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by Martin Turner  |  December 23, 2021

12 Brilliant Content Design Tips, Part 1

Content Design Tips

We’ve been counting down the days until Christmas with a special campaign on our LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook feeds. For our blog, Martin Turner provides some additional thoughts on each of our 12 design tips. Today we’ll explore the first six, and we’ll conclude 2021 with the other six next week. From all of us at Quark, we wish you a healthy, happy and brilliant holiday season!

1. Begin with a pen.

Before you fire up your computer, sketch out your ideas to see what direction pen and paper take you.

Inking thumbnails on a piece of paper takes you in a different direction from beginning with the computer. Over the holiday season, visiting family and friends will not be too impressed if you keep getting out your tablet or laptop, or disappear into your studio, just because some great design idea just struck. But nobody minds you sketching away in a paper notebook. If you haven’t bought yourself a seasonal gift yet, a Moleskine notebook and a Rotring Fineliner have all the heritage of the old days, but without (for the Rotring) the problems of messy ink and fragile tips. Unlike the old days, going from thumbnail sketch to a DTP template is as simple as taking a picture on your smartphone and uploading it. For QuarkXPress users, you can put it on a locked layer and fade in the transparency to make it easy to work with.

2. Use the other part of the web for research.

Instead of searching stock sites for ‘memorable face,’ try Googling ‘what makes a face memorable?’ The answer is ‘kind, trustworthy and distinct,’ which we know because a study was summarized in layman’s terms.

Frustrated by trying to follow ‘15 design trends for 2022’ or ‘the hottest new trends in design’ when they all contradict each other? There’s now huge amounts of scientific research available for free on the internet that doesn’t rely on guesswork and someone’s opinion. For example, many studies have been done on what makes particular faces memorable— ‘kind’, ‘trustworthy’ and ‘distinct’, are the key elements, but there’s more out there to learn. You don’t need to read the (difficult) scientific papers for these—most studies are summarized dozens of times in layman’s language.

3. Go on and off the grid.

Swear by them or swear at them, it’s good to mix up using or not using a grid when you design.

Do you use a grid when designing? Some designers swear by them, others swear at them. The truth is that some kinds of design are faster, easier and better with a grid, and some aren’t. But we all have our preferences, and we tend to stick to them. So, for a New Year’s Resolution, why not try to do at least some work off-grid if you’re a gridder, and some on-grid if you are a resolute free former. If you’ve never gridded at all, then you might want to start with “Grid Systems in Graphic Design” by Josef Muller-Brockmann. One to add to the gift list. For QuarkXPress users, don’t forget to check out the Guides palette, which is one of the best-kept secrets in the software. Using the menu at the top right will give you all kinds of grid creation options.

4. Take shortcuts.

You can customize features and functions to suit you with keyboard shortcuts—and go even further with physical control surfaces.

If you walk into a pro video or audio studio, you see all kinds of hardware controls. Many designers use a pen tablet (good), but you can get so much more out of your workflow if you pick up, say, a simple jog wheel such as a Contour Shuttle. Not only can you assign particular actions in any application to particular buttons, but you can also set the wheel to scroll through hundreds of pages, or across the screen. Other physical control surfaces, such as by Loupedeck, enable you to color match images in Capture One or other software far more easily. For QuarkXPress, the Contour Shuttle works extremely well. While you’re looking at this, if you do use a Wacom pad or something similar, it’s worth programming the hotkeys to do something useful.

Also, don’t forget that in QuarkXPress, you can customize virtually every function and feature with its own keyboard shortcut to your taste, including replicating hotkeys you may be used to from other software. Quarkxpress has many features, such as combining cells in a table, which don’t have default hot keys, but which you can specify. A rule of thumb: if you are doing the same task with the mouse and menus more than ten times, it will be quicker to create a hot key in the preferences for it.

5. Think ahead.

Logos become dated quickly if too fussy and complex, so take those ideas on a ride in an imaginary time machine to assess how they might come across in 10 or 20 years and if you can solidify or simplify them.

Have you seen the evolution of the Shell logo?

Shell logo Logos are © of Shell. Fair use.

Most major brands have gone through simplification and solidification over the years—Shell’s is an oft-cited, outstanding example. Fussy, complicated logos date very quickly, and yet it’s amazing how many new company logos and design elements are fussy and overcomplex. There is a reason for this: clients look at logos blown up to 30 cm / 12” wide. It takes a very, very confident client to pick a simple logo when shown at that size. But, once reduced down to 1cm / ⅓” the charming illustration is just a mess of lines or a blur of colors. Design tip for 2022: take a trip in an imaginary time machine when you design a logo. Think about the version you are considering presenting to the client, and now mentally travel forwards ten years, twenty years. How will this look by then? Will the future you be simplifying it? How? Now apply that same simplification to today’s version.

6. Stock up.

Stock photography has gone through a revolution with new high-end styles and approaches, improved search, and new royalty-free, no-attribution sites.

Do you use stock photography? If you don’t, it’s time to look at stock again: it’s gone through a revolution in the last five years. While there are still a plethora of cheesy images with ice-bright smiles and impossibly tidy offices, a new generation of photographers are putting their work online with styles and approaches that look like they belong in high-end productions, not as a last-minute addition to a WordPress template. Search and selection has also improved dramatically. When you’re working, you don’t want a ‘picture of a man with a hammer’, which is what you used to have to search for. You want something like ‘trustworthy’ combined with ‘tools’. There are still sites that work the old way, but crowdsourcing and tagging now means that the new way is always within reach. Even better, sites such as Pexels and Unsplash deliver royalty-free, no attribution required images at the pro-level for free.

On the other hand, if you’re an avid stock user, then consider taking your Nikon, Canon or even your smartphone and going to shoot original material. If you’re really not a shooter, many of the photographers on Pexels and Unsplash are available for hire, and you can already see the quality and style of their work.

Remember to check back next week for the remaining six brilliant content design tips!

Martin Turner is a chartered public relations practitioner with 30 years of experience in commissioning and designing print, advertising and online marketing materials. He graduated from Oxford University with a degree in English language and literature, and subsequently worked in the arts, automotive and healthcare industries before running his own consultancy in commercial branding. Martin is also a long-time power user of QuarkXPress.

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