Designer Imposter!
April 26, 2006 9:11 AM   Subscribe

Help me impersonate a graphic designer! I know it’s kind of insane, but as early as this afternoon I may receive the proverbial offer (well, assignment) that I can’t refuse, and I’m wondering if anyone might be able to offer some fake-it-till-you-make-it tips for this sort of project (a short catalogue for a half-dozen or so boutique products). See, the thing is, I'm not a designer, although I have some experience with Quark, Illustrator and Photoshop. I’m most interested in a list of ten or fifteen things that you talented designer folks do over and over again that seem impressive to the uninitiated, but that are simpler than they appear to we of the untrained eyes. Books are also fine, but due to the potential immediacy of this, the shorter the tutorial, the better.

Here’s the big picture: I’m the editor at a small start-up. Freelancers of varying skill levels handle most of our design work, but they only come around when needed. Due to budget constraints, over the past year or two I’ve taken on an increasing amount of lower-level design work (in Quark, Illustrator and Photoshop) to help cut costs. Still, I know my limits and am always the first to try to farm out work that I’m not able to do. Today, however, my boss’s boss (the owner of the company and someone with whom I have virtually no day-to-day interaction -- he barely knows my name) asked me for help on an out-of-the-office project. Someone of some relation to him, blood or otherwise, is going to be selling a boutique retail product, for which a logo already exists and which he thinks requires a sort of portfolio. This is not something I would normally feel comfortable doing. Nevertheless, my discomfort is outweighed by my fear that telling him that I’m not qualified to do this will make him question whether I’m suited to remain in my role at the company. So I said I’d give it a shot, but hedged my bets by telling him that 1) there are “really sophisticated people out there” who will charge well up into the hundreds, 2) my work for our company doesn’t require me to have that "really sophisticiated" level of expertise, 3) I will do something on spec, with no up-front financial commitment from him. Again, I have some practical experience and know how to use the tools on a basic level, but my job rarely requires me to make anything with any real aesthetic appeal. I’m looking for quick-and-dirty tips from pros ("use a lot of radial gradients" or "don't use a lot of radial gradients" more than “take a class at a local college.” (I should also reiterate that I’m keenly aware of the fact that design is a difficult field that one doesn’t pick up overnight – if I’m able to squeak by on this one project, it’ll be by luck and/or the grace of God, but it won’t magically make me a designer.)
posted by Sinner to Work & Money (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Can you describe what type of work you'll be doing? I read through the entire question but I still couldn't figure out what you would be working on.
posted by junesix at 9:36 AM on April 26, 2006

Not a pro, but I think this advice holds:

The best way to fake it may be to get a sense of what other similar catalogues do. I'm not saying you should be copying, but since you're faking it, you don't want to try for something groundbreaking here. If there's something you're thinking of doing but none of the other catalogues are doing it, there may very well be a good reason for that.
posted by juv3nal at 9:41 AM on April 26, 2006

It sounds like you're pretty deeply ambivalent about doing the job. Can you get out of it by saying some version of: "I'm sorry, but I don't have the time"?

It seems like a lose/lose to me. Either you'll prove to the guy that you don't know what you're doing, or you'll make very little money on what sounds like a one-off annoying project.
posted by MarkAnd at 9:42 AM on April 26, 2006

"for which a logo already exists and which he thinks requires a sort of portfolio"

are you building a web site? are you creating a brochure? are you creating a catalogue?

in any case, if you fake your way through this project you will cause yourself much stress - with the additional caveat that if your work is not up to snuff your worry about impacts on your current job is still valid!!

how about this - offer to manage this project, ask the big boss about his budget, and hire one of your freelancers to do the design work.
posted by seawallrunner at 9:44 AM on April 26, 2006

To be honest -- don't. Please. I'm not a designer, nor do I play one on TV. I have a lot more design experience than you do, but even I wouldn't be dumb enough to try this.

