DON’T PANIC!

Designers regularly embark on journeys into the unknown, deal with shifting and transforming project parameters, and discover that the road ahead reveals technical and creative difficulties set to test even the most skilled of design professionals. Successfully positioning yourself to negotiate these uncomfortable twists and turns can be an advantageous practice, that is not always adhered to by creatives.

The process of creating for commercial clients requires that many tangible, positive outcomes result from the investment, and this therefore necessitates that a series of considered steps be followed. Sound future planning, prediction of likely outcomes, and risk reduction strategies are all key elements involved in the generation of successful concepts that meet the dynamic needs of commercial clients. By developing a considered rationale and adhering to logical design and branding rules, any project encountering serious challenges, should be comfortably able to flexibly manage these altered conditions.

DON'T PANIC!Easy left, hard right

As an example of necessary preparation, rally drivers ‘recce’ stages and create accurate pacenotes, enabling them to foresee every significant curve and corner, so that they can safely take them at maximum speed. This methodology of pre-planning and noting the course is a useful example for designers who need to consider multiple factors when creating within strict timeframes.

It can unfortunately be all too easy to find yourself without options or clear answers when the project takes an unexpected turn and an unmovable deadline looms large. Without having previously addressed many common technical pitfalls, or the generally understood realities of commercial life, thoughtless panicking, and ill-considered rushed solutions, may be the harmful result.

Designers need to work from applicable project certainties and use their problem solving abilities to create an adaptable framework capable of dealing with a changing or evolving brief. Anticipating electronic file requirements, delivery methods and other possibilities for current day technology and new information delivery platforms is a must for anyone producing creative work.

The ability to positively think on your feet and apply well-grounded options or feedback will be largely based on the consideration and planning processes undertaken as part of the creative concept and early project construction. A bit of design thought and preparation can help to navigate troublesome obstacles, and then avoid the unwanted, and unhelpful, panic response.

Return on investment

Return on investment (ROI) is typically used as a decision-making concept regarding the determination of bottom line suitability for activities such as business models, retail product development and various funding schemes, but is equally applicable when discussing creative pursuits and the resultant impact in comparison to the actual time and effort involved.

There can be no favourable ROI if the undertaking consumes a vastly disproportionate amount of time and/or cost to arrive at a completed product – this imbalance can absolutely destroy any creative concept that simply doesn’t match effort with reward. Even when there are no financial implications and the pursuit is realistically only a hobby or pastime, extreme amounts of unrewarded effort surely do not meet most practical criteria for true personal reimbursement.

Finding the balance between art and commerce is always pertinent when discussing commercial artwork, illustration or graphic design. Determining the intrinsic relevance of purely artistic decisions within design projects is a key component of producing long-lasting quality work, and is also a helpful guide towards building genuine cooperative relationships between designer, client, and the needs of a consumer. Deceiving yourself with notions of artistic importance and neglecting solid design fundamentals is one thing – deceiving others via your own vanity or stubbornness is quite another!

Efficiency within the creative process, based on careful and considered planning and structuring, is the greatest influential component that a designer or illustrator can make to create a balanced ROI. Technical competency and conceptual skill will obviously ensure that the return or reward equation is more likely achievable, however it should also be noted that the shifting client goalposts often encountered within a project can easily scuttle even the most meticulous preparation from a conscientious individual.

Creative streams regularly produce unexpected communication difficulties and disagreements over visual elements – something widely accepted as an unfortunate evil that can only be suitably managed, rather than neatly eradicated. Possessing a realistic rationale and maintaining a professional overview should help to hasten processes and allow the attainment of a justifiable ROI.

Image resolution

Content for printing requires a minimum level of detail, otherwise the human eye will notice the pixels within the image and see a clear lack of definition. The golden rule for pixel (aka bitmap or raster) based files is: 300ppi @ actual size

The physical image size (dimensions) is required to be set at 100% of the intended size for final use. An image at 300ppi (pixels per inch: within software this is commonly referred to as the same definition as the printing terminology dots per inch) will contain enough pixel information for high quality reproduction. Any image with a resolution lower than this value, that is desired to be printed on an offset or digital press, will suffer from minor to very obvious pixellation, depending on the actual file resolution and quality.

When scanning images, although most desktop scanners can produce files at 2400dpi, only 300dpi is required. Images above 300dpi will contain more information, but the constraints of standard printing will not allow this extra detail to be seen and the file size can also become prohibitively large. It is generally wise to retain an original scan at the largest physical size possibly required (or achievable) and then save further copies at the actual size to be used within a document – always keeping the resolution at 300ppi.

