Seeing is Believing: A Designerly “how-to” for “non-designers”

Mark D. West is one of the authors on Stories That Move Mountains, a book about using stories and visuals to make top notch presentations. We’re teaming up with Wiley & Sons Publishing to give away three free copies of the book, just leave a comment with a tip for making great visual presentations to enter into the random drawing! Publication Date: December 17, 2012 ISBN-10: 1118423992 ISBN-13: 978-1118423998 Edition: 1   So you’ve got some killer content, you’ve identified your audience and you know them well, and you even know the story you want to tell. Now it’s just you and your computer, notebook, pencils, markers… and a dry-erase board—if you’re feeling adventurous. You would LOVE to go hire a graphic designer—and heck, you might even still do that, but the budget for your new initiative it TIGHT. You need to at least TRY doing this yourself. Should you risk it? WHY NOT! The first rule is to pay attention to how often you use CAPS—sorry I couldn’t resist. But seriously… I am one of the co-authors of a new book called Stories that Move Mountains, and in this book we cover a process that takes you from content, through audience analysis, and story structure, to creating great designs and telling an engaging story—it’s called “CAST.” In this post I’m going to just focus on what you can do with the design stage (“tell”) once you have all the content worked out.  

  1. The real first rule: be patient. Creating a compelling presentation is going to involve trying some things—and this whole design thing may (or may not) be new to you—you’ve got to go easy on yourself. Realize that you will only get better over time.
  2. Yes, design involves a “visual eye,” but it also involves the ability to compare and contrast elements as you try things. Oh, remember I mentioned trying things? Time to jump in!
  3. By example, let’s focus on three primary design principles: scale (the sizing of elements), color and font choices. With each one of these things, we’ll ask similar questions. It’s assumed you are familiar with graphics or presentation software of your choice. You should be able to ask these same questions for just about all design principles, as discussed in the book, but at the end of the day, it tends to come down to these items when focused on your final visual delivery:
    • “What do I want to see first?” (This is hierarchy, to make sure your message is clear).
    • “How does the arrangement of elements feel?” (This is the squint test/Gestalt, and how the pieces are perceived as a whole).
    • And then: compare and contrast as you change things. It takes little discipline at first, but over time, it will come more naturally.
  4. Consider the form your content will take on the page. Should it be a shape? An illustration? Should it be read as text? A combination of these items? What’s color(s) will you use, and how will colors and other elements be taken together as a whole? (That’s the “how does it feel” part).
  5. You have decided on some content that needs to be in font form, as well as other shapes that need a color scheme.
  6. Scale: This concept seems simple, and it probably IS the simplest of our three example principles. Lead with the question, “how large should this grouping of elements or single element be in relation to what’s around it?” Scale it up and down (be careful to scale proportionately)—and then compare, asking: “how does it feel when I do that?” Compare and contrast.
  7. Color: Color involves many choices, including how it’s interpreted across cultures. That said, it’s also important to see how it looks, and develop some kind of color palette or combination that not only is interpreted correctly in your coding system, but also feels right together. Invest in a color wheel, a book on color, or for the most dynamic reference, a book on color combinations—a great example being the Color Index, by Jim Krause. Color your shapes, elements, type, etc. and then compare and contrast. Okay, is there a pattern starting to emerge here? Try combinations that involve warm and cool colors, remembering that warm colors attract and cool recede.  You’ll definitely know you have a problem when you stare a little too long, and a certain color combination leaves an “afterimage” on your retinas! When using a palette of colors, they all need to “harmonize” together, and an easy way to do that is by using similar color saturations (pastels being an example). If using a palette with one or two colors that are more saturated than the others, realize that those will “pop out” a little more than others.
  8. Type choices: Type is one of the most underrated and overlooked aspects of design—and it is meant to be seen AND read. Jim’s also got a Type Idea Index too. Start by determining a headline and put it side-by-side with the same text set in another font—also try adjusting the size. Do this for anywhere from 2-5 fonts (same text): and compare and contrast. Realize that even your smaller copy will affect the feel of your design. Try different fonts with any smaller copy, remembering that too much text in a presentation will end up leaving your audience conflicted… as they will want to read the text and listen to you at the same time. Regardless, all text should be taken as a whole, and you should ask how it feels when taken in its entirety, which is a great segue to…
  9. Start putting the whole lot together. How do all of the elements feel when taken as a whole? Try a few revisions—especially in scale and precise placement and then—yes—you guessed it: compare and contrast.

And if all of that seems a bit too complex for your tastes, you can always head on over to the Visually Marketplace!

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