The Deadly Sins in Graphic Design: Graphic Design Faux Pas

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  • 9/10/2019

    Graphic design is a profession that embodies skill and precision in order to effectively communicate. This requires strict guidelines and standards that go into turning our work into a success for our clients. Any mistakes or oversights can potentially damage their visual brand, their message or worse, the overall image of the company. It sounds extreme, but a few sloppy habits can fundamentally change everything. 
    Design decisions are made with intent and purpose to present clients as trustworthy to their target audience. If you look at the design decisions of some of the top brands today, you can see how this has led to timeless images that resonate with customers, which makes them successful. With all the decision making that goes into successful design, there are several things that are common mistakes and oversights, some more so than others, but nonetheless errors that are easy to prevent. We call these deadly sins of graphic design. 

    Deadly Sin #1: Using the Wrong Fonts/Too Many Fonts

    The world of fonts is overloaded. The availability of typefaces is incredibly saturated and the opportunities seem to be endless in both print and web applications. However, for as many great fonts that are available, there are just as many mediocre (and even terrible) fonts.


    Every time a designer sees a business using Papyrus as their corporate font, we guarantee they want to scream. It is important that the typefaces you choose are professional-looking and have the right feel for the brand’s personality, mission and voice. Those typefaces were carefully crafted and designed to read exceptionally well in a variety of sizes and styles of typography, such as headlines, paragraph copy and captions.

    On that note, just because there are plenty of great typefaces out there, doesn’t mean you need to overdo it either. Using too many typefaces is also a major misstep and it causes confusion and cluttering within the brand image. Ideally, a good rule of thumb is to stick to one or two fonts, maybe a third for accent or decorative purposes. You can still use different weights of each typeface for a variety and hierarchical purposes. Also, be mindful that the typeface you’re using isn’t overused. Helvetica, while a very well-designed typeface is used by a lot of brands and there are other great options available. In order to stand out as different yet professional, you need to find those differentiators.

    Deadly Sin #2: Typography Mistakes, Kerning, Leading and Widows

    Many folks don’t give a second thought to the space between letterforms but it makes a big difference. The proper kerning, the space between individual characters, helps with legibility and clarity for messaging. This is just as crucial and required for large headlines or brand identity creation as it would be for paragraph text, which the right typeface should naturally read well as large blocks of copy. See some examples of how bad kerning and even improper typeface selection can give a wrong message for the legibility of a brand name.

    Proper leading between lines of text can also cause legibility and content separation issues. The right amount of space between chunks of content helps create clear divisions from one section to another and can help establish stronger hierarchy.
    One of the other items that is a major design pet peeve is a widow or an orphan. These are simply a single word that’s left all alone at the very end of a paragraph or worse, that carries over to the next page. These cause a harsh stop to the content and it just looks unprofessional. Typically a simple adjustment of tracking (Kerning that is applied universally to a paragraph rather than individual letters) can help solve this situation. Unfortunately though, we still see windows/orphans more than we should. One thing to note, this is something we cannot control on the web due to responsive design and the way the viewports sizes change (i.e. mobile verses desktop.) (And you’re welcome, now that you too appreciate this pet peeve you will never unsee it!) 

    Lastly with the above, be considerate of the width of paragraph blocks. Optimal line length for body copy is 50-60 characters per line, including spaces. However, 75-80 characters is acceptable, but that’s the absolute maximum. When paragraphs are too wide, a reader’s eye will struggle focusing on the text because the line length makes it difficult to gauge where a line starts and ends. Furthermore, it’s tough to continue on to the next line. When text blocks are too short, the eye travels back and forth too much, breaking a reader’s rhythm. Also, narrow text blocks will often break oddly and and cause a ragged edge and a higher potential for widows.

    Deadly Sin #3: Imagery Faux Pas

    How often have you seen an image in print or even a digital experience that was grainy and pixelated? Not using the proper resolution often leads to this unprofessional appearance. Generally, 300 dpi (dots per inch) for print and 72 ppi (points per inch) for digital is a great resolution target. However, with super high-definition screens, images at an even higher ppi for digital is often recommended.
    If low resolution images weren’t bad enough it gets even worse with terrible image choices. We can’t say enough how entirely tiresome it is to see the generic handshake stock image to represent “Customer Service” or the multi-ethnic group of people pointing at a blank computer screen saying “Business Success.” People always respond stronger to genuine photography that is unstaged and feels natural. When at all possible, we suggest using custom photography over stock. However, we know that’s not always possible, so we advise clients to at least try to use stock that isn’t already overused in their industry. 

    Deadly Sin #4: Color Misuse

    For the best user experience, strong contrast is essential for the message to read quickly and effectively. This is even more essential for accessibility with viewers who face vision disabilities. Just because green and red are your favorite colors doesn’t mean they work well together. Due to their share of a very similar value, they usually clash when placed on top of one another. Always consider the dark/light value contrast when placing text over a background. Dark text over a light background and light text over a dark background are the two recommended approaches.


    Deadly Sin #5: Lack of Hierarchy and Saying Too Much

    Knowing what to look at first is an important aspect to a successful design. It gets the messaging across strongly and quickly. The remaining portions of the layout should follow a hierarchical structure that eventually leads a user to a conclusion or ending point. A lot of time that end point or “call to action” visually stands out too, in case the viewer wants to skip over all the supporting content and get to the point.

    Usually a lack of hierarchy causes a lot of this confusion as a common issue that occurs with design is trying to say too much. The saying “less is more” goes a long way with design. There should be one main message that drives users to a solitary goal. However, secondary messaging and goals are certainly acceptable as long as they’re properly balanced with primary messaging.

    Deadly Sin #6: Brand Consistency

    Sometimes professional organizations do not stick true to their own brands. Not following one’s brand standards leaves an inconsistent look and feel, which can become confusing to the audience. A few years ago, a client we assisted with unifying their visual identity, at one point had nearly two dozen different logos they used over the years, yet were still in rotation for marketing purposes. As a solution, we developed a sole logo family the client could use that still gave them flexibility in various media. Then we provided them with documentation that gave clear direction on how to use it so history did not repeat itself! 

    New Habits

    While some of these sins seem quite obvious to a trained designer, many of them are easily overlooked by someone not fluent in visual communication. This precise attention to detail is a fine craft in the field of graphic design and why we take such time and care with our work. It is with that fine precision that a company’s brand can maintain a professional appearance to its audience for a timeless experience.
    Do you have design bad habits to break? Our Design team can help you clean up and move forward, give ‘em a call

    To hear the thoughts on these sins from two designers directly, listen to our thunder::cast "Episode 109 - Creative Faux Pas: Creative Crimes You Shouldn’t Commit." 
    About the author::Joe Cola, who sadly has no connection to the world famous brand, Coca-Cola, is the Art Director at thunder::tech. When he isn't designing, Joe loves going to the zoo or the metroparks. He also considers himself a "dinosaur expert."
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