There's a lot of technical skills you'll be missing on this project. How to adequately specify a print project like this so that the press doesn't return something that looks like crap. How to do the color adjustment and layering so that the press can screen and print things and they'll come back ok. (i.e. do you know which halftone patterns and other visual effects will work with which screens and presses?)

And then there's the aesthetic skills. The things that designers do is a skill of recognizing 'what looks good' that's trained to the point where it becomes intuition. Non-designers can duplicate that by finding something they like, and spending about 20x the time that a trained designer would take to finish it, and you still sometimes can't get quite the results you want.

That's why we pay them so much. They have technical knowledge that isn't easy to acquire, and they have an aesthetic sense that they've trained until it produces art. There are no 20 quick steps to good design.
posted by SpecialK at 9:51 AM on April 26, 2006

I got some good advice when I asked a similar question. The best of which was to read The Non-Designers Design Book.
posted by TurkishGolds at 9:56 AM on April 26, 2006

Best answer: I've recommended this before on AskMe, but I think it will stand another link: Mark Boulton on Grid design.

This tutorial uses the Golden Section to establish a great, spacious grid which will suit your project if you like it. The Golden Section is a naturally pleasing way to divide space, so you might benefit from using it to guide your thinking.

If you have time to rush out for a book, the first section on Composition in this book by Jim Krause will teach you to think about the basic properties of a design. The saection ends with a few pages of questions you should ask yourself about your design, which are pretty helpful.

In fact, having been in your position before, I'll go so far as to type them out for you:
  • Connection
    • are thematically connected elements placed in association with each other, visually?
    • can adjustments be made to create more relevant connections?
    • does it feel scattered?
    • can it be changed to make fewer groups of items?
    • should connections between elements be cut off to create a visual break, or intentionally interrupt the flow?
    • are there strong visual and thematic connections between the pages?
    • are structural conventions consistently applied?
  • Alignment
    • is there a clear answer to any question on the alignment and placement of components?
    • have I checked each component individually?
    • are internal conventions being consistently followed?
    • are their exceptions which would enforce the message?
    • are their areas of trapped space to be eliminated?
  • Priority
    • How does it look from across the room?
    • What strikes me after a break from the image?
    • Clear and appropriate internal hierarchy?
    • Should any large elements shrink or vice versa?
    • Is there a good balance of colour (hue and lightness) to focus attention appropriately?
    • Is there a flow?
    • Is the flow in the right directions?
    • Does my eye feel drawn in opposing directions?
    • Is my eye drawn off the page too soon?

  • posted by godawful at 9:59 AM on April 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

    Best answer: Less is more, so if you don't know what you're doing, I'd stay away from the radial gradients. Any design should have a dominant image/element. Figure out what that is and then design the piece so that the eye naturally flows from it into the rest of the elements in the design. Odd numbers of elements are more visually interesting than even numbers. Smaller logos will tend to be better than larger logos. The client will ask you to enlarge it anyway, so leave yourself some room to grow. Don't go overboard with fonts. One or Two are better than 50.

    I agree with almost everybody else that if you're not comfortable with the job, you should let your boss's boss know what you know and suggest finding somebody to outsource it to.
    posted by willnot at 10:03 AM on April 26, 2006

    Best answer: Stay away from gradients, period.

    Make sure you're using source materials that are either resolution-independent or high-res.

    Make sure your leading is high enough.

    And if you don't know what any of that means, refuse the project.
    posted by miss tea at 10:07 AM on April 26, 2006

    Also, and keep in mind IANAProfessionalDesigner, but I definitely think that you should do this job. The only way that you're going to get better is with practice and the only way that you're really going to be motivated to practice is with a deadline.

    I know that I'm going to get jumped on for saying this, but here's what I do: Put all of the design elements on the page and then move them around for hours until you get something that looks good. Keep in mind, that probably goes against some cardinal rule of design, but it always seems to work for me.