Any image content described as ‘line art’ (ie, charts, maps, type) will require a higher resolution of 1200dpi to avoid jagged edges often present at 300dpi for this detailed content. Black & white bitmap images will especially require this higher resolution, otherwise straight lines will feature very noticeable ‘stepping’ as the lower resolution attempts to create a hard edge with a limited amount of pixels.

Digital cameras:
Consult your user manual and set the camera to ‘high quality’ or a comparative high setting and also ensure the image size is set for the largest output possible. Also note to turn off date stamping if set as a default function. If purchasing a new camera consult with a specialist photographic or camera store for advice on which camera to buy, informing them about your intended use for print purposes.

Web images:
The resolution of a web image is generally not suitable for print output, unless the file is dimensionally very large. The computer monitor displays images at a much lower resolution – 72ppi – compared to the requirements for print, so most web sourced content will not contain the needed pixel information. Even though an image may look perfectly suitable on screen, the printable size will usually be very small and the quality of the file unsuitably low.

Resampling or resizing images:
Adobe Photoshop (or other similar image editing software) offers the ability to alter both the dimensions and resolution of an image. Resampling by increasing the amount of pixels within an image, is done by a process called interpolation, in which the software creates new pixels based on the colour information of surrounding pixels. This process is usually not advisable for images containing important sharp detail (faces, contrasting shapes, clean lines) as it will produce noticeable pixel edges and fuzzy tones in certain areas. If required, only use this method of increasing dimension or resolution by a small amount, which may hide any possible interpolation problems.

The following is a step-by-step guide for resampling in Adobe Photoshop:

  1. Select ‘Image’ from the menu, then ‘Image Size’.
  2. Make sure that ‘Resample Image’ is checked (or on) and select the appropriate method. The default method of ‘Bicubic’ is suitable for most images, however experimenting with ‘Bicubic Smoother’ when upsampling (creating a larger image) and ‘Bicubic Sharper’ when downsampling may produce better results.
  3. Make sure that the resolution setting is for pixels/inch.
  4. Within ‘Document Size’ the image width and height will now be unlinked to the resolution (as indicated by the links icon). Enter a new value for either width/height or resolution, based on your requirement to alter either the dimensions at the set resolution, or the resolution at the existing dimensions.
  5. Select ‘OK’.

If you are simply resizing an image saved at a resolution other than 300ppi, the following steps will change the dimensions and resolution in combination, without using interpolation:

  1. Select ‘Image’ from the menu, then ‘Image Size’.
  2. Make sure that ‘Resample Image’ is unchecked (or off).
  3. Make sure that the resolution setting is for pixels/inch.
  4. Within ‘Document Size’ the image width, height and resolution will now be linked (as indicated by the links icon). When you enter a new value for resolution, the dimensions will scale accordingly.
  5. Select ‘OK’.

Photoshop is now simply scaling the existing image size to produce a file matching your new resolution value. If your new file dimensions are very small, based on your requirement for a higher resolution, then only resampling will allow you to achieve an increased file size – with possible quality problems as previously described. Using this method to correct and save all your pixel files to the required print resolution of 300dpi, will then allow you to place images within page layout software at exactly 100%. When creating a design, significantly scaling any image beyond the actual file dimensions, will cause loss of detail as you enlarge beyond the available pixel data and must be avoided to retain image integrity.

Good design

We all know what we like and what we believe is good design, but creating strong and successful designs is a task that requires a careful balance of creativity, accurate message delivery, consistency and overall readability.

There are many ‘rules’ for design, with many of these able to be broken, if you understand how the basics of design work and their relationship and interaction within your layout. Here’s a few key concepts that need to be addressed:

