When I evaluate a designer for potential inclusion into the Visually Marketplace, I have very little time to assess their work and portfolio. Usually, fewer than 10 seconds. This may sound like far too short of a time to get a sense of someone’s work, but in most cases the decision is obvious.
In less obvious cases, I work from the hierarchy below to see if they pass the test.
I created this specifically for infographics, which is the medium we work in most — but it may apply to other design disciplines as well. As a designer becomes more skilled, they progress up this pyramid, usually – but not always – in this order. Let’s go through these skills one by one.
The effective use of color is one of the most basic skills to learn. An inappropriate use of color is the largest and most immediate red flag I spot. Do the pallets fit the mood and tone of the content? Are the colors overly muted, too contrasted, or just off? These are some of most common mistakes I find.
The use of space is very important for infographics, as there is a lot of information to convey with limited real estate. The first mistakes I look for are the overcrowding of elements and not letting them breathe. Then I look for the use or non-use of white space. Efficiency of space is important in an infographic, but if it’s too dense, the viewer will find it off-putting.
Effectively working with type is a skill that can take a long time to master, but an understanding of the basics is required for any successful design. Choosing the right font will only get you so far. Appropriate weighting, leading, and tracking should be applied every time. Kern those headlines, too.
You would be surprised how far a designer can get with stock images and icons. But to take it to the next level, a designer should be able to transform or create new graphics. This certainly includes traditional skills like illustration, but also modern skills like Photoshopping. I personally can draw slightly better than my five year old, but I can certainly create anything in my mind’s eye using Photoshop. This skill, above others, takes lots and lots of practice and there are no shortcuts. A high degree of customization skill will provide you a near infinite tool box.
Being really creative involves having the design say more than merely the pixels on the screen or paper. Creative design makes connections between elements, ideas, and concepts that have not been thought of by the client, or the viewer. It often involves asking yourself, “Is this the best way to represent this?” and “How can I say more, without adding more”.
Many of the projects in the Visually Marketplace have a journalist assigned to them, to craft the story. But the final product is always more unified when the designer is also a storyteller. This doesn’t mean they create the story, but design is a language, and a collection of pretty words does not make an interesting book. Successful designer-storytellers pay attention to the evolving tone of the narrative and incorporate that into their work. The client may be too close to the subject matter to be objective, and so the designer needs to use the right tone, structure and imagery to guide the audience through the graphic effectively.
If you have got a handle on all of the above (or below), then consider yourself a very good designer. Now, master being able to bring those skills to a wildly diverse range of styles, and you will be an invaluable designer. Specialization is good, but can be limiting, especially in a freelance world where clients can come from all walks of life. Can you create something that is minimal and clean? Loud and audacious? Suitable for a 19th century antique book seller? Or a 21st century aerospace company?
Every designer has their own preferences, but it’s good to get outside your comfort zone. Force yourself if you have to. I cut my teeth in design doing concert posters for a local music venue. I did one for every band that came in the door, whether they were death metal, experimental noise, traditional singer-songwriters, or hippie jam bands. Hundreds of posters later, I have picked up a deep collection of tips, tricks, and ideas that affect my personal preferences.