Graphic Design Basics for Non-Designers
Pop quiz: Should design follow copy, or vice versa?
The answer: neither.
Too often, copywriters and designers work in their separate silos, throwing a project back and forth over the transom, rolling their eyes at the other’s boneheaded suggestions and making alterations with bitter chagrin.
The best outcomes happen when you and the designer collaborate so much that when the project is over, you can’t exactly say who did what. As a copywriter, you need to know graphic design basics to work with designers and communicate your ideas.
Not only will you impress designers with your knowledge, you will push your work further and stand out among other copywriters.
Go out and grab a newspaper, and check out the front page for an example of visual hierarchy. Naturally, your eyes gravitate first to the attention-grabbing headline and photo, then to the subheadline, which contextualizes the headline, then to the body copy, which conveys the information.
Even if you look at a newspaper written in a language you don’t understand, your eye will follow the same path because of the visual hierarchy in its design. Each piece of the messaging functions differently, and each piece is given a specific size, proportion, and placement on the page.
A good visual hierarchy leads a viewer along a path toward a conclusion, whether it be an idea, a feeling, an action, or all three—this is the shared goal of the graphic designer and the copywriter. We talk about visual hierarchy in-depth in our Graphic Design Course Bundle.
Think of graphic design as the container for your message. It’s important that the appropriate amount and type of emphasis is placed on the right message.
If you really want to impress a designer, be sure to use “font” and “typeface” correctly.
Times New Roman is a “typeface,” while the bold and italicized forms of Times New Roman are “fonts.”
That is just a piece of advice to make you sound smarter, but to understand typography is to understand the role it plays in design. Typography is the way language looks, and, as a copywriter, may be the most obvious place where the copywriting and graphic design basics intersect.
- Display Typeface — Though stylish and visually interesting, it would be dizzying to read an entire article, or even a full sentence in this typeface. It needs to be large and brief to retain its legibility. Lobster is an example of a display typeface.
- Secondary Typeface — This typeface is more toned down. It can substantiate longer amounts of text, but probably not more than a few sentences of body copy. Oswald might be used as a secondary typeface.
- Tertiary Typeface — Clear and easy on the eyes, this typeface works well for body copy. You could stack several paragraphs without taxing the eyes unnecessarily. Arial and Garamond are popular tertiary typefaces.
Some typefaces, like Helvetica, were created with a robust set of fonts and weights to make it easy to coordinate your typography across several modes of use. If you want to explore the art of font pairing, check out the free Fontjoy tool, which allows you to explore endless styles and combinations of typography.
Here are a few more terms to make you sound like a graphic design aficionado.
- Serif typefaces have “feet” on the end of its characters, like the typeface Georgia.
- San serif typefaces do not have feet. Geomanist, the type you’re reading right now? San serif.
- “Leading” refers to the space between lines of text, how tightly they are stacked on top of one another.
- “Kerning” refers to the space between letters in a font or typeface.
While there are several rules to abide when selecting typography, it really comes down to legibility. Graphic designers will likely be better at exploring typography, but trust your instincts when it comes to the function of guiding the viewer through your messaging.
Typography is a deep field of study all its own. If you really want to wade in, check out our Graphic Design Course Bundle to learn everything you need to get started in the world of Typography.
White space is exactly what it sounds like: the empty space around elements in the design. For a non-designer, white space can be challenging, if not uncomfortable, when it lacks a purpose.
Too little white space, and the design appears cluttered and unnavigable to the viewer. Too much, and the viewer gets lost in it and wanders aimlessly.
When used correctly, white space does what all design elements are supposed to do: facilitate the viewer’s journey to the conclusion. An appropriate use of white space makes it easier to focus on what’s important. It keeps the main thing, well, the main thing.
Of the graphic design basics, color may be easiest to master.
You may have heard the theory that the colors red and yellow make you hungry. That’s impossible to prove, but when you think of red and yellow, you probably think of McDonald’s.
Color theory plays on the associations viewers have with colors. Blue might feel sad, while yellow might feel happy. The extent to which color may be used to psychologically manipulate a viewer is a subject of much debate, but colors indisputably strike a mood.
How do you want the viewer to feel when engaging with the message and design? Do the colors of the design facilitate this feeling, broadly?
Colors achieve certain effects when used in conjunction. For example, a blue may appear bolder when contrasted with a bright yellow, but the same blue may appear more muted when paired with a calmer purple. If you want to see this in action, play around with color matching tools like Coolors.
More practically, color selection should not compromise the legibility of the text and should help build and reinforce the visual hierarchy as a whole. It should facilitate the user’s journey, not clutter or distract from it.
The purpose of the project and your client’s overall brand will play heavily into the colors of the design and the tone of your messaging.
Graphic Design Basics Have Clarity in Common
Good design and good copywriting work in harmony to bring clarity to the viewer. It inspires or informs them what is important and what action they should take. When design and copy work in tandem, the result can equal more than the sum of the parts.
For you, that means better work for your clients and your portfolio. It’s tough to showcase good copywriting, but when your copy lives within great design, that makes an even better impression on your prospective clients.
Having a good grasp of graphic design basics makes you easier to work with. If you can maintain supportive relationships with graphic designers, rather than adversarial relationships, you’ll tap into a whole new network of creatives who can recommend you to their clients.
At Content Workshop, we’re constantly thinking up new ways to help you stand out and build your business. Our Graphic Design Course Bundle gives you the toolkit you need to become a more effective creative.
After all, being a good communicator isn’t about speaking with flourish; it’s about your ability to be understood.