February 4, 2017

Though this post is geared toward traditional graphic designers, when I say “designer,” I really mean virtually any kind of creative—particularly those who do commercial design of some kind. Whether you’re a web designer, UI/UX designer, interior designer, copy writer, or any other kind of creative-for-hire: this is my list of recommendations for you.

(These, and of course, to wear sunscreen, because the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.)

1. Embrace Public Speaking

If you’re doing any kind of creative work for hire, it’s not going to be too long before you need to do a presentation of some kind. And in many cases,the importance of effectively selling your work rivals the importance of the work itself.

If you’re an introvert and this sounds like your nightmare, don’t panic. This doesn’t need to be a TED talk. I’m not talking about a stage or a room full of people. You might not even need a screen or slides or a microphone.

I’m only talking about maybe 3–12 people at a time, because you should absolutely get comfortable speaking and presenting in front the kind of groups you’ll be talking to professionally as your clients.

(You know what’s really good for developing that skill? See #4.)

Knowing how to present your work is an art in and of itself, and there are entire posts devoted to the specifics. I won’t go into that here, but if you could use a brush-up, I highly recommend this article. (I reread it before every presentation.) But no matter what, I encourage you to practice showing people things you created and talking about them.

In particular, talk about the why of your work: what decisions were made and for what purpose? What had to be left out or sacrificed? And how do all of these decisions reinforce the project goal—i.e., the reason you’re doing the work in the first place?

[Speaking] may not ever be completely comfortable for you, and that’s ok. But you do need to be able to address people at least somewhat fearlessly in order to do your work justice (and to defend it from overzealous clients with uninformed opinions).

If this is a big hurdle for you, again: don’t panic. Start small. Talk to a couple of friends at first and build from there. You don’t need to be a motivational speaker, and you don’t ever need to get on a stage. It may not ever be completely comfortable for you, and that’s ok. But you do need to be able to address people at least somewhat fearlessly in order to do your work justice (and to defend it from overzealous clients with uninformed opinions).

Now you might say, “I hate speaking in front of people; I don’t want a job where I have to do that.” And that’s possible. As a creative, you may get a job where you’re relegated to a team of silent, unseen project laborers sending your work on up the pipeline of some agency to be presented by somebody above you. But there are three reasons you should still embrace public speaking, even in this case:

  1. Because one of the most important skills you can have to get noticed and promoted is the ability to address people (and you will likely want to advance at some point);
  2. Because if you ever decide you don’t like the job you have (and you likely will in this scenario), you’re going to have to interview, and that almost certainly involves presentations and speaking of some kind;
  3. A dislike of something is not a valid reason to forego a vital skill any more than a dislike of vegetables is a valid reason to eat a hamburger for every meal.

2. Put Down Your Phone and Notice the Ordinary

I’m as guilty as most anybody of pulling my phone out of my pocket any time I have more than about 5–10 seconds available for free thought (sometimes less). This behavior is often encouraged in creatives; we desperately need to be constantly seeking out inspiration online, it seems. We can’t possibly consider ourselves modern, tasteful designers if we’ve missed out on the latest thing, can we?

But there’s vast world of design learning and opportunity right in front of us constantly. All we need to do is take the time to notice it and learn from it.

When you’re waiting for your order in a restaurant, for example, rather than seek out distraction, look around you. Read the menu. How is it designed? Does it communicate clearly, or do you find that you have questions after reading it? Is there adequate spacing? Is it readable? How are the items categorized? How are things grouped and indicated?

There’s vast world of design learning and opportunity right in front of us constantly. All we need to do is take the time to notice it and learn from it.

Is the menu laminated? In a menu holder? Is it made to last or does it seem like it will be soon discarded?

And most importantly: after all of the above questions, follow up with, why? Who do you think made these decisions, and what were their reasons for doing so?

If at all possible, ask these questions and have the ensuing conversation with somebody else. Their perspective may be different than yours, and that will be invaluable.

Speaking of people: take the time to notice those around you. How are they reacting to the space, the menu, the lighting, and the environment in general? Are things going smoothly, or are some folks having difficulties? Why?

Deconstructing design—trying to understand the decisions somebody else made and why—is some of the best practice you can get in becoming a better designer yourself. This is especially true where a little empathy can be mixed in, and empathy comes from understanding.

It’s all too easy to forget that everybody is working within their own set of specific limitations…and just because the end result of their struggle won’t win any design awards doesn’t mean they didn’t come up with an excellent solution to the original problem.

A design that you think is ugly may actually be highly functional, perfect for its target audience, or the best possible result of working within the provided constraints. (This is why I hate projects to redesign somebody else’s logo). It’s all too easy to forget that everybody is working within their own set of specific limitations—budgets, timelines, tools, client feedback, etc.—and just because the end result of their struggle won’t win any design awards doesn’t mean they didn’t come up with an excellent solution to the original problem.

Another example a colleague of mine pointed out to me is cars, and particularly, tail lights. It’s easy to pull out your smartphone in the car (as long as you’re not driving, hopefully) and seek out immediate distraction. But look around you. Observe the design of the vehicles. Ask: why are the tail lights where they are? Why is the vehicle shaped that way?How many bulbs are in the lights on the car, and why? Are the lights small or large? Why?

And while you’re at it: why do certain intersections have stop lights while others that would seem to benefit from their presence don’t? Why are certain stop lights different than others? Where are the street signs posted? Are they obvious? Readable? Why do they look different from place to place? Why do certain lanes end where they do? Why is there a roundabout in this place and an intersection at another?

Look at the signage on buildings. Look at billboards. Look at shop window signage. Try to see through the design to the reasons behind it.

Asking these questions is important. Look up. There’s a gold mine of design knowledge hidden in the everyday aspects of the real world.

3. Immerse Yourself in the Lives of People Who Aren’t Like You

We, as designers, tend to think everybody likes—and is therefore persuaded, delighted and enriched by—beautiful graphics of the most modern and whimsical variety.

Separate yourself from this misconception as early as possible.

Sure, nobody likes ugliness, and it’s generally apparent when design is out-of-date or cumbersome. That much is inarguable. But there’s often a wide gap between what the designer thinks their target audience is like, and what that audience is actually like as humans.

The heart of design is empathy.Whatever kind of design work you’re doing, at its core, you’re trying to solve a problem for somebody. Their problem is now your problem. So understanding that person, on a deep and personal level, is parallel to understanding the problem itself.

Much has already been written on how designers tend to design for other designers. The approval of our clients and happiness of our users tends to mean less to us than the admiration of other professionals. Dribbble and the homogeny it creates is often brought up in this discussion.

I’ll leave that to other posts and just say this: the heart of design is empathy. Whatever kind of design work you’re doing, at its core, you’re trying to solve a problem for somebody. Their problem is now your problem. So understanding that person, on a deep and personal level, is parallel to understanding the problem itself.

In other words: to design is to understand. So get out of your bubble.

Make it a habit of reading books (or at the very least, Medium posts) by people who aren’t like you; whose experience in life has been substantially different than yours. (Gender, color and socio-economic background are great places to start.)

Listen to NPR on your commute. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in my car long after arriving at my destination to finish a story on The Moth Radio Hour or an interview on Fresh Air, and come away from that experience with a fresh perspective on life that I never would have considered before.

To design is to understand. So get out of your bubble. …The wider your horizon, the more effectively you can solve problems for real people in the real world.

Get some legitimate news in your life (the key word here being “legitimate;” real news, not partisan or sensationalized). Watch documentaries, or at the very least, movies and TV shows where the characters don’t look like you or live a life similar to yours (or the one you want). It’s better than nothing.

Chat up strangers, even, if you’re so daring. Talk to your barista or your server or postal worker about their day, their general life. Follow people different than you on Twitter.

The wider your horizon, the more effectively you can solve problems for real people in the real world.

4. Work in the Service Industry

I worked as a server and bartender most of my life prior to becoming a full-time designer. And as it turns out, this was excellent practice; I was routinely speaking to groups of people gathered around a table, just like when giving a design presentation. I had to speak, and I had to listen. I had to be persuasive, steer the conversation, keep people’s attention, and occasionally, to relay news that the recipient wasn’t keen to hear.

Just out of school, when I was working for my first full-time design job for a small branding agency, the time came for me to give my first presentation. Afterward, the creative director complimented my presentational skills, saying “I’ve never seen somebody just out of school present as well as you do.”

Well, I thought, I’ve been presenting things to tables of people since I was 16.

This is also a great way to expand your perspective, by the way. If you’ve never worked in customer service, trust me; your imagination of it is nothing like the reality. (Oh, hey! That sounds like point #3. How convenient!)

Commercial design isn’t exactly customer service, but it isn’t too far removed. You’ll still have people shopping for your goods, and you’ll still need to communicate clearly with them and make sure they’re happy at the end of the transaction. If the real thing isn’t an option yet, there’s no better place to practice your soft skills than in service.

5. Socialize

This might sounds like #3, but for this one, I’m opening it up to everyone.

Even people who have lots in common with you can open your mind to new ways of thinking and show you things you didn’t know before. Your colleagues can introduce you to new tools, skills, shortcuts and other important things you may not have known about.

Sooner or later, it’s not about the book anymore; it’s about the person doing the actual work.

Soft skills are often underrated in design, and that’s why I’m throwing this seemingly redundant item in at the end of the list.

To be frank: your portfolio itself, no matter how good it is, can only get you so far. Sooner or later, it’s not about the book anymore; it’s about the person doing the actual work (you), and how it is to have that person in the room every single day, coming to standups, reporting on progress, dealing with deadlines, attending and possibly even running client meetings.

School may not do a lot to prepare you for that, so putting yourself in social situations can be a great way to boost your soft skills. In your career, you’ll always be meeting new clients, interviewing with new people, and communicating. Take the opportunity to hone those skills regularly and it will pay off in the long run. I promise.

June 24, 2016

What follows is a list of software, in some form, that I feel is useful, recommendable or indispensable when developing WordPress sites.

Some of these apps, resources and tools aren’t directly WordPress-related, or even necessarily development-related; some have to do with productivity or just make life a little easier. That’s by design. Part of being a developer is learning to work and use your tools as efficiently and with as little wasted time and mental energy as possible.

This is a list of the things that help me toward that goal. If you handed me a brand new MacBook and told me to get to work on building your WordPress site, everything on this list would most likely be in my dock, browser history and/or plugins list by the end of the day.

Dropbox Logo

Dropbox

dropbox.com | Up to 2 GB free; 1 TB $9.99 per month.

You’re going to need somewhere to store your files, and Dropbox syncs beautifully with all your devices. You can also set up synced folders, so that anything you save in a particular folder on your machine is available on any machine, thus creating both a local and cloud copy. It can also automatically save screenshots, upload pics from your smartphone’s camera for safe storage, and send/receive client files easily.

LastPass logo

LastPass/1Password

lastpass.com | free to start; $12 per year
1password.com | $5 per month for families or $64.99 one-time fee for a single user

I don’t have a strong preference between the two, but there’s no excuse for not using a password manager in this day and age. Odds are good you’ll have at least two usernames and passwords to remember for every single site you work on—maybe more—and repeating the same one or making it easy to type and remember is an awful idea when you’re using the world’s most popular CMS. Saving brain power is making your life better and your workflow more efficient. And besides, these are extremely affordable apps; LastPass is only $12 per year. Make like Nike and just do it.

Visual Studio Code

code.visualstudio.com | Free

Honestly, it doesn’t matter all that much which text editor you use, as long as you know how to use it well. But I love VS Code because it just works.

I used to be on the Sublime Text bandwagon, and I won’t deny that Sublime runs slightly faster in some cases. But unlike Sublime, VS Code just works in the ways you want it to out of the box. Emmet comes pre-installed, as does git. There’s also no package manager to install; extensions are native, and easily available. VS Code comes pre-configured and you can customize from there in some amazing ways.

