17 Visual Design Tips for Non-Designers
For most professionals, basic design skills are a must.
We all have to create presentation decks, explain processes, and sell our ideas to leaders. Having a few skills in visual design can improve the way you communicate at work.
Why is visual design important? The brain processes visual information better than any other type of data. We have an incredible ability to remember pictures. Far better than remembering words.
Marketers use visual design to sell products and services. Human Resources and Training teams build graphics and decks to sell their ideas and boost internal program adoption. Product Development teams use visual design to improve the user experience of their products.
What is visual design?
Visual design is the art and science of using color, typography, shapes, and form to improve a user experience.
It focuses on the visual elements of a mobile app, website, presentation deck, or any type of digital design. In basic terms, visual design is a mix of graphic design and user-interface design.
Regardless of your profession, knowing a few best practices in visual design can help you sell your ideas and improve your career outlook.
Visual Design Tips for Non-Designers
Good news! You don’t have to be a graphic design professional to create some clean, modern visual designs.
Software tools today make it easy for anyone to create stunning designs. Whether you’re building a presentation or creating a banner ad.
Here are a few visual design tips to get you started:
1. Keep it simple and minimal
Don’t fall into the beginner’s trap of making your design overly complex.
Keep your designs simple. Minimal text, colors, and graphics. Lose the flashy objects.
It may sound counterintuitive, but low visual complexity will help you communicate your message. It keeps your audience focused. Reducing cognitive overload and confusion.
Simple visual design also has a modern feel to it. Light, airy, and free of distractions. A feel that gives a clean and professional impression to your audience.
2. Only use a few colors
Try to use just 2-4 colors in total.
Sticking with our theme of simplicity, too many colors can make your design overwhelming and painful to view. By only using a few colors, your design will feel modern, clean, cohesive, and easy to understand.
Before choosing colors on your own, see if your company has brand guidelines. Often your marketing department will have a pdf or website that outlines all of the colors you’re allowed to use. These brand guidelines are your ultimate tool to keep you on track. Especially as a beginning designer, using the colors outlined will keep you in the safety zone. That’s where you want to be.
If you have full control over the colors, be careful. Not all colors work well together. It’s up to you to choose 2-4 colors that get along with each other.
Where should you start?
Coolors.co is the best free tool I’ve found for this. Based on your browser, it generates color schemes with a press of a button. You can “lock” certain colors to save them. Then continue generating to find a set of colors that meets your needs. Once you’ve found your colors, copy and paste the color codes (i.e. 7CA982) into the design software you’re using.
3. Limit your fonts
Similar to colors, don’t get too wacky with your font choices. Just 1-2 fonts will do.
Be careful and deliberate with your font choice. Certain fonts are hard to read, carry a poor reputation, or have been worn out from overuse. The fonts you choose should be easily readable and carry a modern style.
If you’re not sure where to start, default to your company brand guidelines. If there are none, there are a few tips for staying in the safe font zone:
Good fonts: Droid Sans, Calibri, Roboto, Helvetica, Georgia, Lato, PT Sans, (Arial and Times New Roman are ok if that’s your only option)
Bad fonts: Papyrus, Curlz, Comic Sans, Bradley Hand, Impact, Courier
Once your fonts are selected, stay consistent with font size.
Your brand guidelines may have a typography hierarchy. For example, “Heading text should be 35px. Paragraph text should be 14px.” Make sure that these sizes are maintained for all of your visual designs. Keeping typography size consistent improves your communication. It helps your audience recognize exactly the type of information they are viewing.
4. Stay consistent
Presentation designed by AlexaSlides, available for purchase here.
A lack of consistency is another common pitfall of beginning designers.
Think about creating a presentation deck. Each slide of the deck should feel cohesive. The colors, fonts, and graphics should all provide a similar experience.
Humans love patterns. It helps us understand where to look for information and focus our attention. You don’t want your audience to have to “re-learn” your communication style each time you click on the next slide.
Keeping your visual designs consistent can undoubtedly be a challenge. You want each design to be similar, but not exactly the same. You still need enough novelty to keep it interesting.
