Graphic Design Basics

Graphic design is a creative process with a few tools, a few rules, and lots of freedom.

In this guide, I will attempt to clarify what tools to use, the basic "rules" and when to break them, and demonstrate some examples of how to make a simple flyer look more professional.

The Tools for the Job

In the olden days, graphic designers laid everything out on paper, cutting and pasting borders and type. Nowadays, we are blessed with the ubiquitous computer, and a variety of layout programs.

Basic graphic design consists simply of layout — putting existing text and images into an attractive setup within the page. Truthfully, that accounts for 90% of what I do. (These designs, for example, were done completely in a layout program.)

More advanced work involves image editing — manipulating and blending pictures and type so that the images themselves communicate part of the design. (Look at these designs for a basic example.)

To do layout, you need a (you guessed it!) layout program:

You most probably already have Microsoft Publisher on your computer, and if you take the time to learn its ins and outs, you can do almost anything with it (although not always very easily). (Note, however, that for professional printing, this is NOT the program of choice. Most printers will refuse to work with Publisher files, for good reason. Use it only for flyers you will print yourself or at a local copy shop.)

If you design often or feel that Publisher is limiting you, it may be time to step into the big league. Professional graphic design programs can really do everything, but it will cost you, often upwards of $500. My program of choice is Adobe InDesign, although other designers prefer Quark.

In one of these "pro" programs, you will be able to use a variety of advanced tools to truly create any layout you can imagine. The programs are streamlined so complicated layouts become very simple. A document that takes 10 hours in Publisher can often be done in a half hour in InDesign. Remember, though, that for most purposes, Publisher will do the job.

Note: If you are or work for an academic institution, you can get very significant discounts on either of these programs, but still expect to pay about $175.

For image editing, the choices are simpler. The industry standard, for good reason, is Photoshop. In Photoshop, you can do anything, from changing colors, adding or deleting people or objects, and even drawing photorealistically.

If you cannot afford Photoshop, there is one open source (that means free) program that does almost everything Photoshop does, although not always as simply. That program is called Gimp. Installation may not be so simple, but it is probably worth it.

Either of these programs have a large learning curve, and you'll probably need some lessons to even be able to do the basics. Many tutorials exist online, but expect to spend a while until you are comfortable.

Another major factor in good design is fonts. You'll need a variety of font choices, and very few of the ones pre-installed on your computer will give your documents a professional touch.

Here's a list of a few of my favorite fonts that can be downloaded and used for free:

Although a large number of "novelty" fonts exist (fonts that look like Chinese, Hebrew, or Coca Cola) exist, those fonts should be used VERY sparingly.

Most designers find themselves using the same few trusty fonts over and over. (I use, among others, Myriad Pro, Garamond Premier Pro, Adobe Jenson Pro, Caflisch Script Pro, Bickley Script, Cochin, and Helvetica Neue.) My collection was built over a number of years, and I didn't pay for any of them (although fonts can be purchased, generally for about $25 - $30 each) — I got mine for free with various software programs.

Of course, a good source of pictures is necessary. Clip-art is OK when used sparingly, but in most cases, it won't cut it. You'll need real photographs.

One thing to keep in mind is copyright law: You are not allowed to use any pictures you find in Google, unless they are explicitly declared as copyright-free. (Additionally, most web images are of too low quality to look good in a printed flyer.)

To use images containing recognizable people, you need a model release, basically stating that the person allows their likeness to be used for commercial, advertising, or other purposes.

Using a picture from someone else's website or flyer without permission from the photographer is equivalent to copying a CD to avoid purchasing it.

Many sources of FREE, LEGAL images exist. A good place to start is my list — For more variety, paid stock photography sites like iStockPhoto and Dreamstime sell very high quality (and model-released) photos for $1 - $5 each.

The Rules

Some of these rules reiterate the same points, but until I have the patience to rewrite them, you'll have to bear with me!

  1. No more than 3 fonts per page.
  2. When designing a flyer, postcard, or newsletter, try to use as few fonts as possible. Two fonts is good. If necessary, use 3. Any more than that, and the design starts looking amateurish. There is rarely a good reason to break this rule.

  3. Don't mix similar fonts.
  4. A "serif" font is a font that has small protrusions (serifs) at the end of strokes, like Times New Roman. This type of font is the best type for stories, and anywhere where there will be several paragraphs of text.

    A "sans serif" font, like this one, can be used for paragraphs of text (like on a web page) but is usually better for titles and one-liners.

    Don't mix similar fonts. Don't put two serifs on the same page ideally, unless they are very obviously different. It looks like you made a mistake.

    Ideally, put a serif along with a sans serif font. Sans-serif fonts can be mixed, but with the same rule: They need to look obviously different.

  5. Don't be scared of white space.
  6. Avoid border art.
  7. Design with focal points.
  8. Less is more.
  9. All color is no color.
  10. Proofread!

If there is anything I can do to help out, please let me know. I love dispensing advice! Remember, with thousands of Shluchim and growing KA"H, it is to everyone's benefit that there are more Lubavitch designers available, or Shluchim who can do it too.

To be continued...