I highly recommend the following extensions, but you can mix and match your own as well (and by the way, this list used to be several entries longer; VS Code just automatically handles a lot of the things I was installing packages for in Sublime Text):

GenerateWP.com

generatewp.com | Free unlimited basic generators; premium starts at $7 per month

There’s a ton of PHP to remember in WordPress, the difficulty of which is compounded by the fact that many of the functions WordPress provides us are either confusingly or extremely similarly named. (Somehow wp_enqueue_script and wp_enqueue_scripts are totally different things.)

GenerateWP does the work for you in generating blocks of code. You just fill out some fields telling the site what you’re after and it will spit out the code for you to copy and paste in the appropriate PHP file. Everything from custom WP_Query loops to defining custom post types and much, much more can now be handled by checking some boxes and filling out a few fields instead of peering through the WordPress Codex trying to remember the difference between get_header() and wp_head().

Local by Flywheel

local.getflywheel.com | Free; paid pro version upcoming

Developing locally is always preferable to developing on a live server, for lots of reasons that I won’t go into here. There are a lot of programs and processes available for that; I used to use MAMP to make that possible. But ever since its release, Local has blown the other tools out of the water in my mind. It’s a phenomenal tool for WordPress development, allowing you to spin up and run sites locally. It also couples with CodeKit (below), which makes it even more awesome. Cowboy-coding—i.e., altering the code on a live site—is a bad habit; break it with Local (and save yourself a lot of FTP upload/download time in the process).

The most amazing thing about Local, though: you can actually give a link to your local development site to your client, and as long as Local is running on your machine—no matter where they are—they can see the site. That’s a total game-changer.

Quick disclaimer: I do work for Flywheel, but I’d be writing this even if I didn’t. With MAMP, I had to actually download WordPress, spin up a database, configure and run the install manually. Local does all of that automatically with a click of a button. (Plus the links thing above.)

CodeKit logo

CodeKit

incident57.com/codekit | Free limited trial; one-time $32 licensing fee

It’s very hard to explain what CodeKit does in a way that makes it sound as indispensable as it actually is. Maybe that’s just because it has so many features it’s easy to drown the message. But even if you don’t use it for anything else, it’s capable of auto-refreshing the site you’re working on every time you save your code, seamlessly compiling your SASS files every time you save them, checking files for errors and allowing you to watch your site on multiple devices at the same time. (Yes—you can browse the site on your desktop and watch the exact same interactions happen on your smartphone at the same time, and vice versa!)

That alone, to me, is well worth the low $32 price tag, but that’s really only scratching the surface. It can grab external libraries for you, plus concatenate and minify your files so you’re ready to go to production with a lean, efficient set of CSS and JS files, and so much more. I promise you that if you give CodeKit a real shot, it will become an indispensable part of your workflow.

Advanced Custom Fields PRO logo

Advanced Custom Fields (PRO)

advancedcustomfields.com | Basic version free; PRO $25 per site or $100 lifetime

There may be no better way to spend $100 in the WordPress development world than on a developer license for ACF. It’s quite possibly my favorite plugin of all.

Sure, the free version of the plugin is still amazing, but its most lacking exemption is the repeater field. You won’t be developing sites for too long before you run up against a client variable: a situation in which you’re not exactly sure how many fields they might need. And allowing the client to account for that contingency on their own is well worth $100 in saved headaches. But even if a Benjamin is enough to make you balk, ACF has a wonderfully user-friendly pricing structure: you can buy a single-site license for $25 instead, and have that $25 apply to your $100 purchase later if you decide you’re ready for the developer license.

Aside from that though, ACF is perhaps the single most important piece of making WordPress sites ready for any client to use. Most clients can’t (and shouldn’t) be trusted with the full WordPress editor window, particularly where layout and media may vary. ACF allows you to build a fluid, automatic machine that takes care of all of that for you and your client when they simply fill out the fields and checking the boxes you’ve provided.

In short, ACF makes the experience of using the WordPress site you’ve built for them less like trying to cobble a page design together in a word processor, and more like using an elegant custom app constructed exclusively for the user. (And it has the bonus effect of preventing the client from screwing things up too badly, too.)

Google Chrome browser logo

Google Chrome

google.com/chrome/browser | Free

Your choice of browser is less and less relevant these days, but Chrome is still the industry standard for both its robust dev tools and the ability to add extensions to make your development life easier. I personally am a huge fan of:

GitHub Desktop

desktop.github.com | Free

I like version control and having a repository of my code changes, but I really dislike using git from the command line. GitHub Desktop is a nice, app that gives you a more straightforward (for git, at least) experience with updating your code and pushing/pulling from GitHub.

Git and version control can be a bit intimidating, but GitHub Desktop does a nice job of abstracting the fear about as much as possible and making it simple.

Transmit FTP client logo

Transmit

panic.com/transmit | Limited free trial; $34 one-time licensing fee

If I’m being honest here, I couldn’t give you much of an elevator speech on why Transmit is that much better than its free alternatives like Cyberduck or FileZilla. A little more polish and maybe a better user interface, but we’re still talking about moving FTP files around here, so there isn’t a whole lot of room for distinction.

Still, Transmit is the industry gold standard in FTP clients, so there must be some reason for that (and the $34 price tag). I guess I just haven’t used other FTP clients enough to really know the difference, so if you’re into cutting cost, this might be a good place.

Alfred app logo

Alfred

alfredapp.com | Free; Powerpack for extended functionality £17.00

Alfred is Mac software that doesn’t have anything directly to do with development, really; it’s just an incredibly handy little piece of software that can do lots of things to make your life in OSX just a little easier.

The “spotlight” feature (see what I did there?) is that Alfred can search for and open files and folders for you with a very quick and efficient search, so you don’t need to waste time digging through files structures or trying to remember where you put a particular document. You can configure this search to be very specific and to include/exclude whatever you like. Plus it does math, opens programs, defines words, runs system commands, opens browsers, and can be configured to do powerful things like keep clipboard history, run workflows, expand snippets and even open Terminal to run commands there.

It’s one of those tools that you won’t realize you ever wanted until you try it and realize you can’t live without it anymore. In fact, there’s a very good chance it would be the very first thing I installed on a new computer.

Spectacle app logo

Spectacle

spectacleapp.com | Free (open source; donations accepted)

Even if you’re good at using workspaces and key commands, you probably spend more time than you realize in your day moving windows around your desktop: get the browser out of the way to use FTP, change the Finder window to be smaller so you can drag something from it to another window (which you also had to move), set the browser back to fullscreen, then move it again so you can see the desktop and open another window to copy some text before moving that window back out of the way—

Sound familiar?

Spectacle is a delightfully simple little app that allows you to assign keyboard shortcuts to resize and move windows for you. No more dragging; just hit the command you’ve defined and poof—your window is now on the left half of the screen. Or the upper-right quarter. Or the lower third. Or on the next workspace. Or fullscreen. Hit the shortcut again to put it back, if you need to.

Gallons of wasted time and effort are accumulated a drip at a time. Spectacle is one of those apps that helps stop the drip.

Tiny PNG Logo

TinyPNG

tinypng.com | Free unlimited use
wordpress.org/plugins/tiny-compress-images | Free for first 500 compressions per month; extra start at 9¢ per compression

Amazingly, I just learned that TinyPNG is not only a website where you can compress the fatty megabytes out of your image files for free (often at gigantic reductions in both size and page loading time); it’s also a WordPress plugin! Install it and follow the steps in the plugin settings to get set up with an API key you can use to compress either new uploaded images, existing images, or both.

Like every compression plugin that I’ve found, at a certain threshold, TinyPNG does start charging by the image. That threshold in this case is 500 images per month, which may sound like a lot, but remember that every image file you upload to WordPress may get converted to any number of differently sized individual files, depending on your media settings. So one image upload may mean many compressions, and they can go fast.

The good news, though, is that the overage fee is 9¢ per image (which, again can stack up), although you don’t necessarily have to input a payment method to use the plugin, which will just cap you at your allotted 500 compressions until the next month. Neato!

Of course, if cost and limits are a factor, you can always manually drop your images into TinyPNG.com before uploading them to WordPress as much as you like for free.

ClipMenu Mac app logo

ClipMenu

clipmenu.com | Free

[EDIT: While ClipMenu is still a wonderful tool, Alfred includes clipboard history as well, in case you’re an app minimalist like me. I’ve switched to Alfred for this particular functionality, but left this here in case you like the idea of keeping clipboard history but don’t need everything Alfred offers.]

You might not find this as handy as I do, but how many times have you copied something, and before you can paste it where it needs to go, accidentally copied something else?

Or how about this: how many times have you gone through the tedious process of changing back and forth between windows copying and pasting one thing at a time into place?

ClipMenu stores a history of your clipboard so that you can paste from dozens of the last things you’ve copied. No more going back and forth or accidentally copying something new, and no more worrying that you accidentally got rid of something you meant to keep on your clipboard. ClipMenu can be configured to store anywhere from a small number to dozens and dozens of the things you’ve hit command + c on.

Wunderlist app logo

Wunderlist

wunderlist.com | Free for basic use; Pro $4.99 per month

It doesn’t take very long in development before you’re trying to keep track of lots and lots of tasks that need to get done. You might have a project manager who’s monitoring all of that for you, and they might be doing so through an app like Asana or Trello. That’s cool. But you also have personal to-dos, and shopping lists, and ideas to remember, and so on. That’s where Wunderlist is great.

Wunderlist is really just a simple list-making app, and that’s about it. But its elegance is in its simplicity and its ability to seamlessly permeate your life where needed and slide away into the background until then.

It’s a desktop app, a smartphone app and a browser extension, so you can make lists, add to them and check items off from anywhere and have the changes sync everywhere. Plus, you can set due dates and reminders for individual tasks, and you can share lists with other users. If you’re at all like me, you’ll see your productivity and reliability jump when you start making lists in Wunderlist.

And, of course, there’s that whole conserving mental energy thing I’m a big fan of.

WordPress.com plus Jetpack logos

Calypso/Jetpack

developer.wordpress.com/calypso | Free
jetpack.com | Free; premium add-ons starting at $99 per year

You might know it as Calypso, the new WordPress.com, the WordPress.com app, Jetpack, or maybe even something else, but the (amazing) combination is just the same: manage all your WordPress sites together, in one tool, for free.

Let’s backtrack: in 2016, WordPress.com announced an all-new dashboard interface, codenamed “Calypso.” This new, elegantly simple JavaScript-based app could be used to manage the main features of all of a user’s WordPress.com sites—posts, plugins, themes, etc. This was fantastic news for owners of sites hosted on WordPress.com, but for the rest of the world, self-hosting their own WordPress sites, Automattic (the company behind WordPress, run by WordPress co-creator Matt Mullenweg) offered a way to connect as well: through their already mega-popular plugin, Jetpack.

Managing plugins with Jetpack, using auto update

So in short, Calypso—AKA the WordPress.com app—allows you to connect all your sites together to manage them in one simple dashboard. To do this, you’ll just need to sign up for a free account on WordPress.com, if you don’t have one already (and odds are good if you’ve been using WordPress for any length of time that you already do). Then you just install the Jetpack plugin (which has many of its own excellent features already, including a mini image CDN) and enter your WordPress.com credentials.

You’ll have access to one app dashboard to manage all your sites. The major key feature for me: you can update plugins and themes remotely, so you don’t have to sign in to each site individually. On its own, that’s fantastic, but the icing on the cake is: you can even set plugins and themes to update automatically. (Or should I say: automattically?) It’s a beautiful thing, and we haven’t even scratched the surface of all the other cool things Jetpack can do on its own.

