The one piece of design advice every online business owner should know.
I remember when I first got started in graphic design. It. Was. HARD. I remember spending hours and hours staring blankly at Photoshop documents, wondering why everything I tried looked awful.
Thankfully for me, over the years of design school and then and experience with clients, graphic design has gotten much easier. But I remember what it was like to be right there at the beginning, and how difficult it felt.
Unless you've come from a design background, you might be right there on that design struggle street. You probably haven't gone into business to become a graphic designer, and yet there are parts of your business that require design attention. With limited resources, sometimes the only option is to jump into the trenches and learn as you go.
So if that's you - whether you're going down the DIY route or trying to choose pre-made designs - there are a couple of ideas and principles I've learned along the way that can make things a little easier.
I've written previously about some of the specifics of fonts and colors and graphics, so if you're looking for that kind of design help, you'll find it in that article. However, this one's going to be a little different, but just as important.
The biggest piece of design advice I can give you as an online business owner is this:
Your mindset and creative process is half the battle.
You can know about typography or color or hierarchy, but you'll still be stuck staring at that blank document if you can't work through your creative blocks. And we've all got them.
Here are four of the most common creative mindset and process challenges that new designers face (I know I did!) and what to do about them.
When it comes to designing for your online business, keep it simple.
Trying to do too much or create complex designs when you don’t have a lot of experience behind you is a surefire route to failure and frustration. You're in luck though, because even the simplest, most limited visuals can have an impact if used strategically.
I know it can be tempting to try and recreate beautiful, intricate designs you’ve seen out in the wild for your own business, but if it’s only taking you time and making you angry, it’s probably not the best use of your energy.
Some of the best graphics and business related visuals are dead simple. For example…
Elle and Company used these super simple, text based blog graphics for years. They’re colourful, but each features the same text layout and space for a logo at the bottom.
Melissa Griffin has two graphics variations, but they’re both simple. She’s kept the color palette monochromatic (super easy!) and they’re almost completely text based. The variation with the photo is a simple half / half design.
And Mariah Coz has chosen a bold heading font to cover the majority of her graphics, with a simple sub-header below.
If the DIY route isn’t for you, you could make things even easier by choosing to use pre-made designs. And it doesn't stop there. The simpler you go with those, the easier it will be to match templates from a range of different designers.
Many of us have this story we tell ourselves that anything worthwhile has to be hard. It has to take our blood, sweat, and tears.
I believed this, and I used to freak out any time I designed something quickly. It couldn't possibly be great if it was that simple. So I'd spend hours trying to make it more complex because, in my mind, complex = better. Only to realize after doing all that extra work that nothing else I did was better than the simple version.
I'm here to tell you to ignore that thought. Don't make anything harder for yourself than it needs to be. If design is not your thing, go for the simplest solution, and use the time you save to make an impact in other areas of your business.
Make a plan for every design based on the needs of your online business.
Most of us grow up believing that the creative process is like, this stroke of genius that just happens by magic. We believe that creative people are full of awesome ideas and just know exactly how to execute them.
I wish that were true, but unfortunately, it's so not. Like almost everything else, creative work requires a little planning + consideration to get things going.
Early on in my design days, my plan of attack usually looked like:
Sit down at my computer.
Create a new document.
Stare at it for a really long time.
I would try things and delete them and try more things and delete them and I remember feeling so frustrated that I couldn’t get anything to work.
Let’s talk about cakes for a minute. You could, in theory, bake a cake without a recipe. But if you don’t know a lot about baking cakes, it’ll probably be difficult. There’ll be a lot of trial and error with different ingredients and amounts and it might work out sometimes but other times it’ll just be a mess.
That’s what trying to design something without a plan or a purpose is like, and as I quickly realized, it's super frustrating.
These days, when I sit down to create a new graphic, I make a list of all the content - text, imagery, brand elements - that need to be a part of it. Then, I draw a bunch of tiny squares (or rectangles, or whatever shape the design calls for) and start filling them with potential layouts. You don’t have to be able to draw to do this - mine look like scribbles. But they do at least give me some ideas to try, so when I open up that Photoshop document, the empty space doesn’t scare me anymore.
Even if you're working with templates or pre-made options, understanding the purpose and content / styling requirements makes a huge difference. You'll be better equipped to choose templates that are a good fit for you, so you can stop wasting money on ones that aren't.
Creative work requires a constant flow of ideas, but most of us have got it backward. The ideas usually don't come first - the plan (or recipe!) does. So get planning!
Learn how to manage your expectations when it comes to design, and how your online business should look.
If there’s one thing that will stop the flow of ideas in its tracks, it’s your own expectations. One of the hardest parts of design is taking an idea out of your head and translating it into real life. Being able to translate an idea out of my own head or someone else's has taken years of experience and practice.
Humans are visual by nature, so it’s very easy to see what you want something to look like in your mind. But often, that picture doesn’t live up to expectation once it’s in front of you. Sometimes it’s because you don’t have the skills to execute that idea quite the way you want, but often it’s just because the vision you had in your head just isn’t that good 🤷♀️ - sometimes that’s just how it goes!
A professor of mine at design school told us early on to detach ourselves from the outcome of any given design because your first idea is not your best idea.
And more often than not, the idea in your head is your first idea. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an idea for a client design, executed it, and realized it’s just not that great.
As with most things in business, a good amount of design comes from experimentation. It’s a process of trial and error, so it’s important to manage your expectations and be open to the idea that things might not go the way you envisioned. Which brings me to my final tip...
Don't box yourself in - your online business will change, and so will your designs.
It’s really easy to accidentally lock yourself inside a box when designing for your business. Many of us have this idea that your brand is something that has to be iconic and last forever, and because of this we close ourselves off to the idea of change. This makes design really hard, because you’ll almost never get it perfect right from the outset.
This (super unhelpful) idea often comes from the examples that we’re faced with everyday. Think about the biggest companies you know. We look at businesses like Apple, Nike or Starbucks and we know them instantly. They’ve been a part of our lives for so long that it feels like they’ve never changed. But here’s the thing. They have changed. In fact, they change all the time.
Here are a couple of logos from the early days of some of those companies. There isn’t a single one who didn’t change theirs in some way, and most changed drastically. Some are still changing.
Apple’s first try. A far cry from the sleek, high end Apple we know today.
Nike had the bare bones from the beginning, but they were just that - super bare.
The original Starbucks mermaid was….creepy.
If there’s one thing we can say about almost every business, it’s that they don’t stay the same forever. The business you have today will probably be different in a year, five years, and ten years from now. You’ll change as a person and your purpose will grow and evolve. And your business’s identity has to grow and change with you.
So while I wouldn’t recommend changing up your designs every other day, keep in mind that whatever you’re working with now, doesn’t have to be that way forever. It doesn't have to be perfect in the beginning.
If right now you’re working with an identity you made yourself or a template you bought, and you don't love it, that's ok! It'll be super exciting it will be when you’ve grown enough to have a designer build you something better, but for the time being, it does the job.
If you had an identity designed a few years ago and it no longer fits with the direction you’re taking your business, you can always change it.
Change and experimentation are all a part of the creative process. Make friends with flexibility - it'll save you a ton of grief.
So much of design is a mindset battle.
The rules of design are important, but if I'd known some of these things when I was starting out, getting the work done would have been so much easier.
I hope these tips will help you next time you sit down to work on a design for your business. Like most things, it’ll get better with time + practice, so be kind to yourself!
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And if you’ve got any questions about design or branding, feel free to leave them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer you.
See you in the next one!