  • Use restraint:
    Don’t cram large amounts of information into an area, believing more content is better. Allow empty areas or ‘white space’ to give your content room to breathe and make it easier for the viewer to take in the message you are presenting. This also applies to font usage. Restrict yourself to a few font families (weight and style variations: roman, bold, italic, condensed etc…) and create variation with appropriate use of style choices, rather than adding an extra font.
  • Lead the eye through the design:
    English speaking countries read from left to right and top to bottom, which is why most layouts are structured to be read from top left to bottom right. For example, a typical print advertisement will start with a headline, follow with detailed content (text and images) and end with a ‘call to action’ and/or contact details/logo. Within this general order the key is to create a comfortable path for the eye to follow within the space, resting on the key components reflecting the what, where and who points of the piece. Creating areas of interest and directing the eye to move throughout the design in a logical order will help to ‘sell’ the content on display.
  • Provide visual contrast:
    A layout featuring a large amount of text (or any other consistent element) will appear somewhat dull, compared to a balanced design featuring contrasting elements and tones. Both effective colour usage and shape/form variation will produce suitable contrast to attract the eye and excite the viewer. Most memorable designs will in some way utilise areas of visual contrast and using this technique appropriately can effectively increase interest and brand awareness.
  • Format paged documents with constant elements:
    Variation is generally a good thing, however for a professional look across a document featuring multiple pages a standard base should be implemented. A constant and logical design format (column placement/width, header, page numbers etc…) should remain throughout the entire document, with variation restricted to considered adjustment of the base style, for any page(s) requiring a different approach. It is also very important to make it visually straightforward for the reader to follow your hierarchical system throughout the document, so set up a workable and identifiable system (formatting, style, colour) for headings, sub-headings, captions, quotes etc.
  • Choose colour wisely:
    Use restraint again when choosing colour – a large range of colours may actually look pretty to some, but they generally do not produce a coherent visual result. Develop a small range of colours that work well together to accurately represent your design content, structure and overall theme, and then expand this choice with percentages or tints of these colours to provide some variation. Too much colour can simply distract the eye and confuse your message. Always remember – not everything needs to be colour highlighted!

Colour modes & image management

The colour you see on a computer monitor is not the colour you will see on a printed page. Different methods of printing are used for specific requirements (and quantities) and together with varying stock types, colour will often appear quite different to that seen and selected via the computer.

The first colour basic to understand is the difference between how a monitor portrays colour and the method used to transfer a file into a printed document. On the monitor, primary colours of light (additive primaries) are generated by different degrees of electrons. The mix of red, green and blue light (RGB) is perceived by the eye as the full RGB spectrum of colour.

On paper, cyan, magenta and yellow (subtractive primaries) are mixed with black (adding crispness to dark colour mixes) to create the CMYK spectrum. For a photograph, or continuous tone image, colour is represented by small printed dots of the four ink colours, which together combine to form a complete image. Via the computer CMYK is simulated on the screen and unless the monitor is calibrated to accurately match this mode, reliable colour matching may be impossible.

The RGB spectrum does not directly convert to CMYK and many colours actually have no direct match. Colours can shift dramatically from one spectrum to the other and images or key colour choices may appear significantly different from the intended effect. Typically converting from RGB to CMYK will ‘muddy’ an image as the intensity of the additive colour on the monitor is replaced by the subtractive colour reflected back to your eye from the printed stock. For CMYK print requirements images converted from RGB must be correctly adjusted to achieve the originally desired colour balance, or workable alternative colours selected.

It is important to understand that supplying a file for print in RGB will likely cause significant colour issues, if printed by an offset press and possible colour shifts if printed digitally. Created files need to be set in CMYK mode and all imported or placed content within the final document needs to be converted to CMYK, if in RGB mode.

Adobe Photoshop, however, offers a different approach for working between colour modes. Certain filters and effects will only operate in RGB mode, so it is possible to create files in RGB as the ‘working’ file and supply a ‘save as’ copy of the final file in CMYK for print purposes. RGB files in Photoshop are also smaller file sizes compared to CMYK files, which is often an advantage when working with the file and also for electronic distribution.

As with converting from one colour mode to another, changing directly to grayscale from either RGB or CMYK without tonal adjustment is not advised. Viewable variances between objects of different colours are often lost if their relative values are similar. As grayscale is a mono (single) colour mode, the amount of information describing image content is limited, compared to a colour mode containing a wider spectrum. Detail that the eye can see through colour differences may now be effectively hidden, once converted to slightly varied tones of a single colour.

Supplying a colour image for grayscale output on a black & white or single colour print project, without the correct mode conversion and correction is a particular area regarding quality concerns. For a desirable printed result, images must be converted to grayscale and the steps illustrated below followed to produce an appropriate file.

The following Adobe Photoshop step-by-step guides provide specific information regarding common problems affecting image quality.