CodePen.io logo

CodePen

codepen.io | Free; Pro starts at $9 / month

It may seem completely unrelated, but I can’t tell you how handy it is to have an open playground for HTML, CSS and JS available at your fingertips at any time. I’ve learned lots of tricks, skills and shortcuts from trying things out in CodePen or looking at other users’ code to see how they built their neat-o creation. It’s also handy, when in lack of another solution, as a JavaScript linter and a debugging tool, or as a place to save code snippets for work or demo later. But more than anything, it’s a sandbox. And you can learn a lot by building things in it.

Affinity Photo logo

Affinity Photo

affinity.serif.com/photo | Free trial; $49.99 one-time fee

Photoshop also works, if you have access to it. So do the wide range of free or cheap Photoshop replacements. But at some point when you’re doing development work, you’re going to need to crop, scale or alter an image, so you’ll need some kind of photo manipulation software for that. I chose Affinity Photo as my recommendation because next to Photoshop (the general industry standard) it’s comparably robust but at a shrinking fraction of the price: at $49.99, Affinity Photo will cost you once what a Creative Cloud subscription will cost you every single month.

It may not quite have all the features of Photoshop (though it’s pretty close) or be quite the photo editing ninja that Lightroom is (though it’s no slouch), but to replace the two apps together for a comparably low price tag, I feel the tradeoff is more than worth it.

Elegant Themes logo

A Great Premium Theme

(If you’re not developing your own, anyway.)

Let me get this out of the way right away: many premium themes are bloated and inefficient, at best. Ideally, you’re building a custom theme for each client. But the world of ideals and the world of client work only have so much overlap.

Obviously building a client something personalized from the ground up is the ideal goal. It will likely run faster and almost certainly be more idealized for their purposes—those two go hand-in-hand. But ideal goals often conflict with the reality of deadlines and budgets, and in that situation, you need a lot of power that you know how to wield quickly and efficiently. That’s where a robust premium theme comes into play. Much like a framework, a great premium theme will allow you to get up and running in record time.

Personally, I’m a big fan of Divi by Elegant Themes (though I should mention it requires a vigilant eye, as it updates frequently and vulnerabilities have been discovered in older versions). But there are lots of other premium themes out there—Genesis, X, and many more—that will give you all the tools you need to get a site working quickly and easily.

On projects with lean budgets, I often implement custom developed pages and templates where needed—usually for the crucial and unique areas of a site—and then (with a child theme, of course), use a premium theme’s built-in tools to quickly assemble lesser static pages and content that don’t need any custom fields, one-off template files or other special treatment.

In short: when you need to build quickly and on a budget, you need a framework to reach for. Maybe that’s in theme form; maybe not. But having one that you know handy is essential for client work.

Flywheel logo

Flywheel

getflywheel.com | Single-site subscriptions start at $15 per month; bulk subscriptions (10+ sites) start at $100 per month.

Full disclosure: I work for Flywheel. But I still wouldn’t have another host even if I had the choice. The collaboration and client handoff tools are top-notch, the dashboard features (like a development mode, logs access, staging sites, cloned sites and others) are amazingly handy, and the performance is solid. Plus there are no headaches with things like keeping backups or restoring; it’s all handled. The support’s not too shabby, either. 😉

Other plugins:

Just a few of the modestly handy plugins I find myself using frequently:

That’s it! I hope you’ve found something useful here. Happy developing, WordPressers.

February 21, 2016

I recently had the privilege of attending Meet the Pros 2016 and addressing multiple small design student groups in roundtable discussions focused on the question: what do you wish you would have known about being a professional while you were still a design student?

I was at Meet the Pros myself two years ago, and it was a seminal experience in my professional path. I still flip through the small notebook in which I keep notes, quotes and advice that I wrote down during that two-day conference. And while I’m technically not a full-time graphic design professional anymore (I still freelance, but my focus is more diverse), it still got me thinking: what have I learned in the past two years? What would I have benefitted from knowing as my two-years-younger self?

Here’s what I answered, and what I told the design students I spoke to last Tuesday. It was fun to think about and write for me; hopefully it’s helpful for you in some way as well.

Being a Great Person is Just as Important as Having a Great Portfolio

I’ve written about this topic before, but I feel it bears repeating: we’re reminded constantly as design students that the goal of everything we’re doing is to come out of our program with an amazing portfolio. That portfolio, of course, will (hopefully) get us a job. And we have the message drilled into our heads on an almost daily basis: a bad portfolio can cost you a job that you might have otherwise gotten.

But not enough attention is paid to the other side of that coin, in my opinion. An important message gets lost in all the talk of a perfect book full of perfect projects: when it all comes down to it, an employer can’t hire your portfolio; they have to hire you. And you can cost your portfolio a job it might have otherwise gotten.

When it all comes down to it, an employer can’t hire your portfolio; they have to hire you. And you can cost your portfolio a job it might have otherwise gotten.

I was in a Q&A session recently with Dusty Davidson, one of the founders and owners of Flywheel, in which somebody asked him: what should companies be looking for in a potential employee?

If you’re not familiar with Flywheel, it’s an enviable place to work. (Full disclosure: Flywheel is my current employer, but this is far from a subjective stance; Flywheel recently won two Silicon Prairie Awards for Best Culture and Startup of the Year, respectively). They’re a respected company with a phenomenal culture and a highly successful product, built on a firm belief in design.

So one might have expected Dusty’s answer to follow along those lines professionally and to sound like a checklist of résumé items. But in a somewhat unorthodox and casually practical manner, he answered with the following three almost entirely non-résumé- and non-portfolio-related items:

Frankly, I wish I’d been given that list two years ago. I wish somebody had told me that my portfolio wasn’t the only way I could stand out, and indeed, wasn’t the only way I should stand out. That my portfolio wasn’t the one getting hired; I was.

There’s a phenomenal quote that I heard from Marty Amsler of Bailey Lauerman when I was at Meet the Pros: “A good portfolio gets you an interview; a good attitude gets you a job.”

Being the right person is usually at least as important as having the right portfolio. So while you’re working on your book, don’t forget to work on yourself, too. Be impressive. Be passionate. Be somebody other people want to be around.

Your Worst Instructor is Still Better Than Any Bad Client

Let’s be real: we all have instructors we didn’t like in school. And while sometimes that may have been for good reason, if we’re honest with ourselves, a lot of the time it’s because we didn’t like their feedback. But whenever I hear students speak derisively of an instructor (which, it should go without saying, is something you should absolutely never do in any remotely professional setting), I feel compelled to let them know how good they have it right now:

Besides the above, speaking poorly of anyone is a surefire way to throw a giant red flag in the professional world. So just don’t do it.

Instead, realize that your instructors are there to help you succeed. Besides, accepting and acquiescing to feedback you might not agree with is excellent practice for being a professional…

You’re Going to Need Thick Skin (and Zero Pride)

As noted above, real-world clients make all kinds of decisions for all kinds of reasons, many of which are irrational and likely to be against your professional advice. They will tear down your work, give you exactly the opposite of what you need, focus on the wrong things and hold with an unyielding death grip to their preconceived and baseless notions of what the final product ought to look like.

Don’t despair; there is a lot you can do to quell this behavior. If you haven’t read 13 Ways Designers Screw Up Client Presentations by Mike Monteiro (my design hero), you must do so before you ever give a professional presentation. Seriously; bookmark that link right now. Or just go read it instead of finishing this post. It’s fine. That article is much better than this one anyway.

But no matter how good your research, process, rationale and work are, sometimes the client will still be wrong. Sometimes they won’t be able to differentiate between something that they personally like and something that will be effective for their goals. Sometimes they will make the wrong decision even when you find the most superlatively diplomatic and persuasive ways to inform them that they are wrong. And sometimes—sometimes—you have no option but to accept that you and your client simply have irreconcilable views of the project.

Ego is self-sabotage; professionals can sniff it out for the toxin it is, and it will poison every aspect of your relationship with your clients.

There seems to be a bit of elitism that gets built into designers on their way through school. (Design is not unique in this way, of course; many creative fields seem to instill a certain haughtiness in their recruits.) But the sooner you can jettison this baggage, the better.

Ego does as much good for a designer as a 20-pound pair of boots does a swimmer. It will do nothing but hold you back, both with professionals and with clients. Ego is self-sabotage; professionals can sniff it out for the toxin it is, and it will poison every aspect of your relationship with your clients.

Ok, I may have gone overboard with the mixed metaphors. But the point is: ego is counterproductive at best and suicidal at worst. Take pride in your work, but don’t be prideful. Defend your work, but don’t be defensive.

Take pride in your work, but don’t be prideful. Defend your work, but don’t be defensive.

Like it or not, what we do—while grounded in many objective principles and disciplines—is still subjective. My view of green is different than yours and your feelings about this typeface are different than mine. Our experiences lead us to different conclusions about what we see. It’s nobody’s fault. Keep the end goal and target audience in mind (your client probably isn’t at this point) and just move on.

Only Do the Work If You Care (and Don’t Care About the Money)

It’s pretty fashionable—downright cliché, actually—to advise people to follow their passions these days (particularly in blog posts). Sure, I’d give that advice to anyone, but this is about more than that. It’s about aligning yourself to the right people and the right goals because that’s what makes the work worthwhile.

Obviously, you probably won’t have the luxury of picking your employer or your clients right out of school. But when and if the opportunity comes along to choose between making more money or doing something you care more about, my advice is to take the second option every single time.

What you fail to realize as a poor design student is that money is a drug. And like any drug, its effect can only last so long. Then you realize that no amount of it actually changes the dismal situation you’re in.

Let me share a couple of examples from my personal experience:

When I was in school, I was lucky enough to land a gig doing regular contract work. I didn’t care about the work itself, but the money was great and the perks were fantastic. And I loved it…at first.

What you fail to realize as a poor design student is that money is a drug. And like any drug, its effect can only last so long. Then you realize that no amount of it actually changes the dismal situation you’re in.

There was a time when, if that employer who was handing me contract work would have offered to hire me on full time, I would have accepted the position with open arms. But when the buzz of good pay and free soda wore off, I realized I was working for people who didn’t share my values and doing work I didn’t care about to further goals I didn’t believe in.

I didn’t actually want to be where I was or doing what I was doing, and money was comically and tragically powerless to change that.

This advice comes with two very important caveats:

  1. This is not a license to be a lazy creative. You don’t always get to do things you care about when you feel like doing them. Do your work anyway.
  2. Success looks different to everyone, and you need to know in advance what it looks like for you. Maybe to you, success does equal a big paycheck. But for me personally, success has almost nothing to do with money (and I would argue it should be that way for any designer; this isn’t a career to take on if you want to retire wealthy).

I didn’t actually want to be where I was or doing what I was doing, and money was comically and tragically powerless to change that.

I wound up leaving that job for one that paid literally half as well and offered even fewer hours. In effect, I made the difficult decision to take a pay cut of greater than 50% at my next internship in order to work at a smaller shop where I respected the work and aligned with the values of the people.

And you know what? It was unequivocally the best decision I could have made. Sure, it was tough. But I was happier, I was doing better work, and because of that, it led to things my previous position never could have.

Some time later, motivated by some tight financial times, I made the opposite decision. I took on the best-paying freelance project I’d ever gotten even though I couldn’t actually get behind the values of the client. And as you may have guessed, I was abjectly miserable. There was a point in the middle of the dozens and dozens of hours of work that I had agreed to and that I couldn’t possibly outsource when I thought to myself, I would actually pay my contract to get out of doing this work right now.

Financial deficiency is an easier burden to carry than creative despair.

The thing is, the work itself wasn’t bad. In fact, it was the kind of work that, under most other circumstances, I might have been doing just for fun. But knowing that my time and efforts were being transformed into a vehicle for furthering goals I didn’t agree with for people whose values didn’t align to mine sucked any hope of enjoyment out of the project. It was supposed to be freedom; it became entrapment.

