The 8 Hallmarks of Professional Graphic Designers

Today, almost everyone can and does call themselves a designer – it seems that anyone who has ever fiddled around with Photoshop says, “Oh, I can design.” Not true.

Graphic design is about organizing and presenting visual information: to inform, educate, or persuade. The principles are simple — however, simple is not to be confused with easy. It requires training and discipline to find the best solutions for each design problem.

But if you’ve never worked with a designer before, then how do you tell the professionals from the amateurs? What should you expect from a professional designer?

1. Knowledge & Responsibility: Professional designers are knowledgeable and well versed in the theory and practice of design. They most likely have gone to school to learn this, although there are some excellent designers who are self-taught. They use professional computer applications to achieve their outcomes. Designers carry a huge responsibility to society in how information is presented and they take that responsibility seriously — choosing ethical and constructive contributions.

2. Initial Meeting: Most professional designers offer a free consultation for potential clients — usually a half hour — so you can explain your project needs, and see examples of work in their portfolio. The designer will ask you about the project parameters (purpose, intended audience, required elements, copy, images – to name just a few), timeframe and any known budget. A word about the portfolio: If you don’t see exactly what you’re looking for, don’t dismiss them out of hand. A competent graphic designer will be able to do a variety of work and styles – don’t be afraid to ask them about the look or style you’re after. Feel free to ask for testimonials about their work and what it’s like to work with them.

3. Estimate: A professional designer will present a written estimate/contract so both the designer and client are on the same page. After the initial meeting, the designer will write up and present a 1-2 page estimate which includes a full project description — purpose, audience, look/feeling, required elements, size, quantity, inks, paper, copy & images (and who is providing what), the number of creative concepts, the number of rounds of revision, final deliverables, fee, payment schedule, designer’s business practices (which include rights, change orders, etc.), and schedule with key dates (a full schedule is submitted after the estimate has been accepted by the client).

4. Communication: A professional designer will communicate with the client on a regular basis: for some clients, this may mean checking in weekly. For others, it may be as needed (based on the schedule the client and designer agreed upon). The designer should also be honest with the client about whether what the client is asking for is a good idea or not. A professional designer will meet deadlines and expected deliverables, or will communicate with the client in the event of agreed-upon project or schedule changes — and expects that the client will take responsibility for communicating as well (it’s a two-way street, after all). A professional designer likes people and likes helping clients — with a pleasant and positive manner.

5. Creative: Like most things in life, if it looks easy and effortless, you can bet that a lot of work went into it. Design is no different. Here’s a sampling of what professional designers take into account when creating, evaluating and solving a communication problem:

  • Purpose – what are we trying to explain or convey? Are we trying to persuade, educate, inform or be noticed? What is the hierarchy of information?
  • Audience – who are we talking to? What do they want to know (vs. what do you want to tell them)?
  • What’s the best way to say this? Should it be an ad, brochure, logo, newsletter, sales letter, manual or direct mail? Should it be digital or printed?
  • Look/feeling – what is the ‘gestalt’ of the piece (e.g., fun, elegant, calm, powerful, traditional, welcoming, etc.)? Then further breaking that down: for example, if the look is “fun” then what conveys that to this audience? Emotions can be translated into visuals.
  • Design principles and rules: Balance, Focal Point, Unity (Proximity, Repetition), Movement, Rhythm, Contrast, Figure/Ground relationship
  • Typography: Font choice(s), Legibility, Readability
  • Color
  • Press issues: size, paper, inks, specialty processes
  • Production: What’s the best program to build this in for the intended output (page layout, image editing, illustration programs, etc.)?
  • Images: size, resolution, color space (RGB, CMYK), correction, tone targeting, dot gain, UCR, GCR, etc.
  • Pre-press: trapping, creating a correct file for the intended output device (digital, or printed:  lithography, flexography, screen, web press)
  • Press check(s)

6. Fees: Quality costs money and professionals expect to be paid for their services. There’s an old saying, “Good, Fast, Cheap — pick any two.” If a designer’s fees are below the norm, then it may be an indication of poor design quality. Or it could mean that they will deliver a quality project, but in a much slower time frame than you would like. Also, bear in mind that it costs more to build a yacht than it does a rowboat.

7. Fit: A professional designer will tell you if s/he isn’t the best designer for you. The type of project, graphic style, timeframe or budget – any of these things may not be a good fit between client and designer.

8. Competence vs. Excellence: Lastly, there’s a difference between a competent professional designer and an excellent one. To be a competent designer, one needs to learn and know how to use the principles of design, art and several professional computer design applications.

However, the most effective designers are trained not only in these fields, but have made it their business to understand how our society and culture functions. They have a working knowledge of history, communications, business, psychology and sociology — this gives them the context for making appropriate design decisions. If the designer also knows about how the world works — things like physics, math, economics, geography and anthropology — then their skills and ability to assist clients deepens immeasurably. The client (and the community) will be all the richer for it.

© 2011. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without written consent from the author, Moira Hill.

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