    Also, I see lots of people warning you that what you get back from the printer might look like crap. There's an easy solution to that: before you start, ask the printer how they want the graphics!
    posted by TurkishGolds at 10:12 AM on April 26, 2006

    Look around you in any room where you have bee living for a while, whether it's your office or your living room.

    If, from almost any angle, you can take a picture and frame it, it means that you have a sense of colors and taste and proportions and you can do the job with a few pointers: what godawful says, and also: keep it simple, clean lines, lots of white, law of thirds (Google it).

    If all you see around you is a nonsensical mess, all your efforts will make you look bad and you should do what seawallrunner has suggested.

    Good luck.
    posted by bru at 10:14 AM on April 26, 2006

    Read this to get a very good idea what printers want.
    posted by godawful at 10:15 AM on April 26, 2006

    If you're setting any type in columns, use a baseline grid (maybe this link will help). It's one of those things that non-designers tend to overlook (or just not think about) and that makes a project look less amateurish.
    posted by drewbeck at 10:45 AM on April 26, 2006

    Don't let the design nazi's scare you off. Try this project and see if you enjoy it. Design skills are something you either have or don't have, and you can't pick them up by getting a degree in it, nor do you need a degree to do good work.
    posted by macinchik at 10:49 AM on April 26, 2006

    White space. That was my biggest mistake on my first two projects. Leave more white space. And don't "trap it."
    posted by salvia at 10:55 AM on April 26, 2006

    I'm not a graphic designer, btw, just an amateur brochure maker.
    posted by salvia at 10:56 AM on April 26, 2006

    You're refusing this because you're worried the boss will think less of you? He'll think a whole lot less you when a shitty looking brochure comes back from the printers with mono pictures.

    Your question amounts to "I'm a nurse, and the boss's boss wants me to take out his daughter's appendix. I don't want him to think I'm not qualified to be a nurse, so I'm going to do it! Any tips so that I can look cool in the operating room?"
    posted by bonaldi at 11:05 AM on April 26, 2006

    Response by poster: Thanks to all who have posted already. My apologies for being absent from "my own" discussion thus far -- I was called into a meeting that ran long. I've only skimmed the comments above, but it's pretty clear that in my haste, I didn't do a terribly good job of editing my initial post (which doesn't bode well for my day job). It looks like the biggest missing piece is a clearer description of the project itself. So, to answer a few questions, it's for print, not web, and at this point, I don't think it's something that he'll be spending a lot of money on. Which means relatively low expectations and less-expensive labor (me) and printing. The "catalog," such as it is, will be about five pages, and will showcase one item per page. Now to read through the other comments and try to respond in a bit more depth.
    posted by Sinner at 11:46 AM on April 26, 2006

    Response by poster: Thanks very much to those of you who have responded to the actual question posed (bru, TurkishGolds, miss tea, godawful, macinchik, salvia, etc). I'll be sure to keep all of your advice in mind.

    So far as my eye is concerned, it's definitely better than average. I grew up with an artist mother who gave me a good visual sense. I also deal with designers frequently and while I'm completely receptive to disagreement, they generally seem to respect my input.

    I understand peoples' concerns about my undertaking this project and trust me when I say that I'm already considering ways to avoid getting involved. However, this may be impossible for a number of reasons that I'm not going to detail here. Please understand, I genuinely do respect design and designers, but if your sole advice is "don't do it," or "outsource it," that's not what I'm looking for. Rest assured, the point has been made. In the event that I do have to produce something, at least on spec, I'd like for it to look as good as possible (and to be honest, I'm a bit curious to see what I can do, given the opportunity). Thanks again to all.
    posted by Sinner at 12:18 PM on April 26, 2006

    Print is very, very hard. Much, much harder than designing for, say, the web. There is a huge body of knowledge that you'll need to know in order to pull this project off.