Design is hard enough work as it is. Don’t make it harder by shackling yourself to people and projects you don’t care about. It’s never worth it. Financial deficiency is an easier burden to carry than creative despair.

School Doesn’t Prepare You to Manage a Professional Workload

There’s little school can do—outside of becoming entirely unreasonable—to prepare a design student for the timeline and workload of a professional environment. In school, you can get away with taking a worse grade or turning in a project a little late or maybe even redoing a project entirely if it doesn’t go well. If you feel like playing video games instead of further perfecting your work, it’s fine. You have weeks to work on it anyway most likely, and you can always revise the project before it eventually goes into your portfolio. The deadline definitely won’t change. It’s possible nobody outside your class will ever see the project. And besides, nobody’s going to hire you based on your GPA anyway. (Trust me; nobody’s once asked me.)

In short, the price for failure in school is relatively low, and this is absolutely not the case in the professional world.

In short, the price for failure in school is relatively low, and this is absolutely not the case in the professional world.

Failure in school is a continuum; failure in the professional world is an absolute. There’s no bad grade and there are few revisions to be had; there are just unhappy clients, which can lead quickly to unemployment if the fault is yours.

The timeline is also often very different; as a professional, you may very well be working on a project that is due this afternoon when you just found out about it this morning. That project may have initially had a completely different timeline when the client suddenly decided they needed it right now. You will very likely be juggling any number of projects at once, and if you don’t feel like it or would rather trade in a little quality work for some quality time, you don’t often get that luxury.

Sometimes all your professional projects are out waiting on client feedback and you have nothing but free time. Sometimes you get all of those projects back in the same day and have to find a way to complete them all. School can only do so much to teach you to manage your downtime responsibly in order to be prepared when timelines shift and work comes flooding in. Because of my own failure to learn this (a longstanding personal downfall), I never worked as hard as a design student as I was forced to work as a professional.

School can only do so much to teach you to manage your downtime responsibly in order to be prepared when timelines shift and work comes flooding in.

No, not all design jobs demand insane scheduling, but some do. Hopefully you won’t land at a self-serving agency where they treat their interns like batteries to be sucked of their energy and then discarded, but maybe you will for a while. Hopefully your clients stick to timelines and you can keep the flow of work smooth, but maybe not. Regardless, the kind of time management skills involved in maintaining that balance and still putting out quality work is a much more intense and focused version than school often demands.

It’s very important to practice good time management skills before you have to learn the hard way. Trust me; I’ve put in enough unhealthily late nights and torturously early mornings to know that it’s way better to learn it as a student before your poor habits bite your career in the ass.

Hopefully I haven’t scared you away from wanting to be a design professional. This post admittedly spent a lot of time dwelling on the negative, but if you avoid the pitfalls that I failed to sidestep, this can be a wondrously fulfilling career. Best of luck, design student.

September 4, 2015

Earlier this week, Google unveiled their new sans-serif identity, ditching the familiar serifs for which the company has been known since its inception for a cleaner, simpler look:

Google's new logo on its iconic homescreen.

Among the population in general, and particularly among designers, reviews have been mixed. Some herald this as a fresh new direction, perhaps the emblematic tech company boldly being unafraid to leave behind the conventions of the past to embrace the present and future. Others…well, others thought it might have been better.

That’s an understatement, really. Barely 48 hours had passed since the announcement when, with a cursory search of the word “Google” in Dribbble, I came upon pages and pages full of graphic designers posting their ideas for a “fixed” or “better” version of Google’s new logo. Here’s just a small glance at everything that was out there (believe me—there were hundreds more, and again, this was less than two days after the new identity system was announced):

Designers scrambling to "fix" Google's new logo Designers scrambling to "fix" Google's new logo

To say that this behavior was limited to Dribbble would be inaccurate. The announcement was made on Tuesday, and before the day was even over there were slews of articles, some thousands of words long, popping up all across the internet, many of which filled with righteous indignation over Google’s decision to go with something so supposedly unoriginal, plain, radically different, or just bad (in the opinion of the writer, of course).

Accusations cropped up. Some said Google had copied their new logo from an old Gymboree mark (as though two colorful sans-serif capital Gs ought to look unmistakably distinct):

Others accused Google of simple unoriginality (as though a few cherry-picked modern sans-serif logotypes wouldn’t look similar when they’re all shown side-by-side in black):

While still others thought it was just plain poor, like this typographer.

In the case of Google, I’d like to go on a small tangent and point out that Google is really playing their own game here. In terms of identity, their needs are radically different than pretty much any other company on Google Earth. They don’t really have competitors, at least not like most brands do. Sure, there’s Apple and Microsoft, but for the most part, Google has already won every game it’s playing. Google is the 800 lb. gorilla; it sits wherever it wants. It doesn’t need to worry much about being confused with, or looking worse than, any another company. Short of Google changing their logo to, say, a swastika, people aren’t going to stop using Google products. We’re still going to use google.com for searching (which everyone will still call “Googling,” even if it’s not technically accurate), we’ll still use our gmail accounts, we’ll still look to Google Maps any time we need directions somewhere, and on and on. Even the least plugged-in among us probably still has their life impacted by Google a dozen times a day.

Google’s problem wasn’t that they needed the greatest logo ever; their problem was that they needed a unifying identity system, and that problem has now been solved.

So in terms of branding, Google doesn’t really have to listen to anybody, least of all an upset designer on the internet.

But tangent aside, and not specific to Google: any time a new design comes out, there is bound to be discussion about whether or not that new design—pardon the pun—misses the mark. Sometimes this discussion will be heated. Sometimes it will even become such a cacophonous outcry that the brand behind the design decides it might be best to take a step back. (Gap, anyone? For the record: I don’t think it was as bad as everyone else did. So the aborted logo redesign was plain. What is Gap, exactly? Gap sells khakis and business-casual button-ups. If that’s not Helvetica in clothing form, I don’t know what is.)

I’m not necessarily saying Google’s new logo is the greatest thing ever (though that’s beside the point: Google’s problem wasn’t that they needed the greatest logo ever; their problem was that they needed a unifying identity system, and that problem has now been solved.) And I’m not saying all the feedback that emerged from the design community was unwarranted or inaccurate. That typographer above makes some reasonable points. Many designers did.

But the problem was, they made these points and registered these reactions instantaneously and without regard for what makes graphic design more than subjective window dressing: the how and the why.

Emotion vs. Thought

Graphic design is a tricky thing. It’s both art and science, subjective and objective. It’s part left-brained rationality and part right-brained creativity. It’s a merging of thought and emotion. And this is what makes reacting to graphic design such a careful balance of immediate reactions and delayed reactions.

When we present designs (and especially redesigns or entirely new names) to clients, we always tell them: register your immediate reactions, think about them and remember them. But don’t put too much weight on them and don’t let your immediate reaction kill an idea before it’s had a chance to grow on you, because—and this is important—the human brain is wired to reject things it isn’t accustomed to.

You know why movie sequels are so popular? Because people want things that are new, but they don’t like things that are unfamiliar. So it is with design; we say we want things to look fresh and new, but our brains really don’t like anything we’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with. It’s just part of human nature. That’s why we lash out at new logos and new identities; like it or not, no matter how consciously aware we are of it, there’s an animal part of our brain that screams out “I don’t like it!” like a toddler refusing to try a new food.

The human brain is wired to reject things it isn’t accustomed to. You know why movie sequels are so popular? Because people want things that are new, but they don’t like things that are unfamiliar.

But fortunately for our primitive brains, time changes perception. We all have things we didn’t like at first but grew to love as we came to understand them better. (For me, pretty much every one of my favorite albums is one that I didn’t like at all on first listen, while most of the albums I loved right off the bat I now find completely uninteresting.) Every time Pepsi changes their logo it seems like a radical shift for a little while, but before long, it looks weird when you spot the last version in the background of a movie.

We’ve all tried something we hated at first or met somebody we didn’t like at first impression, only to realize over time that either we were wrong, our perceptions were wrong, or we’ve actually changed. Design requires this type of delayed reaction. It requires you to live with it and get to know it on a deep level, not just a surface emotional reaction.

Emotion screams out at first impression. It’s irrational and unhesitant, but it’s fast. Thought takes time. It’s careful and logical, but it doesn’t happen quickly.

And that’s one reason why you shouldn’t be writing scathing blog posts about new logo designs or remaking them to “fix” them within the first hours of their existence. But there’s another, more important one:

The Message You’re Sending

Even if you were able to immediately and completely process a new design at first glance and be ready to write a comprehensive blog post about it on first impression (and just to reiterate, you can’t. But even if you could), there’s still a good reason why you shouldn’t.

If you’re a designer, you undoubtedly tell your clients the same thing you were told as a design student, namely: no matter how simple the end product, design is hard work, and aesthetics aren’t the whole point. To come up with something that looks good, something somebody likes, is at best tangential to the main point. We’ve all chanted the mantra a thousand times: design is about more than appearances. It’s about problem solving and communication. And problem solving and communication generally require days, weeks or maybe even months of intensive research, ideation, brainstorming, creation and revision.

Whether the result of real problem-solving design work is something anybody likes is beside the point. The question is, does it succeed at meeting the project goals? Does it solve the problem?

And you don’t know the answer to that question.

Whether the result of real problem-solving design work is something anybody likes is beside the point. The question is, does it succeed at meeting the project goals? Does it solve the problem?

You didn’t see the brief. You weren’t there for the meetings. Odds are that you have only a casual knowledge of the client in question. You didn’t see all the ideas that were pitched and you weren’t part of the discussion on why some failed and others succeeded. You didn’t weigh the advantages and disadvantages of this color or that font. You didn’t present the final iterations, you didn’t hear the client’s feedback, and you didn’t have to find a way to merge each and every last one of those requirements and limitations into a single, cohesive entity.

That gives you absolutely no right to critique anything except the subjective aesthetics of the design you’re seeing.

And I’m willing to bet money that you hate it when somebody does that to your design.

Remake somebody else’s logo design all you want, but know that it’s utterly meaningless, because you get to do whatever you want and the original designer didn’t.

“Well, sure I wanted to change this, but the brief required…”

“Yeah, I would have liked to explore typefaces more, but the budget…”

“This color definitely wasn’t my first choice, but according to our audience research…”

These are all sentences you can’t hear because you get the luxury of seeing the final product without any knowledge whatsoever of how it came into existence. Remake somebody else’s logo design all you want, but know that it’s utterly meaningless, because you get to do whatever you want and the original designer didn’t. They had deadlines, budgets, parameters, meetings, goals, briefs, revisions, concerns and loads of client feedback. All you have is a starting point that somebody else already created for you and a social platform full of people willing to click the “like” button.

Remaking somebody else’s logo without knowledge of the full process behind it isn’t design; it’s doodling.

Don’t Cheapen Design

Taking somebody else’s work and toying with it is a fine exercise for somebody who’s learning. But it’s little more than plagiarism if you’re telling an audience that this, in terms of real design, has any substantial meaning or value whatsoever.

When you show the world that you can supposedly take something existing and make it better in a single day, the message you’re sending is, “design is effortless. It takes very little time, thought or energy. It’s cheap, petty, subjective and shallow.” You strip design—and every other designer out there—of their value and the respect that they deserve.

Don’t do that. Don’t cheapen what we do. Don’t give the world the message that what we provide is easy, quick and mindless.

Design, at its best and as it ought to be, is absolutely none of those things.

August 20, 2015

Let me start this off by saying that I do not claim to be an authoritative expert on the subject of graphic design. Sure, I know some things. I’m technically a professional. But I also personally know at least a dozen people more qualified to write this list than I am. And I am going to express a few opinions with which they may disagree. So the following advice is mine, and it comes merely from my looking back at my own time as a graphic design student and the work it produced, with the benefit of a little bit of perspective and time. Hopefully it will be helpful in navigating you through the pitfalls I failed to avoid. (In other words, I can write this, because I’ve personally made just about all of these mistakes myself.)