To maintain a consistent feel, start with creating a single graphic or presentation slide. Once you have it in a good place, copy those elements and try re-arranging them. Put them in a different order. Align them in an alternate layout. Play with the various elements you’ve created. This will give you an idea of how you can use your current elements to create a consistent feel.
5. Use icons
Icons should be your best friend. I recommend all beginning designers (and many advanced designers) rely on icons in visual design.
Icons take very little effort to use. They speed up the design process. And help clarify your message. They are versatile. They work well for creating lists, bullets, agendas, and diagrams. Basically anything!
They are, by far, the most efficient visual communication graphic in your toolkit.
You can use icons by themselves. Or you can put a colored circle behind them.
Where do you find icons?
My go-to source is Iconfinder.com. They have an extensive library of millions of icons. Some are free, although many of the best icons cost a few dollars. It’s easy to adjust colors directly on their website, using the Icon Editor tool.
6. Connect ideas with dotted lines
Dotted lines are an easy way to visualize your idea.
They can quickly show how concepts connect or work together. This tactic can be used to explain workflows, and processes, or explain the relationship between two ideas.
Have more than two ideas?
Dotted lines can also connect three ideas together in a triangle format. Or four ideas together in a square visual.
7. Pick good stock images
Repeat after me: not all stock images are created equal.
Similar to font selection mentioned above, a lot of stock images have a poor reputation. They are outdated, cheesy, and often distract from your message.
Don’t just assume that any image will do. If you’re using stock images, be deliberate in your selection.Put on your marketing hat. If you’re trying to sell your ideas with a visual design, you need powerful images. Choose images that are modern, up-to-date, and are relevant to your audience.
While many of the best stock images cost money, here are a few places you can snag free images:
8. Embrace white space
Don’t fear empty white space.
A common mistake of budding designers is to fill all available space with text and graphics. Don’t do this. This will make your design feel busy, confusing, and overwhelming. Instead, embrace white space.
White space isn’t just the space that is white. It can be any color. It refers simply to the negative space that isn’t being used by text or graphics.
Using white space effectively boosts audience comprehension and attention. It helps your audience know exactly where to focus their eyes.
Embracing white space can be accomplished by keeping it simple. Use an icon. Limit your text. Minimize busy distractions. If the empty space is bothering you, try adding a gradient fade to your background. Or a soft pattern. Just make sure it doesn’t distract from the core message of your visual design.
9. Save time by using templates
You don’t need to create everything from scratch. There’s no shame in using a template.
In fact, templates are one of the best ways to ensure quality visual design. Templates are often created by seasoned design pros. They are a guarantee your design will have a consistent and professional look.
Another benefit of templates? You can learn from them.
As a non-designer, templates give you a chance to learn from the experts. Pay attention to the colors, and layouts.
You can find templates for all kinds of visual design projects: presentation decks, website design, graphic design, video, animation, and many others. My favorite source for templates is Envato. They have millions of creative assets available for download. Prices are pretty affordable compared to other sites out there.
10. Make sure all text is easy to read
Legible text is critical to good visual design. Contrast is key to ensuring your text is easily readable.
For example, black text looks best on white backgrounds. White text looks best on black backgrounds. Dark text? Light background. Light text? Dark background.
Don’t overcomplicate it. If you’re not sure if your text is legible, try reviewing your design with an accessibility checker. These are helpful tools to make sure your designs are accessible to all.
11. Understand spacing and alignment
Your goal is to create a balanced composition. You don’t want all text and graphics to be bunched up on one side of your page. You also don’t want all elements bunched up and overlapping. Balance your spacing and alignment.
In some designs, centered alignment is preferred. That is, all elements are centered in the middle of the page. In other designs, left alignment is the chosen route. Where all elements are aligned in a straight line on the left side of the page.
Whichever alignment you choose, stay consistent (noticing a theme?). Use a simple grid to align your designs. Many of the design software tools have a grid feature you can toggle on and off. Turn this feature on to make sure your text and graphics are aligned to your preference.
12. Know your dimensions before you start
This is especially key if you are designing online banner ads or social media content.
