Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Design Philosophy

I thought it would be a good idea to establish my personal philosophy for putting together a file for professional print publication. This way you'll know right up front where I'm coming from.

These are not the rules for good design. You won't find anything here regarding color theory, use of space, font choices or any of that. You can learn that at any school of art & design — and you will pay a whole lot of money to get that kind of education, too. Of course, you can find opinions about those rules all over the place, too, so I won't bother re-stating them here.

I'm talking about my personal, practical rules for the process of building a file for eventual print publication. It boils down to two rules:

1. It has to output and print correctly.
2. It should be built so that it's very easy to edit in the future.

Now, these may seem simple — obvious even — but I'm still regularly surprised by how often these rules are ignored or abandoned by otherwise very good designers. You can create the most incredible piece - one that your friends and co-workers will call brilliant or moving or effective, or whatever ... but if these rules aren't followed, you limit your creation's potential to be seen by a wider audience.

So let's take a closer look at them:

It has to output and print correctly.

I cannot even begin to count the number of proofs I see that have strange process artifacts in them. Nor can I count the number of times I've seen RIP operators come back with a problem in a file that they simply can't fix from their end.

These problems usually result from a designer using improper methods for creating the file to begin with. Often they've used a software shortcut. (There's a whole future article regarding these.) Or, perhaps they've selected a non-compliant font. Sad to say, the most common reason for this is that the designer used the wrong tool for the job (i.e., they used Photoshop as a type tool, or they created an entire page layout in Illustrator rather than QuarkXPress or InDesign). 

Another common mistake is dropping layered Photoshop files directly into a layout document. Yes, Adobe will tell you that this should work fine, but I have news for all you youngsters: Adobe lies. Or, more precisely, Adobe's marketing copy implies a lot. Yes, you can, in fact drop a raw PSD file into an InDesign layout, and it will usually look just fine on screen. But when you send that file out, or when you create a final PDF for print, it won't always actually work. It's easier just to create all your files with this in mind rather than make a crapshoot out of it, because even though you'll come up sevens and elevens much of the time, when you do roll snake-eyes, it will inevitably happen at the worst possible time.

Design schools teach design. Unfortunately, they usually either neglect to teach the mechanics of turning the design into reality, or they teach the wrong methods.

As the project deadline approaches, it's easy to get in a hurry and just slap together something so that it looks OK. When the files come back to you because the printer or proofer can't get them to output correctly, or when the proofs come back looking all wrong, you'll find yourself frustrated at having to re-work files that were supposed to have been done. This also takes away valuable up-front time on whatever your new projects are.

It's always better (and usually easier) to build it right the first time.

It should be built so that it's very easy to edit in the future.

Whatever your project is — I don't care whether it's a huge self-mailer with all sorts of cool fold-outs or if it's as simple as a business card — there is a very good chance that you or someone else will need to edit or repurpose it in the future. To that end, it is vitally important that you do the technical layouts in a way that can be easily edited.

Easily editable means that if someone who has never worked with this file (or set of files) picks it up, they could easily change copy (both body copy and headlines), images and other design elements easily and without having to resort to rebuilding any of those elements or re-keying any of the copy from scratch.

There will be more detailed articles on this topic in the future, but I thought it would be a good idea to lay these concepts out up front. Whether I'm designing something new, re-purposing an old creative concept or simply preparing someone else's files for print, these are the things I keep in mind. Sure, you can sometimes get away with taking shortcuts, but if you make a habit of doing things correctly from the start (keeping these rules in mind) you'll save yourself a lot of headaches in the future.

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