by Denise Wydra

Everyone in charge of a small business or project will at some point have the lone responsibility for designing a flyer, presentation, business card, or some sort of promotional piece. No designer. No budget. For many, this can be a moment of frustration, even desperation. Surrounded as we are by advertising and the visual delights of the internet, we all see continuous streams of cool designs created by talented and skilled designers. And when we compare our capabilities to theirs, we’re tempted to throw our hands up and resign ourselves to mediocrity.

But there’s another way to think of it.

I’ve seen elegant, powerful, clever designs that were complete failures because they didn’t take the needs of the customer or the message into account. They might convey the wrong feeling, or not support a writer’s need to express certain ideas in a certain way.

Clear, professional-looking design isn’t magic. It can be achieved by combining some fairly simple guidelines about visual design with a strong analysis of your business purpose. I’ve given one super simple overview of relevant guidelines here, knocking it all down to aspects that make things “stand out” and those that make things “hang together.” But you can find lots of good guides on the Web.

Here’s an overview of how to think through visual design as a business process.

What do you want to say, and why?

First, take a step back from your work so far and state your message in fewer than 15 words. Use the real words, not the polite ones you’ll use in your piece. “There’s respectable science behind our claims.” “Our new anti-gravity feature has not caused too many deaths.” Keeping this message in mind will help you in sharpen your copy and design.

Now, state what you want your reader to do after viewing your piece. Call you for a demo? Go to your website? Place an order? Vote in favor of your proposal? Whatever it is you want them to do, your design should make it as easy as possible. If you want them to call for a demo, make sure your phone number is very visible.

Create interest. It’s a well-worn truism that we are bombarded by messages. To be read, your message has to stand out. Three handy tools to accomplish this are (1) a clear headline, (2) a visual, (3) bold use of color. How and whether you deploy these depends on your context and audience, but make sure that your most important point stands out in an interesting way.

Establish hierarchy. After your main message, you’ll have supporting points and then supplementary details. Make sure it’s clear what’s what. You want your main message to stand out more than your supporting points, and you want your supporting points to stand out more than your details. You also want to make it crystal clear which details “hang together” with which supporting points. It’s annoying to read a whole sentence only to discover it’s not on the topic you thought it was—and you don’t want to annoy your audience.

Maintain unity. Everything in your piece should ultimately hang together. If there’s a lone piece of information or image or graphic that you can’t fit in, ask whether you really need it. (If you do, then maybe you need to give it a really splashy treatment, so it stands out even more.) You also can’t expect your reader to hang out and patiently follow your reasoning through 17 separate ideas. Plan for 3-5 supporting points and only as many supplementary details as you need.

Who is your audience, and how can you show them respect?

An effectively designed piece isn’t about what you want to say, it’s about making a connection with people and motivating them to do something. Picture a member of your target audience, whether that’s a busy dad, an intrepid jetpack purchaser, or a school superintendent. Try to put yourself in that person’s frame of mind. What do they care about? What else is on their minds? Above all, remember readers don’t owe you their attention, even once you’ve piqued their interest—you have to earn it, second by second. Although it can be intimidating, I like to imagine a skeptical reader, arms crossed, with a look of “well??” on her face.

Use signposting. Your reader is busy. Assume he will skim your message first, looking at what’s immediately obvious to decide whether to spend more time examining the details. Make sure you use the first 3 seconds of your reader’s attention effectively: make your key points obvious (stand out) and show how everything fits (hangs together). One standard approach is to use boldfaced phrases at the beginning of sections. When read together, the boldface should tell the whole story. Keep them short, but include enough information to be interesting. In this piece, I could have used the words “Purpose,” “Audience,” and “Context,” but instead I used questions that conveyed a bit more of my message.

Maintain focus. Don’t distract from your message. Extra words and ideas, competing headlines, extraneous pictures and doodads, even little bits of spacing and alignment that are jiggly and not lined up right—all of these cause distraction and even annoyance. Consider each word and image and decide whether you could convey your message without it. I like to imagine that every second my reader spends on my message costs me a penny. And I don’t like to waste pennies.

Connect with emotion. You are reaching out to human beings who have hopes, assumptions, and fears. How can you connect your message to their emotions? A good headline and the first few lines of text should do this. (At the beginning of this piece, I described a common situation that I hoped would evoke an emotion—and thus make you more interested in reading further.) Well-chosen photographs can do huge amounts of work here: not superfluous ones that serve only as “eye candy,” but pictures that make your point by going right to the heart of the matter. Another element to be considered: typeface or font. (If you care to know the distinction between those two words, go here.) There’s a general psychology to fonts, which you can read about here and here and here. But always consider your specific audience and what will appeal to them. What looks exciting to medievalists may have a different effect on futurists.

What is the context in which your piece will be seen?

Consider the situation. Where will your piece be viewed? In a formal business setting? On a mobile phone as someone flips through the day’s tweets? From across the room at a convention? Is it noisy? Is there a lot going on? Or is your reader in a bright, quiet room, wholly focused on you and what you have to say? This will help you gauge how big and loud you have to be. If you can be sure that your audience will be taking the time to consume your whole message, you can afford to be a little calmer than if you have to attract their attention across a busy convention floor. Remember, too, that your piece may travel outside what you consider to be the ideal situation–and you want it to be effective, no matter what. If someone forwards your infographic, will it be clear to new viewers what it’s about and what you’re trying to say?

Be aware of conventions. If you’re walking into a business meeting where everyone will be pitching ideas using presentation decks, find out what the decks generally look like. If you’re designing a business card or book cover, look at what other examples in the same market look like. You want to look like you belong. If there’s a required format, follow it. But even where there aren’t strict rules, there might be expectations. Ever noticed how often science and technology companies use blue in their logos? A clear way to signal that you’re a science company is to use blue, as well.

Remember the competition. On the other hand, you need to stand out—you don’t want to be just a generic science company (or whatever). So look for an appropriate way to express what’s distinctive about you and your message. Your copy should certainly make this clear. But perhaps there’s also something you can do with color or typeface or even graphics to show how you’re different. In this piece, I’ve deliberately chosen to focus on the design as a business process, a unique approach to giving design advice, as far as I can tell, and I’ve used simple, straightforward graphics rather than the color wheels and typeface examples you’ll find elsewhere.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve overlooked or where I could be more helpful. I’ve used these general principles myself and to train people for over twenty years, but there is always room for improvement.