Posted on Feb 6, 2018

Design Tips for Total Beginners

Whether it’s time to redesign your website or create a new piece of marketing collateral, basic design skills are a must.

But you’re not a graphic designer. You’re a small business owner whose skills lie in the products you sell or the services you offer your customers. How can you create a brilliant – and effective – design when you can’t tell your pixels from your PSD files?

Never fear! Use the primer below to pick up all the tips and tricks needed to create professional-caliber designs – no matter how much of a novice designer you may be.

Play Around with Programs

For many would-be designers, the overwhelming thought of tackling a complex program like Photoshop is enough to put them off design entirely.

But while Photoshop remains the king of digital photo editing, there are plenty of challengers to the throne that aim to make great design easy and accessible to all.

Take a program like Canva, for example. When you log in, you’ll be prompted to select from a series of standard designs:

canva design examples

Once you’ve made your choice, you’ll be given a choice of more specific templates to work off of:

Canva design layouts

After you make your selection, great design can be as simple as replacing the stock text and/or images with your own.

The Creative Bloq blog lists 29 other web design tools like Canva to try.

Observe Standard Design Practices

Whether you decide to handle your design work manually or use a tool like Canva, you can pick up a surprising amount of information simply by observing the designs all around you.

Take the collection of template Instagram posts from Canva below:

Canva design layouts

Though they’re all different, you might notice that:

  • They all dedicate 50% or less of their available space to text
  • They use 1-2 fonts, max
  • They employ photographic imagery or solid blocks of color to support their points

Now, take a look at the following templates from iPage’s free WebsiteBuilder:

iPage pre-designed website template

Noah May Photography portfolio

Burger Deli website

Again, they all belong to different industries and have very different looks and feels. But they’re all structured the same way:

  • They feature a logo in the upper left-hand corner
  • They have horizontal navigation bars running up against the left-hand corner
  • They present a large photographic image as a header
  • They place key content immediately below the image header

When you’re preparing to do your own design work, spend some time browsing examples of the same type from around the web. While you shouldn’t copy them outright, see what trends emerge. Best practices exist for a reason, and you can use them to create designs that look modern and professional – even if you aren’t a designer.

Start with Your Brand Identity

Designers have an infinite number of colors, fonts and other variables to play with. You don’t.

If that sounds counterintuitive, stick with us…

According to Entrepreneur magazine contributor Raubi Perilli, developing a consistent brand identity projects professionalism, establishes authenticity, provides clarity, builds trust, offers internal direction and provides simplicity.

Take a peek at the Ling’s Cars website to see what happens when a consistent brand identity isn’t adhered to:

Lings cars website

Between the multiple colors, different fonts and competing elements, there’s not a discernible brand identity to be found here. Contrast it with the website of branding master Coca-Cola:

Ahhh, much better. The fonts are clean, the colors are consistent, and the nostalgic air of the photographic imagery calls to mind memories of polar bears and Christmas commercials past.

When designing, think like Coca-Cola – not Ling’s Cars.

CocaCola website

Before you put digital pen to paper, establish your brand’s preferred colors, typography and image usage. Keep these elements consistent across every piece of design work you do, and your finished products will naturally have a more professional look than those that aren’t built around a central brand identity.

Respect the White Space

Tom Richardson of Pixel Whizz makes a plea for keeping design simple:

“A mistake many beginner designers make is to cram too much on their canvas. Too many colours, too many typefaces, too many elements. This creates a hectic feeling in their design and doesn’t allow the design to breathe on the page.”

One way to achieve this desired simplicity is to take a page out of Coco Chanel’s playbook and remove one accessory before leaving home – in this case, removing one design element before publishing your work.

Another is to pay attention to your use of white space. These blank areas that are free from design clutter give viewers necessary mental breaks and allow them to focus in on the most important features of your design.

To be clear, white space doesn’t have to be white. It doesn’t have to be perimeter space either, as demonstrated in Coca Cola’s web page example above. Take the following example from Envato that demonstrates the impact of white space on text spacing:

font and text examples

Great design isn’t about cramming as many elements as possible into a single space. It’s about using design to effectively communicate a message – and often, that’s about what you leave out as much as it is what you put in.

Look for Web Freebies

Then again, you might not have to worry about white space at all if you leverage any of the free design resources floating around on the web.

Though the web design tools referenced earlier in this article may come with freebies of their own, there are plenty of sites online that are devoted entirely to making free design assets available.

Take Fribbble – the free resource collection compiled by designers on the popular portfolio site Dribbble:

Fribble website screen shot

Snag everything from PSD texture files to full HTML templates on the site, or check out Forbes’s round-up of web design freebie sites for more options.

Take a Class

The freebies and web apps described above will get you pretty far on your own, in terms of design. But if you’re ready to take your skills to the next level, why not take a class?

Websites like Skillshare, CreativeLive and Lynda all offer online design classes on topics as general as “Graphic Design Fundamentals” and as specific as “Botanical Line Drawing.” You may even find classes related to the tools you’ve already explored – such as this Lynda course on “Learning Canva.”

With so many great options available, it’ll be harder to choose the right course than it will be to find one in the first place. Our tip? Hone in on the specific skills you want to develop. Then, look for options that focus specifically on them in order to save time.

Google It

Chances are if you want to learn how to do something, someone’s already published an online tutorial about how to do it.

Google is your friend here, but – as Hubspot contributor Sapphire Reels suggests – you need to be specific. As an example, rather than searching for “how to create an icon,” she recommends Googling phrases like “how to create a flat icon with a long shadow.”

google long shadow tutorial

The more specific you can be with your query, the more likely it is that you’ll find the answer you’re looking for.

Get Feedback

Finally, one of the best things you can do to improve your design skills is to simply ask for feedback.

Ask your friends, family members or favorite customers what they think about your latest creations. If you’re concerned about possible bias, ask them to comment on something specific (for instance, “Do you think this flyer makes it clear what my latest promotion involves?”). You could also post your work on sites like Behance or Dribbble for public feedback.

Don’t get defensive if the feedback isn’t what you want to hear. Instead, take every criticism you encounter under consideration as a possible opportunity for improving your current and future designs.

Great Design for Total Beginners

If you take nothing else from this article, let it be this: the best thing you can do to improve your design skills is to get out there and do it.

The tips and tricks above may give you a helpful starting place or shave time off your learning curve, but it’s up to you to get out there and put them into practice. Don’t worry if your first efforts aren’t professional quality. Continually refine your skills based on what works (and doesn’t work) for you. Ultimately, you’ll develop a design style that’s all yours and that helps move your business forward.

Got another tip to share? Leave us a note below sharing your best design tips and tricks:


Feature Image: Flickr