    I know you don't want to hear "don't" or "outsource", so here's a suggestion I hope you'll find useful: find someone who does know how to do this type of work, ideally outside of your company, whether it's a friend or a hire. Explain the situation, and offer to give them the entire proceeds of the work, if they'll serve as a consultant to you as you attempt to do the work.

    You won't get any money, but this will help keep you from making a stupid mistake that might get you fired, and you'll learn something -- think about it as attending Graphic Design For Print 101 at a cost of significant time and stress, but no dollar outlay.

    This pretty much goes for every type of task you might want to take on outside your area of expertise: if there are no stakes, go for it and see what happens, but if there are stakes (and for you there are), get professional help. You'll still do the work, but you'll have a much easier time with much better results and significantly less risk.

    Good luck.
    posted by davejay at 1:44 PM on April 26, 2006

    Of all projects to get your feet wet on, a catalog is definitely not the one I would recommend.
    There's a reason skilled designers are paid what they are paid. I know it's chic in this culture anymore to denigrate professionals, but something like a catalog seriously needs someone with experience to pull it off professionally and successfully.
    I agree with an earlier recommendation that you offer to oversee the project. And then watch, listen, and learn.
    posted by Thorzdad at 2:11 PM on April 26, 2006

    Best answer: Is this catalog going to be printed at Kinko's or at a real printshop? I've been doing web and graphic work for the past 6 years, and doing print work, like davejay warns, is intimidatingly different from screen-based design. I have no idea how to prep a graphic for printing, or how different file formats are handled by printers,--hell, I'm so ignorant I don't know what I'm ignorant of! Don't treat this project like a web site, and contact the print shop yourself and ask about newbie mistakes to avoid.

    As for the actual design, whitespace is good, readability is better, align things according to the grid, let the photos speak for themselves and don't use a mixture of colors, fonts, and sizes. Maybe 1-2 colors, 2 fonts, and 3-4 sizes at most.

    Also, don't get overly ambitious for your first catalog! If you have a talent for it (which I do think is innate--there's skill and competency, then there's a little something extra, a creativity and perspective that makes great designers different from good designers), you can work with drop-shadows, gradients, bevels, alignments, etc. later. Stick to the fundamentals, which you can glean from some of the books suggested.
    posted by lychee at 2:19 PM on April 26, 2006

    Free lesson 1: Photoshop is not a page layout tool
    Free lesson 2: CMYK
    posted by Thorzdad at 2:33 PM on April 26, 2006

    Best answer:

    Use a grid.

    Use one font if you can get away with it.
    Two if you must.

    The Mark Bolton link is good, but even simpler is to use Create Guides in InDesign or Quark or whatever to create a grid. Then, align things to the grid.

    You are in way over your head, but that's why you're here isn't it?
    posted by Brainy at 2:41 PM on April 26, 2006

    Especially if they will be printing it at kinkos, I'd like to counter a little of this "quake in fear" advice.... :)

    I did my first brochure project as an intern for a government agency too cheap to buy any Adobe software. So despite knowing PageMaker, I used Powerpoint. They bought special paper, and we printed the brochure with their color laserjet. It looked alright, really. (Needed more white space.) I didn't have to know about bleeds, CMYK, kerning, nothing. More recently, I laid out (in Word -- a total nightmare that made me yearn for the days of Powerpoint) a 100+ page report with color images. This got printed and bound by a local copy shop.

    So, while I respect the skills and talents needed to do "real" graphic design for "real" printing, it's unclear if that's even what's needed here. If someone's relative wants a 5-page catalog/portfolio and they're going to run off 50 copies at kinko's, you'll probably do just fine. Good luck!
    posted by salvia at 3:49 PM on April 26, 2006

