Archive for the ‘Design Tricks and Tips’ Category

Pioneer Press: Oh No You DIDN’T!

June 15, 2010

Poor Pioneer Press. I mean, they’ve been through some major shake-ups in the past years. They’re a tiny, home town paper. They have less popular comics than their competitor. And they made the mistake of trying to woo us, die-hard Star Tribune readers, by sending us a free copy of their newspaper.

So it was that one Sunday morning I got up exceptionally early and realized that while my Star Tribune carrier was still happily slumbering, my dutiful free Pioneer Press carrier had already delivered the goods. And so this morning, I opened the Press and started reading.

The article about White Bear Lake’s waxing and waning lake levels caught my eye. Following the breadcrumbs from the cover of the local section to page 3B to finish my article, I was greeted with a graphic designer’s nightmare! Surrounding what otherwise was quite an attractive and well-designed advertisement for Pella Windows, were…CROPMARKS! PAGE INFORMATION! GASP!

Ok, for those of you who are not design geeks like myself, here’s a little background info. Crop marks are little lines, placed at each corner of printed artwork, that tell the printer how to position, print, and trim the artwork. They are not intended to be seen in the final product. Page information tells the printer the name of the digital file, as well as the date and time the information was printed. Also not intended to be printed in the final piece.

I frequently include crop marks when submitting art to publications, so they know how to place the art within their design. These are particularly helpful if you’re submitting an advertisement intended to have a white border around the edge.

Ok, so here’s the mess itself:

Printed crop marks!

See the crop marks and page information? (circled)

Lest you think I’m a terrible nasty person for pointing this out, I’d like to point out that we all make mistakes from time to time (see my previous article about apologizing!), and in the world of newspaper publication—when turnaround times are quick—a mistake here and there is bound to happen.

And, little mistakes like these make great gems for educating design students about the print process. So thanks for that.

On the flip side, I’d hope that the Pioneer Press made concessions to the advertiser for their error, which clearly had a negative reflection on the advertisers’ brand. And, unfortunately, their mistake cast a poor light on their publication to me—their potential subscriber—when it mattered most.

The lesson here? Well, never skip the step of careful editing and proof reading when you are publishing something to be seen by your potential audiences. It’s that expression your mom loves to use: you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Anatomy of a Photo

June 2, 2010

Recently, Mix Creative had the opportunity to design the 2010 edition of the ONE coupon book. The book, filled with coupons for products from partners in the ONE (Organic and Natural Experience) program, needed to appeal to a demographic that included both tried-and-true consumers of organic products and the next generation of mainstream consumers.

Conceptually, my client and I wanted to merge the idea of the consumer experience with nature and organics. We imagined a picnic scene as the perfect juxtaposition. Next step: find the perfect image!

The brown grass outside told me a photo shoot was out of the question; I’d have to locate an image to use. I set out to find the perfect image, but instead found this one (click on a photo to see it enlarged):

Original picnic basket photo

The original photo: not quite right yet!

The original photo had the right idea, but lacked drama with its bland sky. The grass-only field didn’t tie in with the sunflower theme I had implemented on some of the interior pages. Also, the wine bottle wasn’t consistent with the type of products that were inside, the flashlights seemed out of context, and the thermos was distracting. Ideally, too, we wanted to highlight the types of products you might find inside the book.

So, I set out to make the image just right for our use by manipulating the photo in Photoshop. The following are the incremental steps to the final image:

Removed thermos from photo

Step 1: Remove the thermos from the photo and extend the foreground to fit our taller aspect ratio.

Replace sky in photo

Step 2: Replace the bland sky with one from another photo that had more drama, color and movement

Add flowers to photo

Step 3: Add yellow flowers to the foreground for visual interest, and to match the yellow flowers that appeared in the book's interior pages.

Add baguette

Step 4: Replace the baguette with a new baguette image. Strangely, the old one looked out of place once we started manipulating the photo, so we made the decision to add a different baguette image to this one.

Add lettuce to photo

Step 5: Add lettuce (taken from another stock photo) to the picnic basket.

