Forgive me, for I have sinned.
Seven years ago, I thought Comic Sans was a good font.
It pains me to type that, but it’s true.
Time might have passed, but I still know surprisingly little about design, so it’s time for me to sit down with design extraordinaire, Dean O’Callaghan, to learn the basics.
This guide is for absolute beginners; for those who are running a business and don’t know the first thing about design, but don’t need to know all the details -- just the basics so you can create good-looking, effective designs.
Of course, if you want the best designs for your business, it’s generally better to hire a professional -- there’s a reason why they study design, and there’s a reason why it can cost so much -- you’re paying for their expertise.
That being said, this guide can also help you to brief any designers that you hire so that they can create the best work for you.
First things first: there are many different types of design, but as this is a basic guide, we’ll cover just the big ones that are most necessary for small businesses: brand identity design, graphic design, web design, and packaging design.
Here’s a simple breakdown of what each of them are:
Brand identity design
Your brand is a huge part of your business: what you look like, and how it fits in with your values, tone of voice, audience, market analysis, marketing messaging, and mission statement -- it’s often referred to as brand strategy.
We’re written more on branding in our article, The Basics of Building a Brand.
Brand identity design is essentially made up of your logo, brand colours, and font -- the ‘Holy Trinity’ of brand identity design.
Those bare bones can then be used on stationery, business cards, event materials, marketing, social media, on your website -- anywhere and everywhere your brand is visually present.
Consistency with your brand helps your audience know that something is related to your brand without having to look at your logo, even if it’s a subconscious reaction.
It gives your business integrity, and acts as a glue to tie everything in your brand together.
You must be consistent with your brand identity design.
I really can’t stress this enough.
We come across so many brands that don’t use the same font or colour palettes across all of their messaging, which means that their brand looks messy, and your customers might go elsewhere, to another, better designed, business.
Inconsistency makes your audience uneasy, and unable to gauge your brand’s visual message.
It’s like someone telling the same story over and over, but changing it each time they tell it, until, eventually, you don’t know what’s true.
We all judge by appearance (sad, but true), and your brand identity is one of the first things your customers will see, so they will make a snap judgement based on that.
Decide upon your logo, brand colours and fonts, make sure that they all work together and fit in with your brand (for example, choosing Comic Sans for a professional services firm wouldn’t be appropriate), and stick to them.
You’ll find it makes your life much easier; it’ll be quicker to design things like marketing messages, social media posts, and anything else you need for your brand.
It’s like baking a cake -- each ingredient has to work well together -- you can’t just throw in sausages and hope that they’ll work with the buttercream icing (ew).
And, just like baking a cake, the better quality the ingredients, the better the cake will taste, and the more people will buy the cake.
Here are some useful tools that you can use to choose your brand’s Holy Trinity so you can bake the best brand cake:
This tool works based on search, so you search the colours you think would work well for your brand, and it’ll generate moodboards and colour palettes for you to think about.
Simply click on a colour to find its complimenting and contrasting colour to help build your palette.
If you’re really stuck for inspiration, this amazing Instagram account will give you the push you need. They create complimenting colour palettes regularly and post them to their feed, so you just pick a palette that works for your brand, and it’s done!
For when you find the perfect colour online, but don’t have the RGB or Hex codes (universal codes of colour) to recreate it for your brand -- simply take a screenshot and upload the image to this site, then drop the colour picker onto the colour you like, and it’ll tell you what the different colour codes are. Super easy!
When choosing your colour palette, you need to make sure that the colours you’ve chosen don’t clash with your values. For example, blue is a colour commonly used for banks, as it’s seen as more corporate, conservative, and professional -- pink wouldn’t work as well for a bank, because it’s seen as more fun, frivolous, and playful. This website provides some background on the meanings of colours that, subconsciously, your audience will think when they see your brand.
This Chrome extension tells you what fonts are on the page that you’re on, for when you’re searching around and find the perfect font for your brand.
Here are a few extra hints and tips on brand identity design:
When choosing your font(s), make sure that they’re not too obscure. This is because some people’s computers may not have your font installed on their screens, so it could appear as something else.
It’s ideal to have 3-5 colours in your colour palette, so you can create graphics and other designs with more detail.
For your font, aim for at least three different variations: your header, subtitle, and body copy. These are usually the same font, but with different thicknesses (bold to light), colours (from your colour palette), and kerning (the space between letters).
When it comes to logo design, we could honestly write a massive blog post on just that topic (and we probably will!). For now, if you’re a design newbie, like myself, leave the logo design to the professionals, as that’s probably the most important part of your brand identity. Harsh truth time: nothing you design, as a non-designer, will be as good as the work of the experts. Then, once that’s decided upon, you can work on the other elements of your brand.
Your logo should also work as a black on a white background image, and in reverse contrast (white on black background). This is so you can see how well it works on both a light background and a dark background with no help from brand colours. You won’t always have the option to showcase your logo in colour, so it’s good practice to make sure that it works as a black and white version, as well.
