Hacks for Graphic Designers
May 15, 2013 12:06 PM   Subscribe

I need some hacks to help me try to decrease the amount of time it takes to complete a graphic design project.

Hey all,

I've gone to design school but am finding that it takes me a looong time to put together a brochure, webpage, poster--whatever.

I need some design hacks, i.e. a list of things I can try that may improve the design while hopefully speeding the process along. Things like:

-Use google images to look at other designs for inspiration
-Add a textured background
-Make elements as aligned as possible
-Fix any wonky type spacing
-Ensure space between elements is balanced as possible
-Ensure there's an optimal amount of space between elements and the edge of the paper
-Add an illustration
-Add a photo
-Obey the rule of 3rds as much as possible.
-Is the page size the best size for the amount of information presented? Should it be bigger or smaller?

Has anyone ever come across a list like this. If not, can you offer more items to add to the list?
posted by oceanview to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
This may be too basic for your needs, but I have found Robin Williams' The Non-Designer's Design Book very helpful for layout basics.
posted by nanook at 12:12 PM on May 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

In the interest of speed/efficiency, I always remind students to name their layers logically ("sidebar outline" rather than "blue box" so if you change the color the name still works.) and to use folders to organize them logically, so you don't waste time looking for the right layer to work with.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 12:14 PM on May 15, 2013

I've gone to design school but am finding that it takes me a looong time to put together a brochure, webpage, poster--whatever.

Can you articulate why it takes you a long time?

The biggest help is consuming media i.e. flipping through other magazines, books and webpages and getting inspired from them. You should definitely save designs you like and borrow from that 'swipe file' for inspiration.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:16 PM on May 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Maybe not the answer you're looking for, but practice will increase your speed. When I work with new designers, I always expect them to take longer on projects at first. Speed will come with knowledge and confidence. Keep working at it, and you'll get faster.

I don't quite follow your list of 'design hacks'. Fixing wonky type spacing isn't a time-saver; it's just what you need to do. Maybe you're focusing on 'hacks' when you're actually needing a checklist of things you need to be aware of?

Aligning elements isn't difficult - guide rules are your friends, or learn how to use the align functions in InDesign.

It sounds to me like you may need to learn the tools/programs better. This will also help you design faster too. Maybe take some classes in InDesign or check out Lynda.com or TV.adobe.com.

Ok - here's one 'hack' for you. Keyboard shortcuts are your friend. Learn them - force yourself to use them, and they will save you SO much time eventually.
posted by hydra77 at 12:28 PM on May 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

I set a checklist of benchmarks that I need to accomplish for a project, and then I commit to doing 3 of those benchmarks every day until the project is complete. My checklist is usually:

1. Assess project requirements and determine project goal (am I selling something? is the focus of the brochure to inform? how can I accomplish that visually?)
2. Research and develop a set of inspirational designs to reference (I personally have a Pinterest board for a variety of different design paradigms so I always know where to go looking first when I need references and inspiration)
3. Lay out all elements in rough form
4. Fit text (if applicable)
5. Refine layout.
6. Refine color scheme.
7. Refine font choice and font sizing/spacing.
8. Print draft and make note of changes needed.
9. Revise.

-Add a textured background and -Obey the rule of 3rds as much as possible are not design hacks. These are design motifs that should only be applied if a project merits it. Don't presume that all projects need to use all the things you learned in design school. In fact, if that's been your MO for the past few projects, I would argue that your designs are probably not very strong and that your project timeline is extremely bloated.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:31 PM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

a lot of designers i know, including myself, keep pinterest boards for inspiration. fonts, program tutorials, photos, magazine layouts, etc. it saves a lot of time and keeps you organized. i also keep a binder of things cut out from magazines, catalogs.

learn your programs and all the ways you can do things. there are a million different ways to remove the background of an image, for example, but you'll find the way that works the best (and fastest) for you.

i have to say, i've been enjoying creative market recently for things that fall in 'not my strong suit' territory. i'd rather pay $5 to download an illustrator file of vector banners than spend 10 minutes making one myself.
posted by kerning at 12:34 PM on May 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Make simpler work.
posted by notclosed at 12:35 PM on May 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

3. Lay out all elements in rough form

Pencil and paper are really, really, really, good for this. I can't stress this enough. It's like magic. Very often it's much quicker than the computer to get the basic ideas down. Then you transfer that to the digital realm. Proper planning and prep will make the rest of your tasks go faster. This applies to all fields, by the way, not just graphic design.

As for inspiration, you want to see what others are inspired by? Pinterest is good, Pinboard is better. Because Global Tag Pages, where you can see what others have tagged and pinned, and Pinboard is home to a lot of obsessive types who find really good stuff:

Some Good Tags to sift through:


Also, start keeping some kind of record of projects you do. You may be able to identify commonalities that would allow you to create some "quick start" boilerplate/template files (i.e. nth-ing Brandon Blatcher's "swipe file" idea).

