Luke Zimmer is manager of sections and member engagement at the American Staffing Association in Alexandria, Virginia.
Design is ubiquitous at associations, affecting everything from the organization’s logo to its magazine font. The goal of design is to convey information or elicit a certain effect. It’s a weighty task, especially when a nondesigner is tapped to do it.
If you’re a part of a small communications team—or you are the communications team—then at some point you might be asked to design something for your association, even if you don’t have design experience. But, in today’s hypervisual world, even basic design skills are a great addition to your resume. In that optimistic spirit, here are some rules you can follow to give your design projects a crisp, professional look.
Use a simple color scheme and lots of white space in your designs. Stick with three or four colors, using one or two colors predominantly and the others as accents. To make sure your design is in line with your organization’s branding, use your logo as the basis for your color scheme. Whichever color stands out most will be your dominant color, with the other colors acting as accents. You can also use an app like Pictaculous to generate color palettes from your logo and other images.
A clear sign of professional design is proper alignment. Designers generally follow a grid when creating layouts for any medium, but using a grid doesn’t mean your design has to be squares stacked on squares, as this Creative Bloq article shows. Experiment with different kinds of grids by opening an Excel sheet, creating a three-by-three square grid, then merging and unmerging cells to see what kinds of grid shapes you get. Mix in more rows and columns, and when you find a grid/layout that you like, replicate it in your favorite design program. (More on those below.)
Consistency is probably the most important aspect of design because it tells your audience that your project is a coherent piece. For instance, if your pamphlet is printed in three or four different fonts, it may look cluttered and frenetic. To keep it tight, choose one font for your headings and one font for your body copy. If you have subheads, use your heading font in a different size—or in bold or italics. Limit the use of capitalization, italicization, and other font flourishes in your body copy, except to ensure adhesion to your association’s grammatical style guide.
Stay humble through the process, and remember that even the best designers have years of critiques notched into their belts.
After you’ve spent hours staring at a document, you’re bound to miss something, even if you’re a highly detail-oriented person, so you need a proofreader as a fresh set of eyes. Plus, it’s always good to get someone else’s perspective on your design. For instance, what makes sense to you may not make sense to everyone in your audience. But, by sharing your project with a colleague or a member, you’ll be able to pinpoint any elements that may not communicate what you intended.
It’s important to take your audience into account when developing your design and your project overall. For example, if you’re designing for an older audience, your newsletter may need larger fonts for easier reading. Likewise, if you’re designing for the Young President’s Organization, you might send a series of text-light photo stories via Snapchat for members who prefer to keep in touch with your association via social media.
Your association’s communications probably take many different forms and will require different design treatments. For example, an infographic design is going to differ from your printed newsletter. However, it may be similar to your website, which, like a good infographic, should have lots of visual elements and relatively little text. If you’re not sure what the best practices are for a particular medium, do a quick Google search for newsletter, infographic, or webpage design, and you’ll find a wealth of advice for any medium.
You might not have a bank of stock photos or a heavy-duty design program like the Adobe Creative Suite handy, but you can still create great designs using free apps and online image collections. You can find free and for-purchase photos on Flickr, iStock, and Pexels and create infographics with Venngage, Piktochart, or Canva.
At first, you—or your audience—might not be happy with your designs, but putting your design skills into practice is key to honing them. Stay humble through the process, and remember that even the best designers have years of critiques notched into their belts. Take feedback as it comes, and be open to the advice you get from your audience. After all, you aren’t designing for you, you’re designing for them.