The need for negative space in a student portfolio

8) Skimping on Cost

It’s obvious when you take shortcuts in design. Nowhere is it more apparent than your student design portfolio, the thing that should represent the absolute premium of all that you have to offer from your time in school.

By the time you’re building your student design portfolio, you know that every aspect of a design communicates on a nonverbal, sometimes even unconscious level. The feel and weight of the paper, the type of ink, the way the pages are held together and the cover itself—all of these things contribute to your overall impression as a designer.

So when you decide to buy a bargain bin book and have the pages printed at the cheapest place you can find, you’re making a decision that communicates your priorities—and coming off like you care more about a few dollars than giving the best possible presentation is not a good impression. How is a potential employer going to trust you with real, paid client work when you clearly cut corners on what is supposed to be the apex of your own work?

Resourcefulness is a valuable quality to any employer, especially in design. Show that you can solve your own problems to make something impressive on a budget, and it will have at least as much of an impact as anything in the book itself.

Now, I understand that not everybody has a lot of income to spend on their book. That’s ok. The point isn’t that you need to prove you spent money; the point is that you need to prove you care. While you shouldn’t skimp on print quality, if you can’t afford a premium book, show your creativity by making one of your own. Or find an innovative way to utilize the one that you can afford. Maybe there’s a tactic to show your work effectively that’s not a book at all. Brainstorm options to stand out on your budget. After all, that’s what your career as a designer will be anyway: working within inflexible parameters to achieve an optimal solution.

Some of the more impressive student design portfolios I’ve seen were hand-assembled by their designers. Another comes to mind that wasn’t even a book at all, but mounted presentation boards stored in a cool little thrift store briefcase. Truth be told, I’ve even shown my portfolio on a borrowed iPad—which I don’t necessarily recommend, but it demonstrates that you do have options.

Resourcefulness is a valuable quality to any employer, especially in design. Show that you can solve your own problems to make something impressive on a budget, and it will have at least as much of an impact as anything in the book itself.

7) Poor Image Resolution

This is such a simple problem that I’m honestly surprised at the frequency with which I see it, but it keeps cropping up again and again. For whatever reason, graphic design students often try to push an image beyond its limits. Maybe it’s because this practice is more common (and slightly less damaging) on the web. But in print, it never works.

Printed images need to be 300dpi or higher, especially in a student design portfolio. That’s just all there is to it. If the image you’ve selected isn’t 300dpi at the size you have it, either shrink it or find a new one.

And by the way: one of the most glorious things about being a graphic design student is that your work is not bound by the same rules and laws that govern professional work. You can legally use virtually any image you can find as part of your design, provided you’re using it for student work and you aren’t taking credit for or profiting directly from it. So get on Google and adjust those image search parameters. Find something great. And big. And if you absolutely must use an image that’s below 300dpi, figure out how to disguise it. Show some Photoshop skills. (Adding subtle grain can be an effective technique.) Not many things mar a design as noticeably and glaringly as visible pixels do.

And of course, it ought to go without saying that you should never stretch or squash an image outside its original ratio.

6) Too Much Content

Generally speaking, an interviewer probably has a pretty good idea of your talent level and style by the time you’re through about five spreads (unless you’ve completely back-loaded your book, which I wouldn’t recommend). After that, if you’re not going to start showing some unique items or throwing some curveballs, you’re just repeating yourself. Less is more in pretty much every way in portfolio design.

Ideally, every one of the pieces in your student design portfolio should show off something—a skill, a style, a type of work, or a thought process—that no other piece does.

While there’s no magic number for the total projects that you should show, I’d say as a general rule of thumb, cap it at 10–12. And probably don’t go below about six unless those six are either expansive brandscapes with multiple pieces each or exceptionally high quality. (But these are just my opinions; if telling your story requires you to break these limits, by all means do.)

Ideally, every one of the pieces in your student design portfolio should show off something—a skill, a style, a type of work, or a thought process—that no other piece does. Don’t include two posters if one will do. Don’t include fifteen projects just because you have that many. And never put a project in your book just because you can’t decide what to cut. Design is decision-making. If you can’t make the decision on what to even include in your book for an interview, what does that say of your ability to make the decisions the job itself will require of you?

5) Not Knowing Your Strengths

You probably did at least a few illustration or art projects in school, and it can be very tempting to use those projects to pad your book—especially if they turned out well. But be cautious, and objective. As a graphic designer, don’t try to be an illustrator unless you can show how your illustration skills can benefit a potential employer or client in at least somewhat realistic projects. That gritty portrait of Brad Pitt in Fight Club may be really cool, but it’s extremely unlikely that any entry-level job in the real world would call for a similar piece of illustration. Show that stuff online, where its audience is, not in your book.

It’s also a good idea to look around at the other similar work out there and ask yourself whether your abilities stack up or offer something unique compared to to the field. Any designer should be able to use Photoshop and the pen tool adequately. If you’re showing illustration, make sure you’re offering something more than that, and in a plausible context.

If you’re applying for a graphic design job, showcase your skills as they relate to graphic design.

Likewise, you may be a killer photographer, but this isn’t a photo book; it’s your portfolio. Use your photography in a way that shows off your skills behind the lens and in the context of a well-designed layout.

And of course wedding invitations are by definition generally very visually appealing, but be sure that if you include some that you made in your book, they demonstrate your own abilities as a graphic designer and not just your skill at Pinterest.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t show extracurricular skills, or that you shouldn’t let your personal style show through. By all means, do! The more tools in your toolbox, the more valuable you are as a potential employee, and your style is one of the things that may set you apart from other candidates. But utilize your photography, illustration and whatever other abilities in a way that clearly demonstrates your versatility and usefulness as a designer—not just your technical prowess in a non-design field.

In short, if you’re applying for a graphic design job, showcase your skills as they relate to graphic design.

4) Not Proofreading

I cannot overemphasize this point: spellcheck is not good enough. Not by a long shot, and for many, many reasons. Yes, you should still use it. But you shouldn’t rely on it to do the whole job for you.

For one thing, spellcheck doesn’t pick up words spelled correctly but in the wrong context. (My favorite example of the inadequacy of spellcheck: it doesn’t know the difference between faces and feces.)

For another, spellcheck might not recognize common punctuation errors, or distinguish between homonyms like “there,” “their” and “they’re.” (I was once at a senior exhibition where a student had used the wrong spelling of the same word three consecutive times, all in huge display type. The design was good, but it was hard to take the student seriously after that.)

For a third, you’ve likely got some words that spellcheck won’t recognize somewhere in your book. (For example: names of typefaces, made up companies, real companies with names that are spelled strangely, and proper nouns, including your own name.)

And for a fourth and final reason to distrust spellcheck: you’ve almost certainly got some text somewhere in your book that’s non-editable. This includes text that’s been converted to outlines, rasterized, or simply hand-drawn—all of which render spellcheck completely and utterly useless.

3) Too Many Standard Typefaces (Especially Helvetica)

Stop, stop! Put down your pitchforks. There’s nothing wrong with Helvetica. It is a great typeface and well-deserving of its revered reputation. Let us all give thanks to our benevolent Swiss gods for Helvetica, our mighty salvation. Now go home, angry designer mob.

I’m not saying Helvetica is a bad typeface. It isn’t at all. But I’d consider it progress if fewer students relied on it so heavily.

Students (and many professionals) are naturally drawn to Helvetica for its myriad positive attributes: neutrality, versatility, high quality and readability. But somewhat ironically, this just exacerbates Helvetica’s one glaring weakness: its ubiquity.

The point of your portfolio is to make you stand out, and it’s hard to stand out as a student using the world’s most generic typeface.

Admittedly, the fact that Helvetica is everywhere is not Helvetica’s fault, and could even be used as an argument for its merit. But no matter how good your work is, it still has to be yours, and Helvetica looks like the work of generations of other designers who were using it way before you or I ever heard of it.

The point of your portfolio is to make you stand out, and it’s hard to stand out as a student using the world’s most generic typeface.

However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that this advice is strictly tied to one specific family or font. Helvetica is only the most notorious example. Too many projects that might otherwise look fresh and outstanding instead may feel homogenous and ordinary when overworked type families are employed. Just like Helvetica, there’s nothing wrong with Futura, Myriad, Bodoni or Gill Sans (ok, maybe there’s something wrong with Gill Sans. If you ask me, anyway). But again, the point of your portfolio is to show how you and your work are different than anyone else and their work—how you personally make a project unique with your own individual touch. And that’s tough to do when all your typefaces are also in every other student portfolio out there.

There’s another reason to avoid common fonts, and that’s the impression that you risk. Design is all about the choices you make. When you employ standard typefaces, you need to be very careful that the decision is to use an old classic because it’s the best fit for the job—and not the decision to avoid searching beyond the easy-to-reach defaults. Choosing standard fonts too frequently or in questionable contexts can easily make you look like you’re just clinging to your comfort zone.

Instead of relying solely on the classics, I strongly encourage students to spend some quality time browsing font websites, especially those that offer bundles and sales, and make peace with the fact that you’re probably going to have to spend some money on typefaces sooner or later. But even without a budget, services like Google Fonts and Adobe Typekit offer you access to a fantastic library of type families at no cost. You should at the very least familiarize yourself with those two services and the wide variety of excellent typefaces they offer. (Typekit has some hiccups when used to transfer projects, but that’s a subject for another post.)

When you employ standard typefaces, you need to be very careful that the decision is to use an old classic because it’s the best fit for the job—and not the decision to avoid searching beyond the easy-to-reach defaults. Choosing standard fonts too frequently or in questionable contexts can easily make you look like you’re just clinging to your comfort zone.

And just to clarify: I’m not saying you should always use wacky, gaudy, bold or even edgy display fonts. I’m just saying, don’t be too ordinary. There are plenty of sans serifs out there more than capable of doing the job just as well as or better than Helvetica. Give your work a little personality.

Of course, it should go without saying that you probably shouldn’t be utilizing the likes of Times, Arial, Calibri, Impact and Brush Script in your book. And if by the point that you’re building your portfolio I still need to tell you to avoid Comic Sans and Papyrus, you might want to either start paying attention in class or asking your school about a refund.

2) Using an Unnecessarily Large Book

The book Flaunt is a fantastic resource for anybody building a portfolio, packed with valuable advice and inspiration. It was in that book that I first read the following adage: the experience level of a designer is inversely proportional to the size of their book.

It seems that students tend to find large portfolios alluring, where pros tend to condense more. I understand the former way of thinking because I was there not that long ago and chose the size of my first book based on the largest project I had at the time. Nobody wants to shrink their beautiful posters down any more than they have to.

But you should anyway, for a few reasons. Remember that you have to lug that book around. Smaller is better in that regard. It also helps if you wind up having your interview at a tiny table in a coffee shop. It doesn’t look very professional to block the aisle with your massive pages. Plus, if your interviewer wants to pick up your book and thumb through it, a large book makes that unnecessarily difficult.

And on a more self-serving note, any minor imperfections in your work are more easily hidden at letter size and below than at tabloid and above.

You ought to be demonstrating that you are not limited by the parameters you’re given, but that you flourish in whatever space is available. That impression is easily lost in a portfolio too big to even fit on your interviewer’s desk.

Logistical reasoning aside, though, there’s another, arguably more important reason to consider a smaller book: designers very rarely get blank canvases. Designers get parameters, budgets and restrictions. We live in a world of letterheads that require logos and contact info, advertisements stuffed full of copy, and tiny screens packed with headers and menus. We are forced to make the most of very little. Therefore, you ought to be demonstrating that you are not limited by the parameters you’re given, but that you flourish in whatever space is available; that you don’t need a lot of space to make your content look good. That impression is easily lost in a portfolio too big to even fit on your interviewer’s desk.