Add jam to photo

Step 6: Add a jar of jam to the photo. Notice that as I added items to the basket, I also added the appropriate shading to make their presence more realistic.

Add crackers

Step 7: Add crackers to the basket

Add peanut butter to the photo

Step 8: Add a jar of peanut butter (and its shadows) to the basket

Add syrup to basket

Step 9: Add bottle of syrup to the photo. Note that I had to take particular care with all of the basket items to make them generic; the coupons inside vary from one edition to the next, so my client didn't want to highlight any particular brand on the cover image.

Add bottled yogurt

Step 10: In the completed image, I added a bottle of yogurt. The final image shows an abundance of consumer-friendly foods in an organic setting. Mission: accomplished!

The entire process took about 6 hours, and is compiled from 10 different stock photos. I should probably note that when possible, it’s more practical (and affordable) to shoot your own photography (via a professional photographer). That said, I was pleased with the final product. The cover image looked appropriate in the final design, appealing to a wide age range of consumers with familiar products in a beautiful and natural setting.

The completed cover

By the way, check out the Organic and Natural Experience online for tour dates (where you can get a coupon book and samples of partner’s products), and to learn more about how to live in sync with the planet.

What do you think of the completed image? Would you have done anything differently? We’d love to hear your comments!

Good enough? Judging the quality of your own work.

May 12, 2010
A painting of Audrey Hepburn by Katrina Hase

The completed painting of Audrey Hepburn

Years ago, I sat in my painting class, laboring away to create a hyper-realistic painting of my idol, Audrey Hepburn. I struggled greatly in the beginning, trying to get the proportions correct with my sepia outlines so it wouldn’t look like a caricature or a hastily painted mural in some tacky restaurant. I built the painting up little by little, adding shadows, then pigments, then highlights. After a great amount of time and struggle, I stood back and looked at it and pronounced it completed.

That’s when my painting teacher, Felix Ampah, walked by. “Hmm…” he started, looking at my work and then at my photo I’d been referencing, “looks like there’s a lot more information in here”—he pointed to her cheek—”and here”—he swept his hand along the virtual Audrey’s lip and chin. “Much more to do!”, he concluded, my own Mr. Miyagi sending me back to work.

Feeling defeated, I examined the photo and my painting. Sure enough, there was more “information” there—subtle changes in the shadows and highlights within the areas he pointed out. I worked the rest of the class and the next filling in “the information” that had escaped my eye on the first round. And when the painting was really completed, I felt it was my best work yet.

The lesson I learned from this experience I carry with me today: when I think I’ve completed a design, it’s best to put it away for a bit, then come back to it with a critical eye. Sometimes it’s me that does the critique, and sometimes I send it to my design colleagues for feedback. More often than not, there’s something small that can be added or edited to improve the quality of my design. The little adjustments make a big difference in the quality of the concept, and ultimately in my clients’ satisfaction.

Lands’ End: Pros at marketing to women

May 5, 2010
Lands End Catalog

Lands' End proves it understands how to market to women.

Paging through a Lands’ End catalog, it’s clear that the folks at Lands’ End understand how to market to women. Products and descriptions reach three demographics of women, (for example: “Fit 1: Modern”, “Fit 2: Original”, and “Fit 3: Traditional”), and leave it to their readers to self-select a category. The different fit categories are clearly labeled and illustrated throughout the catalog, and are accompanied by images of women with different body shapes and ages.

The copy is helpful and non-condescending. It anticipates issues women are likely to have about their clothing, and addresses them directly. For example:

“Straps stay securely in place.”
“Wide waistband lies smoothly over sides — won’t dig in.”

The copy also understands what aesthetic qualities women are searching for:

“Adorable details make these modern tops as cute as they are comfortable.”

Graphics and typefaces are contemporary and readable and colors are fresh and allow the products to take center stage.

Overall, well done! Good job, Lands’ End!

Color inspiration: in the paint

April 26, 2010

Looking for just the right color palette for a design? Inspiration may be as close as the nearest hardware store.

