• Grainne Slavin

Don't go breaking my heart

Updated: Feb 14, 2018

Ah, Valentine's Day. Hearts, cards, flowers, meals out in crowded restaurants, and people like me jumping on the bandwagon and writing a themed blog relating to my business (but in a non-pushy and hopefully entertaining way so that you’ll barely notice you’ve paid a visit to my website and subconsciously thought: “Why is it called Platform 74”?).

There’s a serious message behind this blog post, however, which is that poor visual communication breaks my heart. It makes me want to weep. It often sees me ranting at unsuspecting friends, relatives and, eight out of ten times, the cat. It has been known to see me mentally redesign a logo on a van in front of me when stationary at traffic lights.

I’m a designer, so of course I ‘get’ it. I also get that it’s not always feasible to pay someone to undertake design work for you, especially if you’re a small business or charity. Online graphics tools such as Canva are making this easier, however they’re not foolproof – so I’m here to help.

Here are my eight tips to help non-designers create posters, leaflets, newsletters, social media images or even presentation slides:

1. Be clear about the purpose

Before you go near a new document or template to write or design something, be clear about who you are trying to reach and what you want them to do as a result of your communication. Do you want them to buy something, book onto something, understand something better, or simply remember you for future reference? Setting this out will help you create more focused content, and help you decide on the best format for your materials.

2. Keep it simple

It’s very tempting to throw everything at a page in the hopes that it will be ‘eye-catching’ and therefore attractive. However, chances are it will just confuse people, and your main message will fail to make itself heard. Sketch out some simple page layouts first, no matter how roughly. Keep your word count down and use images sparingly (one good-quality, prominent, image often tells a more compelling story than three small ones).

3. Let the most important information shine

If you’re running an event, you might think that making the date and address prominent on the poster is really important – I mean how will people come along if they don’t know what day it’s on and where to come to? These details obviously need to be on there, but if the bit about it being a free tabby cat grooming workshop for beginners is lost in smaller text somewhere, you’re probably going to miss your target audience.

4. Be consistent

Use the same font, in the same colour, at the same size for headings. Use the same font, in the same colour, at the same size for body text. Decide whether your bullet point lists will start with capital letters or not, and stick to it – don’t mix and match. Use the same bullet point wherever you use bullet points. You get the gist…

5. Stick to one or two fonts

It’s perfectly fine to use a couple of different fonts: one for headings and sub-headings and another for body text, for instance. Rein it in after that and remind yourself of the points above about simplicity and consistency.

As a general rule of thumb, avoid using Comic Sans, Curlz and Papyrus in any given situation. They are over-used, often used inappropriately, and will do you no favours. There are many other fonts to choose from, even if you’re limited to the ones on your computer.

6. Avoid using clip art

Clip art is, by definition, not unique, and therefore can only reflect your message or values in a very generic way. To be frank, it looks unprofessional.

If you think the answer is a quick Google image search then think again. Use an image that you’ve found in this way and you could be in breach of copyright. It is also unlikely to be of good enough quality for anything other than on-screen use. Here are some alternatives:

  • Use simple shapes in Word / Publisher / PowerPoint / Canva such as speech bubbles, circles or boxes to house text or images, breaking up your page.

  • If you have them (with the necessary permission in place) use your organisation’s own photos. These have the advantage of being both unique and authentic.

  • Search Creative Commons photo libraries such as (here’s what a search for ‘Valentine’s Day’ brings up for instance).

  • Buy a few stock images (this could be photographs, illustrations, icons or even patterns) but make sure they are truly relevant to your organisation or message.

  • Take some photos of your own. This might seem a bit scary if you don’t think of yourself as a photographer, but even photos of colleagues holding up quotes or sketches could be a useful tool for a presentation for instance. Let your imagination loose and you’ll be surprised what you can come up with.

7. Ask someone else to review your work

We all make mistakes. We all edit things and accidentally leave remnants of the original behind to show us up and annoy us. We all get too close to a piece of work and can’t ‘see’ it anymore. Enlist someone to proof-read for you and also to proof the visual elements. If possible, also test it out with members of your target audience to check it’s hitting the right note.

8. Call in the professionals when needed

If we think of the above as DIY, when it comes to the design equivalent of doing some plumbing or electrical work (designing logos, exhibition stands or promotional materials for instance), it really is worth paying a professional to do it for you. Not doing so can be a false economy.

Twice in the last couple of weeks I’ve spoken with people who have created artwork in-house - for multi-page leaflets and pull-up banners respectively - and sent it off to the printers, only for the items to come back with bits printed the wrong way round. This is simply down to the artwork not being set up correctly for print: a costly mistake, but completely avoidable with a professional designer at the helm.

Make a designer happy and show your visual communication a little love this #ValentinesDay (and beyond...).