1) Not Using Enough Negative Space

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that your work must be as large as possible. (See previous point.) Or, for that matter, that you need to include multiple angles of every piece you’ve photographed, as well as a view of each and every spread contained within all of the booklets you’ve assembled.

I understand; you want people to be able to see the details. How will anybody else know that every point, pixel and period is in its proper place if you don’t stretch your available space to its limit?

Think of every piece in your book like a movie. Your job is to show the preview. Give enough to get somebody caught up in the world, involved in the story and curious to see more—but not so much they need a soda and popcorn.

Don’t think of your portfolio as a collection of projects; it’s a design project in itself. It should only include what makes you look great. Most interviewers don’t want or need to see every single spread or be able to read every paragraph of body copy (though they will read some—see #4). Decorating a spread just to fill up the space is the visual equivalent of commenting on the weather to fill an awkward silence: it’s meaningless noise.

Think of every piece in your book like a movie. Your job is to show the preview. Give enough to get somebody caught up in the world, aware of the story and curious to see more—but not so much they need a soda and popcorn. Make it the best, most intriguing preview you can, but still just a focused, compact view of the work itself. Don’t make your interviewer sit through anything more than they need to. Your portfolio is a communication piece, and like any other, it should make its point succinctly.

And when you start cutting things, don’t fill their space back up. Negative space lures attention. It focuses the eye. It is poise made visual. It’s courageous. Negative space is a conscious and deliberate decision, and one that is not always easy to make. So not only does it make your design work look good, it makes you look good.

Your portfolio is a communication piece, and like any other, it should make its point succinctly.

Trust me: I’ve seen tons of student graphic design portfolios without enough negative space, but I can’t think of a single one that I thought had too much. Literally not one. Some of the best I’ve seen used well under half of the space on many of their pages.

So at the very least, employ a healthy margin. And at most, cut deliberately and harshly, seeing how little you can actually put on the pages of your portfolio. There is, of course, a point of diminishing returns. But you’ll be surprised how far you’ll go before you hit it.

August 5, 2015

Dollar sign in a heartWorking at a branding agency, you frequently find yourself in preliminary meetings where people describe their organization to you. “What makes you different?” is the question at the heart of branding and marketing. And whether the organization in question is a nonprofit, a Fortune 500 company or a local startup, the people at the head of it always have very specific ideas about what makes their particular outfit different from any other.

(Whether these ideas are original is another matter—”Integrity” is such a popular word in these conversations that it’s immediately rejected as soon as it’s spoken. Phrases like “we put service first,” or “we have a commitment to excellence” are so similarly generic as to be rendered meaningless by their ubiquity. What organization wouldn’t say those things?)

But that’s ok; we as designers, branding agencies, etc. wouldn’t have jobs if everybody already knew all about the unique strengths and weaknesses of their own brand and how to ideally leverage those qualities. We’re here because clients need an outside, more objective point of view; an expert.

Phrases like “we put service first,” or “we have a commitment to excellence” are so similarly generic as to be rendered meaningless by their ubiquity. What organization wouldn’t say those things?

One of the things I love about where I work and the process we employ is that these conversations are not by far the end of our discovery—nor should they be for any agency that takes branding seriously. David Day | Associates’ brand process (at the risk of sounding like too much of a company man) can often take weeks or even months of intensive research, interviews, surveys, workshops, roundtables and market exploration. All of this takes place at every level; stakeholder, consumer, competitor, market peers and those completely outside the brand’s hemisphere.

This practice certainly isn’t unique to dda (though most branding agencies have honed and personalized their approach to it, ours included), but the goal and result of this is the distillation of brand values: a collection of words or phrases painstakingly extracted from this process which form the central brand identity. These values are a mantra of sorts, a kind of brand code, refining and solidly defining why the organization exists, how it does everything it does and will go about operating in the future. Some companies (and the agencies that brand them) have other names for the brand values, but the meaning is the same, and virtually every company on the planet—especially the larger and more successful ones—have and embrace them.

If done well and researched carefully, the words and phrases that emerge from the branding process form a cohesive identity. These values will be personal, meaningful and unique.

For example, below are the ten core values of Zappos:

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

That’s great, isn’t it? That list sounds like Zappos. It feels like their brand feels. You get a sense of what that organization is all about and even what their workplace culture might be like just from that tiny list. And that’s the whole point; this is the beating heart of the brand.

It’s not uncommon for executives to commission posters, mugs and mousepads with the brand values on them. In the offices of a company that’s been through this process, ideally, everybody from the CEO on down makes their business decisions based on their alignment with these values, HR rewards employees for exhibiting these values in their everyday work, and the success of the company and its employees is measured solely against them.

Deep breath.

But…that’s not often the case, is it?

Where Brands Fall Apart

Here’s where I’m going with this: that company I just described doesn’t really seem to exist in reality most of the time, does it? Which begs the question:

If this sort of holistic dedication to brand values is so common in theory, why is it so rare in practice?

Just as any executive or business owner will say their company values integrity (and quality and service, of course), so virtually every company claims that they reward and value their employees exhibiting their brand values.

But is that really accurate?

If this sort of holistic dedication to brand values is so common in theory, why is it so rare in practice?

I’ve heard of a lot of CEOs being fired for failing to turn a profit, just as I’m sure you have. There are countless examples of the exit door swinging open rapidly for executives who dropped shareholder prices or who initiated plans, programs and products that weren’t sufficiently fiscally successful. If you want to lose your job, there’s no surer way than to lose your company some money.

So where are all of the CEOs, executives and managers who lost their jobs for failing to adequately exhibit and execute the brand’s core values?

To take the example above, if you work at Zappos, hopefully somebody will take notice if you’re not pursuing growth and learning (#5), or if you are not helping to build a positive team and family spirit (#7). But whether or not that happens in reality (and I can’t speak to that particular company’s culture either way), I feel confident they’ll notice and respond quickly if you’re costing the company money.

Sure, the point of business is to make money, but if these brand values are really supposed to inform everything that a company does, shouldn’t the question at least be asked occasionally: does profit ever conflict with our values? What if the employee or manager who’s losing the money is doing so in the name of upholding the brand values?

There are many instances where this exact thing does happen; we just don’t tend to think of it in this light. For example: a business that says it puts people first will lay off workers in a location that isn’t sufficiently profitable even when there were other options available; a company that claims to value family above all else will either pay its employees too little to afford child care or demand too many hours to make raising children viable; a company that says it values innovation will try to guard its own research from other innovators for fear of losing dollars; and a business that supposedly takes pride in its country, state and local community will move offshore to avoid taxes. Hell, I’ve even heard people in healthcare argue against treating patients in desperate need if they can’t pay.

Sure, the point of business is to make money, but if these brand values are really supposed to inform everything that a company does, shouldn’t the question at least be asked occasionally: does profit ever conflict with our values?

All of this is invariably done for one central, core, defining purpose: profit. It’s the first option in the flowchart of modern capitalism: Can you make money? > YesMake money. End of chart.

So this leaves us in the position of accepting one of two uncomfortable realities:

  1. Companies lie about their values;
  2. Companies tell the truth about their values, but profit is also one, and it trumps the rest.

In either of the similar realities above, we’re forced to ask what purpose and legitimacy these brand values actually hold. It’s almost insultingly easy to find a product or service advertising something like, “We put quality and integrity at the heart of all we do.” And we buy it (figuratively and literally). But if that exact same product or service said “We put profit at the heart of all we do,” we’d flip it the bird and walk away—even though we all know deep down that if every company were being honest, almost every piece of corporate business communication would say this.

This is a problem. How do we change this behavior?

As always, it’s up to you, consumer. Vote with your dollars. It’s time to reward companies that truly live out their brand values and put those before their own profit margins.

It’s up to you, employees, to raise your voice and blow the proverbial whistle when you see companies contradicting their own values.

And it’s up to you, bosses, managers, presidents and CEOs, to put the health of your brand ahead of the health of your shareholders’ wallets. Money’s nice, but it’s nothing more than a means to an end. And if you’re sacrificing good people on the way to that end, then it isn’t worth it.

The best way to improve your product, service, or whatever it is that your organization offers is to invest in the people creating it. And that is often completely counterintuitive to investing in profit.

Profit is not a value.

It’s up to all of us to stop acting like it is.

April 16, 2015

When I was interning as a graphic designer at eleven19, my boss, Donovan Beery, pulled me aside one day and fished a large file out of the office filing cabinet. Within this several-inches-thick tome, paper threatening to burst out of all sides, resided all the résumés and business cards he’d ever been given. He was showing me this because at the time, I was in school designing my own letterhead and business cards, and he thought perhaps it might be a good source of inspiration.

(Yes, as you can probably tell by now, this is going to be long. I’ll warn you now: I’m going to wander through a few topics. I definitely appreciate you reading, but if you’re short on time, just skip down to here.)

Thumbing carefully through this precariously stuffed folder, one particular piece stuck out to me: a beautifully elegant letterhead and business card combo, cleverly designed and meticulously crafted. Each piece was amazing on its own and even better with the other.

I was in awe of this work. As far as personal stationery items go, it was design perfection.

Every designer…lives in perpetual fear of their portfolio costing them a job they, as a person, might otherwise have gotten. But how many worry that they, as a person, could cost their portfolio a job it might have otherwise gotten?

I asked Donovan about the applicant (whose identity I will not reveal), and he told me without hesitation: yeah, that person is a fantastic designer. They have immense talent and a great portfolio. On work alone, this person was given an interview, and if work alone were the consideration, they would have been hired. But in the conversation that took place during that interview, Donovan said something about this particular stranger just didn’t make the right impression on him. Talented though they were, regardless of what an asset their skills might be, he just simply couldn’t see this person fitting at eleven19.

I’ve thought about this encounter many times since then. It’s haunting, in a way. Every designer spends inordinate amounts of time obsessing over every last detail of their work, living their lives in perpetual fear of their portfolio costing them a job they, as a person, might otherwise have gotten.

But how many of us worry that we, as a person, could cost our portfolio a job it might have otherwise gotten?

Credit Where Credit is Due

We all like to think of design (and maybe everything else, too) as a meritocracy: the best people and the best work rise to the top, so if you labor diligently and scrutinize your portfolio into perfection you, too, will be successful.

And there’s a lot of truth to that. But if we’re talking the whole picture…it’s not entirely accurate.

Malcolm Gladwell discusses this brilliantly in his book Outliers. The point is too deep and involved to fully extract here, so I encourage you to read the book for yourself, even if it’s just the first few chapters. The inadequate summary, though goes something like this:

Meritocracy, in many cases, is a bit of an illusion. When we think of people seizing opportunity, we tend to put too much emphasis on the “seizing” part and not enough on the fact that they received the opportunity in the first place, often through little fault of their own. This first opportunity, however it may have come about, led naturally to another, then another, then another. The people who get ahead, those who succeed wildly and who stand apart from the crowd, don’t tend to be just the people who work the hardest (though it often takes that as well—the 10,000 hour rule is another key topic discussed in the book); they’re also the people for whom something fell into place first.

Every opportunity leads to another opportunity; every connection leads to another connection.

Bill Gates was brilliant, but he was also one of the few kids in the United States who had access to a computer and could learn to program in the 1960s. Professional athletes push their bodies to the limit, but they also are often born taller, stronger or earlier than other kids. The Beatles were innovative and talented, but they also got the opportunity to hone their skills playing excruciatingly long sets together night after night after night long before ever exploding onto the national music scene.