Paint manufacturers spend a lot of money researching color trends and putting together ready-made palettes for their customers. From swatches to glossy brochures, you’re sure to see some fresh color combinations to inspire your design! And unlike your Pantone book, you can hold these swatches individually, place them next to other colors to see how they interact, and even cut them out and paste them on your inspiration board without doing hundreds of dollars in damage.

But here’s something even cooler: many paint manufacturers have great websites for creating and experimenting with different color combinations. A favorite of mine is at, which includes articles and information about color and color theory, see sample rooms and the colors that inspired them, and lets you create a room in your own color scheme using their interactive tools.

Behr website

Paint manufacturers like Behr offer fun tools and inspirations for selecting colors includes a Top 10 Color Palettes page and its own version of a color-your-room interactive.

And includes a nice section on color palettes based on historical references, nature, architecture, ambience, and trends (this site also includes a paint-your-room interactive).

I’m sure there are dozens more sites, but you get the idea. Enjoy!

Hanging Indents: Perfecting the Bulleted List

March 26, 2010

Has this ever happened to you? You’re typing a list in Microsoft Word or Powerpoint;  the first line is short so it looks just fine. But the second line is longer, and the text wraps below the bullet, like so:

An example of an incorrectly formatted bulleted list

An example of an incorrectly formatted bulleted list using manual bullets (Opt-8)

Clearly, your list needs a hanging indent: a typographical tool that allows your bullet, symbol or number to stand alone, while the text wraps neatly next to it.

One way to achieve this is to use your text editor’s “bulleted list” button. But what’s this? There’s a glacial gap between the bullet and the text, and it’s indented much farther than it needs to be!

An Example of a preformatted bulleted list

An example of a preformatted bulleted list, using the "Bulleted List" button in Microsoft Word. Notice the huge gap between the bullet and the text, and the extra large indent?

A more  elegant solution is to create your hanging indent manually, allowing you to control the spacing between the bullet and the text and to dictate the amount of indent. The result looks like this:

Example of a properly-formatted hanging indent

Example of a manually-formatted hanging indent. Notice the tighter spacing between bullet and text, and the more modest indent?

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Type in your own bullets, using the Opt-8 key command. Note: using manual bullets also allows you to make them smaller or larger as desired, or to replace them with a symbol.
  2. After your bullet, press the TAB key. Then, write your text.
  3. Press ENTER/RETURN after each item on your list. Note: to force a line break within the text of an item on your list, use the command SHIFT-RETURN.
  4. Highlight the text you want to format.
  5. Locate the ruler at the top of the page. Slide the bottom triangle over a tick on the ruler, and the top triangle back a tick on the ruler (you can adjust the amount of indent to suit your document by experimenting with these two settings).
    Hanging Indent Settings

    Settings used to create a hanging indent

  6. Click on a ruler line to generate a tab stop (black arrow). Slide the tab arrow to match the position of the bottom blue arrow.

Generally, I like to indent the space of two letters when calling out a paragraph of text. A full tab stop is overkill, and can make you quickly run out of space in your document if you have a list with several sub-lists.

To add another level of sophistication, consider customizing the space between your bulleted lines using the “Paragraph Spacing” function (under Alignment and Spacing in Word). In the following example, I’ve added 4pts of spacing between paragraphs:

Bulleted list with manual space after setting

Bulleted list with manual paragraph spacing

The hanging indent function is common to most programs that allow formatting of text, including Microsoft Word and Powerpoint, TextEdit, Adobe Illustrator, InDesign (use Command+Shift+T to bring up the tabs ruler) and more. Mastering this function will give you tighter typographic control and create documents that look professionally-designed versus created on a template.

Happy formatting!

How to Write Your Website (Without the Anguish)

March 24, 2010

For many business owners the prospect of writing their own website content arouses memories of the dreaded term paper. They set deadlines that slide in favor of completing client work, they open Word and stare at the blank screen, and they regress to updating their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds instead of facing the perceived challenge in front of them.

If you think you’re alone in your fear and procrastination: think again! Nearly every client I’ve worked with has gotten into their head about writing their own web content. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting it done. Complete one step each day and you’ll be done in no time!