    Response by poster: Thanks again to all who have responded. Since a few people have asked, I'm going to reiterate that the "catalog" is probably going to be around a half-dozen pages with only one product per page. I got the feeling that it was going to be more of a Kinko's-printed job than the alternatives, but that's something I'll need to confirm. To davejay, yeah, one thing I'm considering is some sort of "ghost-writing," but the problem with that is that I will need to meet with the designer of the items in question - I can't offload that. Truthfully, I'd like to see a few samples of "portfolios" that she likes before I make any moves whatsoever. To thorzdad, yes, I'm keenly aware of Photoshop's limitations (so far as page layouts are concerned). To Brainy, yes, I'm in over my head, but yes, as you noted, that's why I'm here.
    posted by Sinner at 3:59 PM on April 26, 2006

    Response by poster: One more thing from me (although I look forward to any more advice anyone can offer). I've received a couple of emails from mefi designers that have been really helpful. I won't name names, but I do want to express my gratitude for the extra help (and encourage anyone else to email me, should they choose to do so).
    posted by Sinner at 4:14 PM on April 26, 2006

    Best answer: I fired some advice at Sinner; he said it'd probably be worth posting here, and I suppose so, for posterity if nothing else.

    However I still can't stress enough how much I think this is a bad idea. Learning on the job is fine and can be fun, but you can't impress while you're doing it. There's a reason good designers can charge squillions, and though the sort of things I'm going to say are good points to start googling from, they're beyond basic to designers. This isn't high-end voodoo, it's like knowing how to print in Word. If these points aren't already known to you, this job's too big. Fandango_Matt seriously has the best answer in the thread

    (That said, I've heard the background story to this, and acknowledge Sinner's in a dilemma, so...)

    If I had to tell someone how to do this, I'd tell them to:
    • Copy the design from something else. You can change bits and pieces, but be sure you know *why* you're changing them. Is the main element on the page still clearly the main element? Is the "shape" of the copy (imagine it as grey blocks) still a standard shape - boxes and Ls are the most common - or is there too much of it?
    • Learn about CMYK. Get the press profile from the printer (dot gain, line screen, etc), and work out what the hell it means. Set up Photoshop and InDesign/Quark to use it correctly.
    • Have a big talk with your printer. You need to know all sorts of shit -- their CMYK profile, the document sizes, bleed sizes, trim sizes, gutters, there's loads. They should have spec sheets you can have. They'll want to help, because it will be a huge pain for them to fix your job. (Which they'll do, but by god they'll charge for it too)
    • Get details on the images -- what format does the repro house want them in? TIFFs are a given. JPEGs are unlikely, though they'll certainly accept them. What you need to know as far as images go are three things:
      • Resolution: what DPI do they want them at?
      • Line-screen: Do they do it? What do they want you to set it to?
      • Colour profile: Do they have a CMYK profile you can calibrate to?

    • Get a proper digital imager to do your images. If you don't know how to do colour correction and retouching, you're *definitely* not going to learn how in this timeframe. It's more art than science, and it's not easy. If it's a catalogue, the image reproduction is going to matter immensely, and properly retouched and corrected images are going to be utterly essential.

      Traditionally, this sort of thing worked like this:
      • Client has photographer take and provide snaps (either on paper or trannies, usually the latter)
      • Designer specifies space in layout using crappy lo-res scans
      • Designer gives layouts and trannies to repro house
      • Repro house scan in trannies on high-end scanner, and calibrate everything so that printed result is as close as possible to originals. If specified, repro house retouch/airbrush images or otherwise manipulate.
      This is expensive, however, and increasingly images are generated digitally and we all have Photoshop. So nowadays:
      • Client gives designer images
      • Designer has digital imager do colour correction so that shitty-looking digital file looks top. Imager will also do retouch work, and will use print house's colour profile to ensure press proof is near-as-damn to on-screen image.
      • Designer gives imaged digital files to printer, ready placed on document.
      • You can see most vividly what digital imagers do here. (click the arrow down the bottom right for the other examples)
    • What other people said about fonts

    • Don't try to fill the page. Godawful said all this bit better than me.

    posted by bonaldi at 7:26 PM on April 26, 2006 [3 favorites]

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