The point is: work and opportunity, like wealth and poverty, are compounding. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer; the more you have, the more you will have, and the less you have, the less you will have. Every opportunity leads to another opportunity; every connection leads to another connection.

Better Than Better

I’m not here to tell you that you can get hired without being really good; you probably can’t. Or that you don’t need to put in many, many hours of work until you have something great to show for it; you do. But I am here to tell you that being good skill-wise isn’t all there is to it.

Design is a crowded field, to say the least. By some estimates, of every ten people with some kind of a degree in graphic design, only one has a full-time job in the field. Granted, there are a number of reasons why even if that number is accurate, it may be misleading—for example, many designers are freelancers who don’t put in a 40-hour work week or part-timers at multiple jobs, and even some of the full-timers are in other fields—but if the sheer numbers were to be believed, you need to be better than about 90% of the prospective designers out there to get a job.

A good portfolio gets you an interview; a good attitude gets you a job.

Don’t despair, though, because this is one reason why your skill alone may not be the main consideration of a potential employer: even if you are an amazing designer, that doesn’t do much good for an employer who already has a staff full of amazing designers (and a flock more of them pounding at his or her door). This is part of the reason for a trend toward professional workplaces in general and the industry in particular placing less emphasis on the black-and-white things shown on your résumé and in your work itself. The focus is instead increasingly being placed on finding people who fit personally and culturally within the workplace, on what the sports-inclined might call “intangibles.” Your talents are important, but if you have other strengths, roles, abilities, perspectives or positive personal effects to contribute, at a certain point, it does a lot more good for your employment possibilities to focus on those.

Marty Amsler, creative director at Bailey Lauerman, gave this quote at Meet the Pros when I was a student, and it’s stuck with me ever since: “A good portfolio gets you an interview; a good attitude gets you a job.”

The problem, for both you and your prospective employer, is that an interview may not be enough to convey a good idea of what that attitude might be, and how else you may be a complementary asset outside your raw talent. A portfolio reveals your ability as a designer in minutes, but even a series of interviews may only give a prospective employer a glimpse of how you might fit in and what kind of intangible energy and intelligence you bring to the table.

Showing work is easy; how do you show who you are as a member of a team?

It’s All Who You Know

I’ve been working professionally in some capacity in the design field for a little over two years, whether as an intern, a freelancer, contractor or full-time employee. That doesn’t make me an expert on anything, and I’m not here to pretend to have achieved some mighty triumph or to look down on anybody. I’m quite young in my career, and I have no pretense about that.

I’ve never, ever, ever gotten one single piece of work or even so much as a job interview without establishing a relationship with somebody first.

And to be honest, I’m not convinced I’m in that top 10% or so of designers. (Not that there’s any point in trying to quantify something like that, but still.) The letterhead I eventually made for my class wasn’t as good as the one I saw that day at eleven19. Yeah, I worked hard, and I still do. But I know that I am where I am not just because of that, but because of the people I was fortunate to meet and the connections I happened to make along the way.

I know this is true because I’ve made at least part of my living through design for more than a couple years now, and design has been my main or only source of income for the better part of that time. But I’ve never, ever, ever gotten one single piece of work or even so much as a job interview without establishing a relationship with somebody first.

Ask the Pros

Ask any Omaha design professional; we all know we didn’t get where we are, wherever that may be, entirely on our own. I’ve heard countless professionals say so themselves. We all know we have whatever we have because we went to the right event to meet the right person; because we got an internship or a job shadow against all odds; because we shared a space with somebody who would have an important role in our lives; because just the right person showed up at that portfolio review or that job interview; because we ran into somebody at just the right time; because we sent that email, we made that phone call, we got that coffee; because we got to do that work that led to doing that other work; because we knew somebody who knew somebody who changed our life.

Personally, when I look at the series of events that put me on the path I’m walking today, I see one thing tying together all the pieces, connecting all the dots and facilitating every event that had an impact on my young career. I think most Nebraska pros would cite the same thing.

That thing is AIGA Nebraska.

We’re All Connected

I can honestly say I wouldn’t be walking the path I’m on without AIGA Nebraska. Like I said above: every opportunity I’ve gotten is because of a connection, a relationship, or an interaction, and virtually every single one of those somehow, in some way, ties back to that organization and the selfless efforts of its volunteers.

Whoever you are, wherever you are in your career, think about the opportunities you’ve had so far. What has been your catalyst? What opportunities led to other opportunities which led to even bigger opportunities?

Can you honestly say that AIGA Nebraska had nothing to do with it?

The person sitting across from the interview table can see how good your portfolio is. What they can’t see is how being a part of something bigger than yourself is meaningful enough to you to personally take the initiative to make it happen.

I certainly cannot say that my path never led me through an AIGA event, or to an advocate who served on the board. I can’t tell you that my network didn’t overlap with AIGA Nebraska’s, or that I didn’t benefit from the connections within that network at all. And the events—Show, Barcamp, StoryTime, 36 Pints, Nerdbraska, AIGA student group meetups, Me, Myself and Design, the speaker events, workshops—I don’t know about you, but I would be lying like the devil if I told you none of those things affected my professional trajectory.

If you’re a student, or an aspiring professional, I’d like to answer the question from earlier, the one about how you can show a prospective employer who you are.

The answer is: show up, and find out how you can help. Even if your future boss or your future interviewer isn’t in the room, somebody who knows them is.

The person sitting across from the interview table can see how good your portfolio is. They can see how good the work of all the other applicants is, too. What they can’t see is how you turn up when and where you might be needed, how you build relationships, interact as a member of a community, seek out challenges, reach out to and work with new people.

How being a part of something bigger than yourself is meaningful enough to you to personally take the initiative to make it happen.

Why I’m Writing This

As you may know, I am the sitting Director of Finance on the AIGA Nebraska board. You may also know that this week marks AIGA’s national membership drive.

Whether we’ve already changed your path or not, we will. If you give us the chance.

AIGA is funded almost entirely by membership; the events we put on as AIGA Nebraska, the networking opportunities we provide, the student mentorship and scholarship programs, the resources, partnerships and discounts we offer—all of it relies solely and entirely on the support of the design community. Most of it operates at a loss. Trust me; I’ve seen the numbers. We don’t do this to make money, or for ourselves. If we did, we’d be failing miserably.

We do it for you. For our community. Just because we love it.

I started going to every AIGA-related event I could as soon as I knew what they were; that’s how I met the people who became important to my career, where I earned the recognition that led to recommendation, then interviews, then projects and jobs. Ask virtually any pro in Omaha, and they’ll tell you a similar tale. Their success story isn’t just about work; it’s about other people giving them a chance, and doing so because those other people knew that person could be trusted with it.

If you’re in any way involved in a design field—any design field in Nebraska, I want to ask you: please consider joining AIGA Nebraska. If it hasn’t benefitted you yet, it can and will if you let it. Most likely, in some way, it already has.

More info on membership and the drive is can be found at aiga.org/belong, but know this: membership starts at only $50 a year. That’s less annually than I pay for Hulu or Netflix, and many schools and employers will help foot that cost. Even if they don’t, not only does it go to directly benefit your community, but most or all of it will pay itself back in discounts to events and in perks if you take advantage.

One year of basic membership: AIGA costs less than Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, Spotify or Amazon Prime.

Locally, we partner with Flywheel to give our members a discount on WordPress hosting, with Regal Printing to give our members discounted printing options, with Magnolia hotel and a whole lot more.

Nationally, all AIGA members at any level get discounts on Skillshare, AIGA events, Show entry and lots of other things, plus access to share portfolios and view job postings.

Bump your membership up one level (psst: it’s still less per month than you might spend on Netflix or HBO Now) and you add discounts on Apple and Wacom products, Lynda, Shutterstock, FedEx and printing at Moo.com as well, plus access to the private AIGA health insurance exchange.

We need your support. We depend on it. And we aren’t asking for it without giving anything in return, I promise you.

Whether we’ve already changed your path or not, we will. If you give us the chance.

April 1, 2015

One of the most difficult things for me to learn in my transition from the classroom to a professional branding agency was how to properly handle color output. Sure, I learned in my classes how to open the swatch palette and find the Pantone swatch I wanted, but how to properly utilize that swatch and ensure its consistency across all print and web mediums—this was something new to me.

Don’t get me wrong; I had great teachers. But little in a classroom environment compares with the task of creating a comprehensive logo and stationery package for a real-world client. (Plus, the print overview course at my school was an elective that I didn’t…er, elect.)

Trust me: it’s no fun having to redo 300 logos because you didn’t get the colors exactly right. So I decided to write this post in the hope of saving you some from some of the pitfalls that I failed to avoid.

An explanation of spot colors

Let’s refresh ourselves on the printing process.

As you probably know, most color printers create color by mixing cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks. This is called CMYK, 4-color, or “process” printing (and by the way, the K in CMYK stands for “key,” as the black color plate was once referred to as the key plate, in case you were wondering). Cyan plus magenta equals blue, magenta plus yellow equals red, and on and on. CMYK is very popular because it’s cheap, and most colors can be recreated decently within the process printing color range, also known as a “gamut.”

Even the best process printers are mixing inks on the fly to create a limited range of color, and that can often result in inconsistency.

(Side note: some printers add extra inks to the standard CMYK—most commonly a light cyan and a light magenta, but sometimes others—for better color reproduction, especially in photos. If you’re serious about home printing, a 6- or 8-color printer can be a very good investment.) But regardless, there is a limit to the color precision of process printing. Even the best process printers are mixing inks on the fly to create a limited range of color, and that can often result in inconsistency.

That’s where the Pantone Matching System, called just Pantone or PMS for short, comes in.

Pantone inks are special inks that are each created prior to printing.

Inks such as this are called “spot” colors. They aren’t combinations of cyan, magenta, yellow and/or black created during printing; they’re precisely and individually mixed beforehand, kind of like paint. Spot colors are also like paint in that they are applied by the printer in a flat uniform layer, as opposed to the tiny halftone dots created by more traditional printing methods like CMYK. This makes spot colors much, much more consistent than process color.

Think about it this way: if you were going to paint a wall in your house green, which would create a more consistent result—buying a bucket of cyan paint and a bucket of yellow paint and mixing them together as you went, or just buying green paint to begin with?

The latter, obviously. That’s why spot colors are so great.

There are drawbacks to spot color printing, however.

In short, spot color printing is the best way to ensure color accuracy and a high-quality print, but because of its nature, it’s difficult and often expensive.

Most pertinently, spot colors each require their own ink well during printing. Let’s say you have a project that you want to print in standard CMYK, except that your client wants their two-color logo printed with the two appropriate spot colors. That would make this a six-color job; cyan, magenta, yellow and black plus the two specified spot colors equals six. So unless your printer has two extra spots for ink (and it almost certainly doesn’t), this unfortunately means that the job will need to be handled by a professional print shop—and for that matter, will probably not be cheap.

In short, spot color printing is the best way to ensure color accuracy and a high-quality print, but because of its nature, it’s difficult and often expensive. Even large companies usually reserve spot color printing only for the most important printed materials, or those that only require one or maybe two colors.

Pantone® is more than spot inks

So you probably can’t print actual Pantone inks on your own, but there’s good news:

Each Pantone swatch in the book includes CMYK, RGB and HTML values to reproduce that swatch color as accurately as possible in standard print and onscreen applications.

Pantone swatches include recommended CMYK, RGB and HTML values

Always be sure to use the CMYK, RGB and/or HTML values recommended here on the Pantone swatch. Avoid converting by any other method.

What this means

Unless you or your client are actually shelling out the money to print spot inks, the best way to reproduce those glorious Pantone swatches as accurately as possible is to replace every spot color swatch in your document with its appropriate, Pantone-recommended CMYK swatch, found in the Pantone swatch books. (There are online resources to locate these values as well, but they may not always be 100% accurate.)

