Top 5 Most Common Design Mistakes that Will Make You Look Like an Amateur

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The images posted here are advertisements that I picked up at a hotel a few years back. These are very common types of advertisements that you might find handed out at a fair or at a local store near your home (or, of course, at a hotel). While there certainly are worse designs out there, these two advertisements suffer from serious design amateurism. The Big Horse Adventures may be wonderfully fun and the Studio 404 photography may be spectacular, but the designs of these ads send a different message: low budget, one-man-band, un-business-savvy, and lacking in professionalism. The companies’ credibility is hurt by poor visual communication design.

Writing content has been drilled into us since our early preschool days. We’ve been told over and over again how to construct a sentence, how to use punctuation, and how to rhetorically spruce up language with fancy and colorful words. And we’ve been told that if we mess up in any of those areas, our writing looks less sophisticated, silly, and even hard to understand. By sixth grade, it seems, most of us know what a run-on sentence is. We also realize that it is important to spell words correctly. Using run-on sentences and misspelled words in our writing is tacky and they suggest that an amateur (or, worse, a weak, incompetent, or uneducated) writer is behind the content.

When it comes to designing content, however, many who don’t have degrees in graphic design aren’t aware of some of the most basic problems with document design. Truth is, most people can spot a poor design a mile away; sadly, though, those same people wouldn’t know why it is a poor design or what they would do to fix it. If you are one of those that can spot an ugly or weak design like those above but you don’t know how you’d fix it, then the list below is for you. (And don’t worry! You’re not the only one by any means.)

I’ve come up with a list of the five most tacky (and most common) mistakes I see when it comes to visual communication. If you can avoid these five pitfalls, your document will automatically look much stronger (and not so amateurish).

#1 Center Alignment
The default, it seems, for most people with little design experience is to center-align information. I’m not sure why this is such a common mistake, but it has to be the most common of all amateur design choices. If you make a poster or flyer or advertisement, avoid the common pitfall of hitting the center-align button. Aligning text in the center of the page is actually harder to read—this is partly because we are trained to read with a hard and straight left edge and partly because, visually, the text ends up having an awkward hourglass shape, making it more difficult to jump to the next line when reading.

#2 All Caps
If you need to emphasize information, using all caps is NOT the right choice. Our eyes and brain are trained to read in shapes, not to read every single letter. Each word has a unique shape and character to it and our brain is able to process it much quicker if it sees lowercase letters. When all caps are used, word shapes turn into all rectangles; when all the words are the same shape, reading time goes way up. Another serious issue, though, is that USING ALL CAPS LOOKS LIKE YOU ARE YELLING AT YOUR AUDIENCE. No one likes to be yelled at, so don’t be that lame designer that appears to be yelling all the time. Trust me, your popularity will sink.

#3 Overemphasis
If you need to highlight information (say, for a heading in a report), avoid using too many highlighting techniques. Ususally, using boldface is good enough for text within a paragraph. For a heading, you might increase the font size as well. If the heading is just one word, you might be able to also make it all caps. But where you might go wrong here is by using four or five highlighting techniques, like BOLD, ITALICS, UNDERLINE, ALL CAPS, AND COLOR all at the same time. Doing too much highlighting creates unnecessary visual noise. Besides, doesn’t that just look tacky?

#4 Small Margins
All documents should have, at minimum, a half-inch margin on all sides. Text should never run closer than that to the edge and on larger documents (8-1/2″ X 11″ or larger), 1″ or more is preferred. In my earlier design days, I made this mistake; a seasoned graphic designer looked at it and said to me, “that makes my eyes bleed.” I was insulted, but his point made clear. Text too close to the edge of the page drives readers’ eyes crazy. With that in mind, though, that doesn’t mean you can’t use the bleeds. It’s still good design practice to run images and large text off the page for visual energy. But anything that needs to be read beyond a title shouldn’t be within the half-inch space around the edges.

#5 Tacky Fonts
Typefaces are a wonderful thing. They have brought so much character and personality to our designs and we can be grateful that the computer bigwigs (like Jobs and Gates) decided to include so many fonts on our Windows and Apple computers. But that doesn’t mean you should go crazy with typefaces. Simple, straightforward typefaces are still best for reading paragraphs. You can use the fun fonts for titles, headings, and logos, but avoid them for the majority of your text. Also, know which fonts are overused. These days, Comic Sans (see my article about its hatred here) and Papyrus are the seemingly two most hated fonts, largely because of their overuse. Trajan Pro is starting to climb the ladder on that list (see this great YouTube video on Trajan Pro being used for movie titles). Whatever you choose, know that typefaces make a huge difference in design and you’ll practically never want to use more than three on a single page (and two is usually preferred).

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