Correcting and improving the appearance of a colour image:

  1. Resize the image to the required output resolution and size.
  2. Select ‘Filter’, then ‘Sharpen’, then ‘Unsharp Mask’. The options here control the amount of contrast Photoshop applies along the edge of areas containing different pixel content. The default values for radius and threshold will be suitable for most images, however experimentation may produce suitable results. The degree of sharpening is determined by the amount percentage. Typically a value in the range of 50-100 will suffice, but for larger images a higher value will be required. Oversharpening can produce a noticeable halo effect, however the effect of this filter are less pronounced when printed.
  3. If required, select ‘Image’, then ‘Adjustments’, then ‘Curves’. Manually adjusting the curve will change the overall tonality and adding points to the curve (by clicking) will allow the adjustment of particular image areas from point to point. You can adjust all or target individual channels.
  4. If required, select ‘Image’, then ‘Adjustments’, then ‘Levels’. The sliders here allow you to compress the shadow and highlight values to match the image content for better output results. You can adjust all or target individual channels. Moving the end sliders below the histogram alters the darkest and lightest pixels within the image and remaps the black or white point to your new value. Adjusting the middle slider affects the gamma (brightness) to make the overall image darker or lighter.
  5. If required, select ‘Image’, then ‘Adjustments’, then ‘Brightness/Contrast’. This is a basic adjustment that affects every pixel in the image. Used sparingly it can apply greater overall contrast than either ‘Curves’ or ‘Levels’, especially on grayscale images.
  6. If required, select ‘Image’, then ‘Adjustments’, then ‘Hue/Saturation’. Under ‘Edit’ you have the option of altering the entire colour space, or individual colour components. Adjusting the values for hue, saturation and lightness can shift the colour through the spectrum and change the colour depth.
  7. If required, select ‘Image’, then ‘Adjustments’, then ‘Color Balance’. Adjusting the values for shadows, midtones or highlights can change a specific tonal range and improve the mixture of colour within focussed areas.
  8. If required, select ‘Image’, then ‘Adjustments’, then ‘Shadow/Highlight’. This corrects the visible lighting of an image. You can individually control the shadows and highlights to brighten detail lost in shadow or correct overexposed elements.


Converting and correcting the appearance of a grayscale image:

  1. Resize the image to the required output resolution and size.
  2. If required, Select ‘Image’, then ‘Mode’, then ‘Grayscale’.
  3. Select ‘Filter’, then ‘Sharpen’, then ‘Unsharp Mask’. The options here control the amount of contrast Photoshop applies along the edge of areas containing different pixel content. The default values for radius and threshold will be suitable for most images, however experimentation may produce suitable results. The degree of sharpening is determined by the amount percentage. Typically a value in the range of 50-100 will suffice, but for larger images a higher value will be required. Oversharpening can produce a noticeable halo effect, however the effect of this filter are less pronounced when printed.
  4. If required, select ‘Image’, then ‘Adjustments’, then ‘Curves’. Manually adjusting the curve will change the overall tonality and adding points to the curve (by clicking) will allow the adjustment of particular image areas from point to point.
  5. If required, select ‘Image’, then ‘Adjustments’, then ‘Levels’. The sliders here allow you to compress the shadow and highlight values to match the image content for better output results. Moving the end sliders below the histogram alters the darkest and lightest pixels within the image and remaps the black or white point to your new value. Adjusting the middle slider affects the gamma (brightness) to make the overall image darker or lighter.
  6. If required, select ‘Image’, then ‘Adjustments’, then ‘Brightness/Contrast’. This is a basic adjustment that affects every pixel in the image. Used sparingly it can apply greater overall contrast than either ‘Curves’ or ‘Levels’, especially on greyscale images.
  7. If required, select ‘Image’, then ‘Adjustments’, then ‘Shadow/Highlight’. This corrects the visible lighting of an image. You can individually control the shadows and highlights to brighten detail lost in shadow or correct overexposed elements.

As a general rule grayscale images usually print well when adjusted to appear slightly too light on the monitor. Darker images can loose a large amount of midtone detail (especially on newsprint or specialty uncoated stocks) and appear filled-in when printed.

Converting from RGB to CMYK:

  1. Select ‘Image’, then ‘Mode’, then ‘CMYK Color’.
  2. In the History palette (if not visible turn on via ‘Window’, then ‘History’) check for any colour shift by moving between the available states, showing the file in both colour modes.
  3. If required, select ‘Image’, then ‘Adjustments’, then ‘Hue/Saturation’. Under ‘Edit’ you have the option of altering the entire colour space, or individual colour components. Adjusting the values for hue, saturation and lightness can correct any shift or loss of colour.
  4. If required, select ‘Image’, then ‘Adjustments’, then ‘Color Balance’. Adjusting the values for shadows, midtones or highlights can correct any colour shift across the entire image and improve the balance within a specific tonal range.