Why must you do this? Because spot color swatches in a design program aren’t meant to be printed correctly by a process printer; they’re meant to register with the printer as the proper spot color.

In other words, because the input doesn’t match the output.

Swatch-Panel

As shown in the image above, standard color swatches (such as the “Dark Red” swatch) are indicated in the InDesign swatch panel by a checkered box icon to the right of the swatch name. Spot color swatches (like Pantone swatches) are indicated with a small dot icon in the same position. If you are using any spot color swatches in your document and you are not going to be printing those with true spot color inks, you must convert those spot color swatches and all instances of those colors in your document to standard CMYK values for best results.

Here’s what happens otherwise:

If you send a document with spot colors to a process printer, the machine will check to see if it has spot color inks loaded up. When that check comes back negative, rather than just ignoring those colors in your document, it will automatically attempt to translate your spot colors into some combination of cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink.

Color conversion is not like converting celsius to fahrenheit or liters to gallons; it’s not mathematical, and there is no perfect formula for converting any given color into a new color space.

This is where problems arise, as whatever method seems right to the computer will often not be correct to the eye. Color conversion is not like converting celsius to fahrenheit or liters to gallons; it’s not mathematical, and there is no perfect formula for converting any given color into a new color space.

Put another, less technical way: sending a document with spot colors through a standard 4-color process print is a little like translating the same sentence into a new language over and over. The end result might look passable, but it will almost certainly be missing the finer nuances of the original source material.

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In the print popup window, select “output” on the left and see how many inks are in the ink section. If it’s more than the basic four process inks, you’ll want to convert your spot colors to process colors for optimal print results.

If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.

This is where I went wrong as a student and as a rookie professional.

So we’ve established that we need to change our spot colors to process colors before we send our document to print. But that’s easy, right? Just switch the color panel to CMYK sliders and copy whatever values are there. They should be the same values as what’s listed in the Pantone swatch book, right?

That’s what I thought, too, but I was very wrong.

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Here’s the color panel with a Pantone swatch selected.

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If you open the panel menu and change the color to CMYK…

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…you will not end up with the correct CMYK values for your Pantone swatch.

Changing the document color mode and/or the color mode in the color panel of a design program will NOT change a spot color to the appropriate CMYK, RGB or HTML value. You must get those from the Pantone swatch book and enter them manually. (There are easy ways to do this using the tools in the swatch panel, but I won’t go into that here.)

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Take the example in the above image: the recommended CMYK formula for Pantone 132 C is 9/38/100/32. That’s very far from the values that InDesign dialed up for me in the color panel in the screenshot before that. (A telltale sign of improperly converted CMYK swatches is that they involve decimal points, e.g., the 13.04% black shown in the color panel screenshot above. No Pantone swatch’s recommended CMYK value ever calls for decimals.)

Coated or Uncoated?

You may have noticed every Pantone swatch has a suffix, usually either “C” or “U” (though there are others). These two initials stand for coated and uncoated, respectively, and indicate the type of paper for which the swatch is best suited.

You may have also noticed that in general, when you print something on uncoated paper—say for example cheap office copy paper, or that nifty artsy craft paper—your colors and images tend to come out darker than they do when you use a smooth or glossy stock.

That smoother paper is “coated” stock, and its smoothness allows ink to sit neatly on the surface of the paper. This helps the ink display its hue and brightness better than uncoated paper. (This is why photos are usually printed on high gloss paper.)

Uncoated stock, on the other hand, absorbs ink. No matter how white the actual paper is, things printed on uncoated stock tend to darken as the ink sinks below the surface.

So how can you ensure that the same base color printed to both stocks will still be consistent?

Compare the coated and uncoated versions of the same Pantone swatch, such as Pantone 186 C and Pantone 186 U below. (Fun fact: that’s official Husker red. Know your audience.) You’ll notice that the uncoated swatch is a bit lighter. This is because of the darkening that occurs when printing on uncoated stock. The same Pantone spot color will look a bit different on coated and on uncoated stock.

The uncoated version of PMS 186 is noticeably lighter than the coated version.

Uncoated swatches (right) tend to be slightly lighter than coated (left) to offset the natural darkening effect that uncoated paper has. Notice that the CMYK values are all lower.

So if, for example, your brand color is Pantone 109 (bonus factoid: that’s the yellow I’m using on this site), and you’re trying to mimic the look of the Pantone 109 spot color on coated stock, use the values from the Pantone 109 C swatch. Likewise, if you want to mimic how Pantone 109 looks when uncoated stock is the final destination, use the CMYK (or RGB/HEX) value from the Pantone 109 U swatch.

[EDIT: It’s worth noting, as I left out of the original version of this post: the actual Pantone ink formula for a coated swatch will be exactly the same as the ink formula for an uncoated swatch. The CMYK, RGB and all previews will be different between the two, because they’ll be designed to match the result of printing that specific spot color formula on the given paper type, but the actual spot colors are identical. They will, however, inevitably vary; you can’t expect to print one ink on two different kinds of paper and have them look identical. Therefore, if you’re looking for the same literal color to be printed on both coated and uncoated stocks identically, it may be best to try to manually match swatches, not rely on the same Pantone number for both applications. Thanks to Dave for mentioning this to me in the comments below!]

Dammit, gamut!

Have a look through a Pantone swatch book and you’ll notice each individual swatch has two side-by-side samples. The left sample is printed with true Pantone ink (which, by the way, is why Pantone books are so expensive; printing hundreds of spot colors is no cheap or simple task). The right sample, meanwhile, is appended with a “P,” indicating it’s printed with process color.

…CMYK has a limited gamut (color range) and simply cannot reproduce all colors with 100% accuracy…

You’ll see that these side-by-side samples of spot color and process color are not always an exact match, with the degree of discrepancy varying from swatch to swatch. This is mostly because CMYK has a limited gamut (color range) and simply cannot reproduce all colors with 100% accuracy, so this is not a foolproof system. Also, as mentioned earlier, spot colors print a solid layer of ink, while process printing creates color with halftone dots. Still, the values listed on these Pantone swatches are generally your best bet for at least getting as close as possible.

The same swatch in PMS and CMYK can come out very different due to gamut restrictions

Due to the limitations of the CMYK gamut and halftone printing, some colors will be more consistent than others when translated from Pantone.

When choosing colors for a client, I often try to find Pantone swatches with as little discernible difference between the spot and process sample as possible, since most clients will rarely (if ever) be printing with a true Pantone spot color ink.

One tip worth noting: a CMYK value that has at least one ink at or near 100% will usually give you a richer and more consistent process color output than a swatch with process colors all at low or mid values.

OK, so what about RGB and HTML color?

The RGB and HTML values accompanying each Pantone swatch are the values you should use for digital media—for example, using a Pantone color in an onscreen presentation or as a color for a website.

A quick refresher on RGB vs. CMYK

RGB is the color mode of virtually every electronic display, from your phone to your computer monitor and probably your TV, and it is effectively the opposite of CMYK. In process print, the paper starts white and brightness is subtracted with colored ink until eventually you reach black; conversely, in RGB, the background of a display is black by default, and colored light is added until eventually white is created.

HTML (also called HEX) is exactly the same as RGB. They’re the same thing; HTML/HEX just uses a different method of entering the color values. (Hex is short for hexadecimal, a digital numbering system that includes 16 basic single-digit numbers rather than 10.)

…deep, dark colors can be an issue in RGB since by default there’s always at least a little bit of light creating and illuminating the colors your eye perceives on a backlit screen. Conversely, bright whites and neons tend to be problematic in the world of paper and ink, where adding color necessarily means darkening to a certain degree.

RGB/HTML/HEX has a different gamut from CMYK/4-color/process, and while the two mostly overlap, there is still a narrow range of specific colors that can be printed but which cannot displayed accurately onscreen and vice versa. For example, very deep, dark colors can be an issue in RGB since by default there’s always at least a little bit of light creating and illuminating the colors your eye perceives on a backlit screen. Conversely, bright whites and neons tend to be problematic in the world of paper and ink, where adding color necessarily means darkening to a certain degree. Also, this is a good point to mention that you cannot actually print white using a standard printer, since there’s no way to mix colored inks together and create white. Anything you designate as white in your document will just be the plain paper color.

(Print and screen also have different resolutions, with print generally being much higher, but that’s another topic altogether.)

What this all means

If you want to mimic, for example, Pantone 109 C onscreen, you should input the RGB or HTML value from the Pantone 109 C swatch. What you shouldn’t do is pick a Pantone spot color swatch and then export that in a jpeg, or use the eyedropper tool or something like that. Again, this takes precise color control out of your hands and leaves it to the assumptions of a computer algorithm. Always use the values on the Pantone swatch.

Note that just because you manually set your swatch’s CMYK value to what’s on the Pantone swatch doesn’t mean the RGB is correct, too. To the contrary; as I mentioned earlier, there’s no precise way to convert colors from one color space to another, so if your color is correct in one color space, it’s wrong in the other. Calibrate for your intended purpose. And remember that to properly output RGB color, your entire document should be set to RGB color mode.

What to provide to your clients

This depends somewhat on the client and the intended use, but in general, if you and/or your client are serious about accurate and consistent color reproduction, you should be providing your client with a suite which includes every permutation of their logo dialed up in each of these color modes (and with multiple file types for each):

A note about black and white

White is easy. It’s all colors at max in RGB, and all colors at zero in CMYK. Even the computer won’t mess that up. But black, on the other hand, works a little differently.

If you dial up black in RGB mode, you’ll get a slightly different black than you would if you hit the black swatch while in CMYK color mode. RGB black is 0/0/0; that’s simple. No light = black. But in CMYK, if you try to do the opposite and crank up all four process inks to 100% each, you will get a very rich black (the one called “Registration” in InDesign’s swatch panel), but you’ll also waste a ton of ink if you max out every color in your printer to create black.

I could go further into this, but for now, just know that standard CMYK black is dialed in as 0/0/0/100, and you should generally just go with that for things like black body copy. You can make your blacks darker and richer by mixing the four process colors if you so choose, but at the expense of more inks being used on every single instance of black coloring.

So does this mean that I should give my client two sets of black files?

If you want to be incredibly picky, you can. But it’s generally safe to assume that a client’s only use for a black logo is in print. There isn’t any restriction on color in onscreen media—no cheap print jobs, no costly ink, no black-and-white newspaper ads—so it’s probably ok to only make black logos using whatever CMYK black formula you settle on.

Great! I read this whole thing, so now my colors will always match perfectly, right?

Well…in a word, no.

Properly utilizing Pantone colors is your best chance at fighting color discrepancy, yes. But this should be considered more of a loose guide to a journey with many variables than any guarantee of success.

The fact is, every printer is different. You could send the same file to ten different printers and get ten slightly different results—or even use the same printer all ten times and wind up with variances.

All paper is different, too, and paper and ink are both sensitive; conditions like temperature, humidity, light, and even the mere weight of the paper can affect printing results. But even a perfect process printer in perfect conditions couldn’t replicate every single color the eye can perceive with 100% accuracy; that’s impossible. And even if it weren’t and all your print materials were perfectly matched, every screen in the world would still be different, capable of being modified to display color differently and to be brighter or dimmer than the one you’re looking at.

Color isn’t a precise studio recording you can play back at will; it’s an ongoing live concert.

Put bluntly, there is no true perfection in color reproduction. You won’t achieve it. Color isn’t a precise studio recording you can play back at will; it’s an ongoing live concert. The same notes may be played on the same instruments night after night, but the production is always unique to some varying degree.

If color is extremely important to you, your only solution may be testing and tinkering over and over and over until you finally get acceptably close to the results you desire. But hopefully, now you have the tools to avoid some of the pitfalls along that journey, to get as close as you can, and to explain to clients, when necessary, how that whole process works.