  • STEP 1: Create an outline. Most websites follow a similar plan, and for good reason—it helps prospective clients quickly find the content they’re looking for, and it makes your site SEO-friendly. The basic site map contains: Home, About, Products (or Services), and Contact. Additional pages may include: Location (if you’re a bricks and mortar business), Blog (for adding fresh, SEO-friendly content), Site Map (for search engine optimization), Resources (for linking to other sites), E-Newsletter Sign Up (this may just be a button that links to an external form) and Testimonials. Think strategically about which pages make sense for your business and people coming to your site, then put it down on paper. There! You’ve just completed step one!
  • STEP 2: Be your target market and find your competitors. This step has two goals: first, to discover and record the key words your clients may be typing into their web browser to find you (and your competitors). Record the key words that brought the most relevant results in your web search: those are words you’ll later want to incorporate into your writing. And second, to review your competitors’ sites to take note of what you like about how they describe their products/services, and consider what you’d do differently. Make notes to yourself as they relate to the outline you created in step 1.
  • STEP 3: Bullet-point your web content. Using your site outline as a guide, list key points to include on each page. Don’t worry about word-smithing here; just get the content down! Think about the key words you wrote down in step two, and work them into the appropriate pages of your site content (use them early and often for best results!). For inspiration, review any other printed materials you may already have, or just think about what people ask you about your business and what you tell them in return and write that down. Now take a break—you’re over a huge hurtle!
  • STEP 4: First draft. Ok, I realize a lot of you just broke into a sweat at the mention of a first draft. Take a breath. Relax…this is only a draft! Not the real thing! At this point, we’re going to turn those bullet points from Step 3 into sentences, no big deal. Now, here’s some advice on how to do that:
    1. DO: Talk about your client: who they are, and how your product/service will make their lives easier/better/more fulfilled. Example: “At XYZ Co, we help small business owners like you create innovative storage solutions that help you maximize your office space.” DON’T: Talk about yourself. Nobody likes a bore who goes on and on about how great they are. Example: “At XYZ Co we sell office storage solutions that are the best in the industry.”
    2. DO: Use keywords that your clients will be typing into their browser search box to find you.
    3. DO: Organize long paragraphs with sub-headings to break-up the content. DON’T: Make your website a comprehensive treatise on your company and/or industry! Consider the average time a person spends at any given website is about 3 seconds.
    4. DO: Be conversational. Put in writing the things you say about your business every day—on the phone, at networking events, to your friends and family!
    5. DON’T: Sweat over every word. Remember, this is just a draft! In fact, websites benefit from regular content updates. Plan from the start that you’ll update your website content regularly; tweaking it to include new products or services, to change a focus or reach a new audience, or just make it fresh to your clients.
  • STEP 5: Review and Revise. Ok—you’re in the home stretch now! You have a draft in place; it may not be perfect, but it’s 100% more than you had before you started! This is a great point to bring in a professional copy writer to do some fine tuning of the tone and apply some editing (a writer would also be a good resource after step 3!). I know what you’re thinking—”I thought this was supposed to be how I can write my own site!”. But hear me out…with much of the work done already, you can benefit from just a few hours of their time. And it’s your business, for goodness’ sake! Spend the money where it counts to ensure consistent branding. HOWEVER, if  you don’t have money or access to a writer, and you fancy yourself a Pretty Good Writer, this is a good time to print out your draft and read it with red pen in hand. Look for:
  1. Grammar/Spelling errors
  2. Speaker Inconsistencies. Don’t switch between first, second and third-person voice.
  3. Active vs. Passive verbs. I prefer to write using present tense, active verbs: “Have office clutter? We supply you with storage solutions to optimize your space!” vs. “With our storage solutions, your office problems are solved”
  4. Adjectives. Descriptor words are your friends! Use them generously to describe how your audiences will feel upon using your goods/services.
  5. Key words. Do one more check to make sure you’ve included the key words that users will be searching to find your site on each page.

That’s it! Now send it off to your designer/web programmer and kick back with your feet up and a cocktail in hand to celebrate your accomplishment!