When you’ve decided on your brand identity, create a Style Guide, detailing each element, why it was chosen, what it represents, and how it should be used. It’s a useful reference material.
Graphic design (marketing design)
If you’re a solo entrepreneur, you’ll probably spend a lot of time creating marketing assets, such as:
Images/videos/GIFs for social media
… and many more
While it’s ideal to have a graphic designer to create these sorts of assets for you, we know that not every business is in the financial position to be able to hire employees.
So this basic guide will help design amateurs to create decent-looking assets.
When creating any design asset, you need to be sure of its purpose -- why are you creating it in the first place -- what’s your goal?
Is it for lead generation, brand awareness, to promote a particular product, service, event, or call to action, to increase followers or engagement on your social media platform, to get people to sign up for your newsletter, or even to directly push customers to purchase?
Once that’s clear, every part of your design should relate to that purpose -- you should be able to justify each part of your design.
If you can cut it out, you should cut it out.
Keep it simple.
Or, as Dean says, simplify to amplify.
In this age of entrepreneurs and digital businesses, lots of solo business owners are creating their own design assets, and there are lots of tools to help you out:
Chances are you've heard of Canva. If not, they help you to design a myriad of different assets in a straightforward way. It’s literally as simple as that. They’ve also got a Pro version where you can add your brand identity (fonts, colour palette, and logo) to make it even quicker and easier to create assets that are consistent with your brand.
Icons bring life to reports, emails, social media posts, and other marketing materials. They can help turn something that’s lengthy and wordy into something that works on a more visual level. Iconfinder has a library of different icons (both free and paid) that you can use anywhere.
A useful tool to help you create infographics, presentations, reports, and whitepapers.
While it’s always better to use photographs that you take yourself, or that you have professionally taken by a photographer, if you need to access free stock photos, you can use Unsplash. Just make sure to credit the photographer.
Packaging design covers a host of different forms of packaging, including:
Swing tags (or hang tags)
Belly bands (that go across the product’s ‘belly’)
POS or CDUs - point of sale units or central display units (those branded stands you see in-store for specific products or brands)
According to a study by Nielsen in 2016, 64% of people tried a product because ‘the packaging caught their eye’, and a further 41% would continue to purchase a product ‘because they prefer its packaging’.
So packaging is pretty important!
So how can you improve your packaging design, as a non-designer?
First, you need to ask yourself a few key questions:
What is the product?
Who is the consumer?
Where will it be sold?
Who is the competition?
And finally, how should we pack it?
Then, once you’ve answered all of those questions, you’re ready to look at the fundamental elements of packaging design:
What your packaging is made of.
The ‘coating’, or lamination, of your packaging (shiny, matte, etc.)
While a unique shape can catch the eye of your customer, it can also bring about costly shipping issues and higher costs to manufacture.
Different types of packaging are often used for specific types of products, so you need to consider what your customer is looking for. For example, if you’re looking for a bag of crisps, you’d look for a foil packet. There are also traditions in packaging design, and most of those exist for a legitimate reason.
Here are a few hints and tips when it comes to packaging design:
Create a clear hierarchy of information. This means gathering a list of the important information that you need on your packaging, then ranking them from most to least important for your customer. Then you can refer to this during the design process, so you can prioritise them accordingly.
Consider how easy (or hard) it is to open your packaging from your consumer’s perspective. Is it like those pairs of scissors that you need scissors to open, or will they get joy from opening it, like those thousands of unboxing videos on Youtube?
Always keep your brand in mind, and don’t create a piece of packaging that’s jarring to your brand; it’ll only confuse your audience.
Be environmentally aware. Where possible, avoid plastic packaging, even if it can be recycled, as it still has an impact, and your die-hard environmentalist consumers will avoid purchasing it. The best types of packaging are upcycleable, or reusable in another way, like a beautifully designed box that people keep in their rooms as storage.
Manage your consumers’ expectations. Don’t create a lavish piece of packaging for a low-cost product. Your packaging should reflect the value of the product inside.
Packaging design is another massive topic, so Dean, as a packaging designer himself, has created a dedicated guide: Packaging Design 101.
Web design can be quite a technical endeavour, especially for those with businesses that sell a digital product.
If you’re looking to build a complex website, with many different elements and complicated processes, it’s best to leave that to the professional web designers.
However, if you’re just looking for a platform to promote or sell your product or service, anyone can set up a website -- you don’t have to be a web designer or too technically-minded anymore!
Essentially, you just need to make your website easy to access, easy to navigate, and tied in with your brand.
This is such a big topic, so we’ve broken it all down in our article, The Cyberspace Marketplace: Building Your Business Website.
Those are the absolute basics of design for small business owners and non-designers.
There are so many more elements of truly outstanding design, and quite a lot that goes into more detail, so if you have the budget, it’s always better to hire someone with the specific skills you need to create brilliant pieces of design.
Feel free to leave a comment below with your design-related questions, and Dean will share his expert knowledge to help you out, while I continue reading the stack of design books he’s lent me to read...