but use them sparingly.
• Don’t use script fonts in all capital letters because it’s nearly impossible to read.

• Faces grab attention. Use real photos of real people doing real things whenever possible.
• Use the attractive power of a face by having it turned towards your product or call to action. Try not to use pictures of people that are facing toward the edge of the page, because that’s where the reader’s eye will tend to go.
• Use emotion to increase support for your cause. Emotional pictures encourage people to stop and consider the consequences of not participating in your cause – and leave them feeling guilty as a result – so they feel compelled to action.
• Use images that best represent your product/service. People don’t like to be lied to or mislead, so make sure your photos show viewers exactly what they can expect from your product or service.

Now go get Design Geekin’!

To learn more about Ariane’s work, visit Also check out frequently asked questions about hiring a graphic designer:

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