Before you begin playing with elements, know your dimensions. If you’re creating a YouTube thumbnail, the ideal dimensions are 1280×720 pixels. LinkedIn cover images should be 1128×191 pixels. Google the asset you’re trying to create and you’ll easily be able to find the ideal size.
The pixel size is a perfect starting point. In Photoshop or another design tool, you can create a canvas that is exactly to your preferred dimensions. This helps you color within the lines and speed up your design process.
13. Reduce your text
There is a tendency to overload design with text. Especially for beginners. This is probably due to the fact that we default to what we know. If you’re new to visual design, text seems like the easier default option. Let’s change that.
Purposefully aim to reduce your text. To almost nothing. Keep your copy simple, straightforward, and almost too basic.
If you think your sentence is hard to read, it most certainly is. Be deliberate in the words you choose. Clean up sentences. Eliminate fluff. Choose shorter words that anyone can understand.
As you write your message, consider the purpose of the copy.
If you’re creating a digital advertisement, snappy and action-oriented copy works best. For presentation decks, only put short snippets of text on screen that you need your audience to remember. Shove the rest of your text in the speaker’s notes.
14. Use Google images for inspiration
I use this tactic all the time.
A client asks for a design. I type a few similar words into Google images. I copy and paste my favorite images. Then use those images as inspiration for my own designs.
Steal like an artist, right?
The truth is, the design you’re creating has almost certainly been created before. Google is a brilliant tool to access those previous creations. And use them to build your own.
This works especially well for logos, presentation slides, website designs, charts, and workflows.
15. Draw your ideas on paper
Not all designs magically flow from brain to digital drawing.
I often find it helpful to resort to the old-fashioned method: drawing an idea out on paper. Yes, real paper found in the physical world.
Drawing on paper is much faster than using digital tools. It’s a quick way to understand the spacing and layout of your idea and give them a test run. Once you have an idea you like, then you can take that drawing and bring it to life in Illustrator, Photoshop, or Keynote.
Even if you’re not a natural artist (i.e. see chicken scratch image above), the act of picking up a pen and drawing on a piece of paper will save you time and provide you with fresh ideas.
16. Share your design and get feedback
Any way you look at it, good visual design takes time.
Conceptualizing the idea. Building the actual visual. Sometimes it will take four or five different iterations before you get it right.
It takes time to get efficient at visual design. Just be patient and keep trying. Like any other skill, the more you practice, the better you’ll become.
One tip for building your skill set in visual design is to ask for feedback from your peers. Many of the designs you create will be viewed by dozens of human eyes. Ask those human eyes what they thought.
Did the visuals make sense?
Were you at all confused?
What would make this better next time?
Even just a quick ask on Slack or email could provide you with tons of actionable feedback to improve your visual design for future decks.
Best Design Software for Non-Designers
Choosing the right software is important for quality visual design. Tools range in cost, learning curve, and complexity.
If you’re new to visual design, here are a few software recommendations:
Adobe Creative Suite
Adobe Creative Suite is the king of visual design software. Certainly not just for beginners, their suite offers tools like Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign. While all of these tools have a moderately steep learning curve, they are worth learning if you’re serious about graphic design and visual communication. At time of writing, they have a 30-day free trial with full-access to the suite.
Sketch is a MacOS vector graphics editor that’s been gaining tons of popularity. It’s most often used to design websites, but can also be used for a wide range of graphic builds. With an intuitive user-interface, Sketch allows designers to create digital art and collaborate with others. Whether creating simple icons or building a new digital product, Sketch allows visual designers to do a wide range of design tasks.
An open-source graphics editor, Inkscape is one of the best free images editors on the market. Available for Linux, Mac, and Windows, Inscape offers a wide set of features for both technical and artistic illustrations. If you’re new to Inkscape, they have a large library of tutorials for beginner, intermediate, and advanced users.
A free browser-based design tool, Gravit offers a full set of features to design stunning vector graphics. It allows you to import AI files, SVG files, and many other file types, creating flexibility for any design task. Fast and flexible, Gravit is tailored for professional designers. But they have an extensive library of design tutorials to help build your skills. Step-by-step tutorials, demo videos, and tips to learn new design techniques.