I agree Creative Market is pretty handy as well.
posted by Doleful Creature at 12:50 PM on May 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

I agree with Hydra, I had the same thought about your list: it sounds like things to do in order to complete layout, not hacks or shortcuts. I also agree that your speed will really improve with experience. Really, that's the main thing. When you get to the point where I am after doing this work for over a decade, then you start worrying that you're doing things too quickly and losing your creativity!

But for now, some of the best "hacks" have already been suggested:
1. Save files of your favorite designs that you have done—you can reuse some of the layout or graphics for other things.
2. Develop a personal catalogue of good stock photos, and subscribe to a paid stock photo site (or find a free one you can depend on). Depending on your job, you will find there are certain photos or specific objects that you need to use for photos time and time again. Granted you don't always want to use the same photos for everything, but there are some things that you will be happy to reuse.
3. Use the built-in alignment options in InDesign or whatever program you're using (even Microsoft Word has alignment tools). Then you can select your objects and line them up with one click.
4. Use the built-in tracking and leading options for your text. (because you specifically mentioned fixing spacing makes me wonder if you are utilizing this)
5. One of the most important: SETUP AND USE STYLES. If you aren't already, using styles for your text and objects will save you so much time. Then import those styles to new documents so you aren't having to spend time recreating the same body text style or heading style over and over again.
posted by Eicats at 1:08 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you perform the same kind of task on things like in Photoshop, record an action/macro to do it for you. For example, I often have to replace smart object photos and apply a specific layer setting [in Photoshop]. So, I recorded an action and assigned it to a shortcut key, now instead of doing 5+ steps everytime, all I have to do is select the layer and hit my shortcut key and it does it for me.
posted by Eicats at 1:13 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

- Create a resources folder that holds things like typefaces, vector patterns, swatch files, helpful PSDs, stock imagery, icons, wireframe stencils, etc.

- If you use multiple computers, keep things on Dropbox and synced across them so you're never missing your work

- Keep inspiration boards. Like others have mentioned, Pinterest is good for this -- especially when it comes to finding and following other designers who are also curating great examples.

- Keep useful books around your work station. I have Tufte hanging around for when I need help on data display, for example.

- Start rough and fast. You should be doodling a million things as quickly as you can and throwing out shit that doesn't work BEFORE you get to the actual design.

- On that token, if you're doing functional pieces, sketch functionality (wireframes, flows, whatever) before you 'beautify'. The worst and slowest designers I've ever worked with have always just started making high-fidelity designs before thinking about the big-picture functionality first. This adds a shit-ton of drag at the end when suddenly you need to wedge things in that you never thought about.

- Check in with whoever you're working with early and often! Don't just work alone and then send your "complete" work to people on the deadline, because they guaranteed will NOT like what they see. Other people will see things you don't see and help you catch your mistakes before they infiltrate everything.

- Form an argument in your head for every single thing you put on the page. If there's no reason for it, delete delete delete

- If your slowness comes with not knowing how to use the tools, watch some Lynda (or whatever) tutorials that focus on what you're finding slow.

- If you're a Photoshop user -- If you're not already, for god's sake, use smart objects, shapes, and styles. Don't use raster stuff wherever you can avoid it, and reuse elements!
posted by thirdletter at 1:15 PM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

The best way to speed things up is to get really, really comfortable with the software you use. Learn all the keyboard shortcuts. If something you do often takes you a pain-in-the-ass amount of time (aligning things is an excellent example), there's often a quicker way to do it. And, as pixiecrinkle says, name and organize all your layers, always. Cultivate this habit until you're super anal-retentive about it. It really does make things go much easier in the long run.

I sometimes spend too much time pondering small decisions that ultimately feel like "ketchup or catsup?" where none of the options seem objectively better. When I catch myself doing that, I pick one and roll with it. If it doesn't work, I can always change it later, and by that time I'll have a better idea of what will.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:25 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

It seems that you're looking for surface-level hacks. So on that front, I will second knowing your keyboard shortcuts without having to think about it. That was one thing with my interns that would take significantly more time in working.

From a process standpoint, getting all of the information upfront, having everybody onboard with expectations, and receiving related content in one package is essential. Nothing worse than crossing communication on expectations for a project, or getting content bit by bit.

But when it comes down to it, the boring answer is experience. Being in a high-stress environment and having to get things done quickly. Not being too precious about your ideas, being confident to know what works and what won't, being able to quickly get ideas down, and then being able to edit.

Hacks implies tricks to making your design work. Good graphic design is good thinking put into visual form. Concentrate on the concepts and ideas behind the design as the framework, and let that guide the visuals.
posted by Sreiny at 1:41 PM on May 15, 2013

Best answer: I subscribe to a number of RSS feeds that are image based, and whenever I see an image I would have been happy to have created, I save it to my harddrive in a folder. I have over 30 different folders in my image reference library with stuff like business cards, logos, invitations, brochures, botanical, colour palettes, typography etc. It means in terms of inspiration, I know I will have good stuff from scratch to look at - not just google images which can be quite hit or miss.

I have templates in my design software.

I think Nanook's book reference The Non-Designer's Design Book is excellent.

I think Assess project requirements and determine project goal from These birds of a feather is vital. You need to know what you're doing before you start. I would also say: audience, audience, audience.

