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Vol. 40, No. 2

Don’t overload your designer or your design: NABE Comm panel advises simplicity, room to breathe

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Have you ever had to weigh in on the design of a magazine cover, event flier, or other communication for your bar association—or design it yourself—even though you’re not a designer? Ever wondered how to encourage the best results from any designers you work with?

If so, then you could benefit from the tips and tricks shared by a panel of designers at the 2015 NABE Communications Section Workshop in Orlando. Advocating for white space and breathing room—for the content and for the designer—were: Karen Holub, art director for the State Bar of Arizona and its Arizona Attorney Magazine; Kerstin Fermin, creative manager at The Bar Association of San Francisco; and Landry Butler, publications coordinator at the Tennessee Bar Association.

Space for the reader, and for the designer

“You have to see it from the end,” said Holub, meaning that anyone involved with design needs to detach themselves a bit from their own tastes and their passion for the work and instead think about the audience.

If you have too many details and flourishes, she said, the reader won’t know what the most important piece of information is—a good design helps guide them in that direction. Holub suggested asking yourself a few questions about your audience, including:

  • If they only saw one thing in your design, what would you want that to be? If they only saw two things?
  • Why should they care about this information?
  • What makes them happy?

For many people’s eyes, Holub said, white space is one important key to happiness—it provides a visual rest.

If you’re not a designer but are working with one, then space and rest are important to keeping him or her happy and productive, the panelists said.

“Try not to overload your designer,” Holub said. Rather than sitting at a desk and cranking out one piece after another, she explained, designers often benefit from some time to put their mind “in soft focus” and to let an idea “mull around” as they do other things. Often, Holub feels what she called “the click” of a good design idea while she’s walking her dog.

Similarly, she advised, after you give a few parameters regarding what the most important information is and what “feeling” you want the piece to convey, give the designer enough space and trust to come up with the actual design on his or her own.

“Designers are used to thinking in concepts,” Holub said. “They’re not direct thinkers.” If you try to help by suggesting a very specific visual concept of your own, she added, you’ll “shut down the creative process” and prevent the designer from finding other concepts that might work even better.

Make the design fit the environment

An important first step in any design project, Fermin said, is to ask whether the design will appear in a printed publication, online, or some other format or combination of formats.

“Design for the environment where it will be used,” Fermin advised, noting that the environment includes not only the format or platform where the design will appear, but also the culture of the bar association and legal community.

Consistent use of particular fonts can be part of establishing the bar’s brand, Fermin noted, adding that in any piece, it’s important to use no more than two different typefaces. For a recurring event, she added, you can change certain elements to keep things fresh but also retain the overall concept and the typeface or typefaces from one event to the next. That way, she explained, the person viewing your design will immediately know what it’s about, before they even read it.

Certain typefaces should be used sparingly or not at all, Fermin believes. These include Papyrus, which she said has become a cliché; Comic Sans, which is so widely despised that it has become fodder for Internet memes; and Trajan, which is compelling but too closely associated with movie posters.

Speaking of posters, Fermin said a well-designed poster can be a great model for design in general. She showed an example from a play in her area; the poster was simple, with a strong focal point that directed the eye and invited the viewer to “step closer.” Regardless of the format, she said, that’s how you want to direct your audience.

Just because you need to tailor your design to the bar association environment doesn’t mean you can’t venture out of that world for ideas, Fermin said.

“I personally don’t get my inspiration from bar association publications and designs,” she noted. Instead, she often draws from designs for cultural events in Oakland, where she lives. Similarly, Holub mentioned catalogs, fashion magazines, and other mass-market publications as great sources of design ideas that you can then adapt.

How can you keep things simple if you have a lot of information to convey? Make sure the headline and the “call to action” are the most prominent elements, Fermin recommended. Bullet lists are great, she added, but make sure there aren’t too many items. Sometimes, she noted, the best option is to make the piece two-sided so it can include all the necessary information without being too cluttered.

If you’re not the designer, Fermin would love for you to be mindful of clutter, too. Though it does happen, she said, it’s great if everyone can prevent a situation where “You have a good design and then someone wants to squeeze in another 500 words.”

Know your formats

Another important aspect of designing for your environment, Butler said, is realizing that not every type of file is ideal for every purpose.

For example, he said, a PDF is great for forms or other pieces that will be printed, but is not the best for use online.

When it comes to photos and illustrations, he said, the many different file formats are by no means interchangeable. The formats GIF, PNG, and EPS work well online, he said, but TIF and JPEG are much better for print. On the flip side, a JPEG will look nice online, Butler said, but the file is “huge,” so it’s not the best choice for that environment.

Butler demonstrated the marked differences among the formats by displaying a photo that had been saved as a few different types of files. Those differences, and the overall differences between what’s required for the Web vs. what’s required for print, are why it’s important to explain to anyone supplying photos and illustrations that they can’t “just grab it from online.”

Another concern with that approach is copyright, Fermin noted. “People often think if it’s on the Internet, it’s fair game,” she said, but that’s often not the case.

Food for thought, and a concluding exercise

This program concluded in a novel way, by challenging audience members to take on the role of a typical bar association designer. In teams or as individuals, everyone was asked to design a flier—using provided paper, markers, crayons, and other supplies—for a section’s happy hour.

Many audience members who were relatively new to design may have used Holub’s advice as their guide: Get the best copy, art, and other elements that you can, she said—and then don’t overwhelm them. Design is like cooking, she noted: “Use the best ingredients you can, and then stay out of the way.”

(For more information—and many visual examples—please consult the handout for this program.)