Tips for Designing in Powerpoint

March 22, 2010

Frequently, I’m asked to design Powerpoint slides for my clients that they can use in presentations to their clients. While designing in Powerpoint can feel to a designer like creating a Monet with color crayons, I’ve discovered some tips and tricks to making Powerpoint presentations look professional, while breaking the mold of traditional templates. Here’s a sampling:

  1. Create a plan for your presentation before you start. Knowing the flow of content in a presentation can help you create a design plan for the presentation: will you need a title slide? A slide for section breaks? A content slide? Consider creating a balance of content-heavy slides to attention-grabbing visual slides that give viewers a break and provide new interest.
  2. Design the type as well as the slide backgrounds. Clients are unlikely to have the typographic training and eye that a professional designer possesses when formatting  Powerpoint text from your design. Make sure you create examples of how headings, subheads, body content, bulleted lists, and captions should look. I personally find the Powerpoint shortcuts for bulleted/numbered lists and indents to be too limited, instead creating hanging indents using the ruler as I would in Microsoft word for greater typographic control. Resist the urge to fill each slide with type; most Powerpoint presentations use a type size that far exceeds what is needed for readability. And take advantage of line spacing/space after functions to group like text with like on the slide.
  3. Limit the amount of content on each slide. Powerpoint slides are meant to be used in conjunction with a live presenter; let the slides remain largely visual to complement the points outlined by the speaker. Supply bulleted slide notes as needed in the printed version.
  4. Design compelling visuals. Too often, clients invest only in a title and master slide when hiring a designer for their Powerpoint presentations. This is missing an opportunity to present consistent brand visuals to your client’s target audiences. Design charts and graphs with the clients’ colors and fonts, create slides using brand images, and incorporate your clients’ brand elements into each slide. The result will be a polished, professional presentation.
  5. Resist using Powerpoint effects. Elaborate slide transitions, 3-D effects, gradients, and pre-designed templates call attention to the technique more than the content and brand message.

Remember that as a designer, it’s your job to educate clients about the potential (and limitations) of each medium. Creating a one-of-a-kind Powerpoint presentation that is designed from start to finish will set your clients apart from the competition and give them confidence when presenting to prosepective clients.

Fun Ad Campaign

March 17, 2010

Driving around town, I’ve been enjoying Duluth Trading Company’s billboard ad campaign. The company, which sells workwear, tools, games and other “tradesmen” goods, combines clever copy writing with simple, yet folksy images to create a look and feel that is humorous and edgy.

Example headlines include:
• “Crouch without the ouch” for a pair of pants
• “No more butt crack” (paraphrasing) for an extra-long t-shirt.

Doing some digging, I discovered that the mail-order catalog company designs and writes nearly all its own marketing in-house, led by Al Shakelford. Illustrations are by Minnesotan Rick Kollath. I wasn’t able to find any examples of the billboards online, but here’s an example of the style from their recent catalog cover:

Catalog cover design

A witty cover from Duluth Trading Company's catalog

Guest Lecture: Starting a Design Business

February 2, 2010

I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with Bill Hendrick’s Freelance Design Business class at Minneapolis Community and Technical College today! We spoke on topics common to first year businesses, graphic design-focused or other. Topics included:

  • Options for freelancing: Use a creatives broker? Sell a pre-packaged product? Work directly with clients?
  • Assembling your business plan: The who, what, when, where, why, how, and how much?
  • Target audiences: You get to choose who you work with!
  • Defining your brand: Determining your brand description, brand story, services, voice, and visual elements.
  • Business infrastructure: Estimates, invoices, proposals, portfolio, business account, contracts, and accounting software
  • Finding and winning clients: From cold calling to networking in person and online

Students had great questions and tips, too! I wish you all success and hope to hear from you about your progress.

Oh! And if you’d like to get to know the students from a fine art perspective, check out their collective show this Friday, Feb 5, at the Fallout Gallery (26th and Stevens Ave near the Minneapolis Institute of Art). The opening reception begins at 7pm.