I think thirdletter is absolutely right in "Start rough and fast. You should be doodling a million things as quickly". After about 20 years, you might get to the point where you can see it in your head before you start, but not always, even then.

(I actually think all the posters had good points, but those were ones I would have said if they hadn't said them first).
posted by b33j at 2:44 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

For web design, this slide show from a user interface designer in Belgium named Johan Ronsse is extremely useful. I highly recommend you view the entire presentation.
posted by Dansaman at 2:45 PM on May 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

GuideGuide is great for creating grids in Photoshop.
Method and Craft has excellent tutorials.

As others have mentioned, take some time to learn your software: keyboard shortcuts, functions like Symbols, Illustrator's Pathfinder, Layer Comps, Batch Processing, etc.

Be ordered with your files, resources, etc. Avoid designers version control. Make automatic backups of your work, it will save your skin one day.

Typography and grids are the bases of graphic design. Books The Elements of Typographic Style and Grid Systems in Graphic Design (or perhaps something more contemporary like Making and Breaking the Grid: A Graphic Design Layout Workshop) are great to have around as reference.

If you want something more concrete, the Before & After books and magazine have simple ideas and layouts that you can use as a parting point.
posted by clearlydemon at 3:48 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Grid Calculator.
posted by Dansaman at 10:16 PM on May 15, 2013

Best answer: Maybe not the answer you're looking for, but practice will increase your speed.

From your description, it sounds like you're still in the "check all the boxes" method of design. There's nothing wrong with that, since your real learning is going to come now that you're out of school. In time, a lot of that stuff will become automatic, adapted and/or eliminated as you mature into your own unique talent. This is why beginning designers usually charge less than established veterans. You're going to take more time doing stuff that's second-nature to the big kids.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:51 AM on May 16, 2013

You haven't clarified the specifics of what might be slowing you down. And obviously the amount of time it takes design something is contingent upon what it is you are design, the content you have available, etc.

My one piece of advice would be that designers don't just move stuff around. I've seen some younger designers get distracted by the ease with which one can rearrange a design without much strategic purpose. This burns a lot of time. I think you might benefit from limiting the number of elements you are working with thereby reducing the number of decisions that need to be made in order to get to completion.

If a design isn't coming together then stop. Work on something else and go back to later. Consider the Pomodoro technique.

And also, know your tools and look for knew tool thats might get a specific task done more quickly. Nthing the fact that, in aggregate, keyboard shortcuts save a lot of time.
posted by quadog at 1:02 AM on May 17, 2013

Because someone else was interested, I have here for you some of the websites I subscribe to, in no particular order

I do not guarantee the quality of any of these, you understand ;)

Some of the website I've collected but don't subscribe to (I don't know why) and also which I bookmarked at a particular page but for not particular reason. I apologise for any advertising.


Oh my, I just worked out how to cut and paste out of the bookmark directory (I'm an idiot). So some of the following links might be duplicate or dead or weird or NSFW. Open at own peril.


And the categories of my collected images. They don't all make sense, and some are mispelt. I'd share them with you, except there's 11,621 files, 2.52 GB.

Abstract, Animals, Animations, Art, Backgrounds, Bandamagaazine, Big Ideas - Ideas, Bluesfest Inspiration Folder, Bokeh, Book Covers, Botanicals, Brown Paper, Business Cards, Calendar, Cartoon, Cd Cover Design, Characters, Charactitures, Chinesenewyear, Christmas Cards, Classic, Clay, Clean-Simple, Colour Combinations, Contemporary, Cool Ideas, Diagram, Digital Art, Document Design, Eco-Sustainability, Editorial Illustrations, Email Templates, Epistolary, Etchings And Line Art, Fabric, Facial Expressions, Fashion-Style, Feminine, Figures, Fish Identification, Flash, Flyer, Forms, Fruit, Funeral Presentation, Geometric, Graphic Design, Grunge, Guides, Guides - Docs, Home Economics, House, Icon, Ideas For Tshirts, Illusion, Illustration, Infographics, Inspiration, Invitations, Ipod Style, Kids Audience, Lace, Layout, Lino Cut, Logo Ideas, Magazine Illustration, Manga, Map, Marthastewart, Maths Pics, Metaphor, Minimalism, Modernist, Monochrome, Motivation, Music, My Designs, Nature Photography, Newsletters, Overprint, Packaging, Paisley, Patterns, Photography, Photoshopped, Portraits, Posters_Tshirts, Powerpoints, Presentations Actual Elsewhere, Relaxed, Retro, Reuable Elements, Rock, Rococco, Sample Documents, Self Promotions Ideas, Silhouette, Stripes, Styles, Sympathy, Tangram, Templates, Texture, Tie Dye, Traditional-Antique, Tribal, Turn Into Vectors, Typographical Imagery, University Education, Vector, Visual Journal Style, Walk Cycle, Webdesign, Wireframe,

I really think I need to add this stuff to my website or blog or something.

I hope you appreciate this, I should be working on my tax, or my assignments.
posted by b33j at 6:46 PM on May 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

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