Planning electronic assets

Graphic design is a creative and technical mix, requiring solid knowledge of both areas to create and produce quality projects. The emergence of ‘desktop publishing’ during the 1980’s has forever altered the way design is constructed and as with many electronic advancements, has also brought with it a new assortment of uniquely digital problem areas.

A lot of technical proficiency is now required to effectively produce finished art from the various software programs needed to create electronic files. This is now additional to the knowledge of a design professional, who provides skills ranging from complete project planning and direction, to specific layout and creative solutions. Add to this the specialist knowledge required for successful printing (via either digital or offset processes) and print finishing (folding, cutting, binding) and the range of skills and expertise required becomes very broad.

Creating polished design and print that works effectively for individual projects is not an easy task and can require a substantial time investment. Correct planning and an understanding of general design and print rules may help you to create and provide projects that accurately hit your intended target.

Most designs do not operate in isolation and many of the elements developed for one, can or will be required for further projects. It is essential to create electronic assets that are reusable for future use – both known projects and unknown possibilities.

Logos, illustrations and photographs are common elements that require initial planning to create assets that are able to be used in a variety of ways. The resolution of any pixel based file will determine the largest possible size that this type of file can be successfully enlarged to. Large format material such as posters, signage or display installations will require files of a suitable dimension and resolution, otherwise the results will be less than expected and desired. For web development it is key to consider print use when project planning as many parts of an online identity style may be required for later high resolution print usage.

A general rule for pixel content is to initially create at the largest size possible. This size and resolution will be determined by software capability, available computer memory (and operating speed) and also creative constraints.

For logos, illustrations and charts the best choice will often be to use a ‘vector’ drawing program. Vector based software will produce scalable files that can be used at any size and also offer the ability for easy colour and format editing for content variation and other uses. Vector files can quickly specify ‘spot’ colours to support corporate colour schemes and produce very small file sizes for electronic distribution.

Planning projects to allow for correct output and flexibility of use, will help to maximise the initial expense for the creation of key elements and provide files that are able to meet the needs of different future requirements. Plan wisely and think ahead!

Finding design inspiration

Need a helping creative hand to generate ideas or solve problematical design issues? At times inspiration is short and deadlines are way too tight. It can be all too easy to just revert back to standard uninspiring approaches and solutions, rather than specifically addressing the visual and technical requirements for a new design project.

Sourcing references and examples to kick start creative thoughts is a relatively easy task, especially with our current ability to quickly connect to the world via the net. A key aspect of working through stumbling blocks is the ability to see all relevant and seemingly irrelevant influences in context. All that surrounds us has the capability to offer assistance for problem solving, from basic structural form and content relationships through to colour schemes and harmony.

For general product or informational design (ie brochures, packaging and print advertising) the designer needs to consider both approaches that fit the current need and also those not obviously from the same product type or commercial sector. Making yourself open to alternatives may yield fresh design alternatives not immediately considered. The presentation, design framework and organisational structure of information in markets unrelated to your current project may provide insights towards problem solving with an alternative perspective.

Looking at structure, shape and colour – expand your mind!

Many market aspects demand specific required/desired elements to be successful and can lead to a unique visual language, only seen within that particular demographic, form of distribution or product type. It’s possible to find extremely useful layout solutions from simply observing and analysing the components and likely theory behind these designs. You may find that many examples have the ability to offer considerable insight into the bigger design questions that need to be answered. A key is to not stumble when viewing visuals not directly related to your exact market. Learn from the reasoning that has created the finished result and apply the same thinking to your project. Viable design direction may be gained.

For example: the structure and graphical detail required for a poster advertising a punk rock concert may not match your immediate project at hand, but it may illustrate a method or technique highly relevant to solving tough design issues that you do have. Helpfully, by simply absorbing and analysing a wide range of styles, colours and artistic approaches, your mind will likely gain a greater perspective and develop more possible ideas. A workable direction may then form, pointing towards a treatment previously unthought.

Over the years I’ve discovered many excellent design solutions hidden amongst completely unconnected print designs, packaging, displays and other artistic work. If not structure and content, then colour palettes and theory should at least present itself and offer you food for thought to help move beyond those annoying creative stumbles.