20 Things I’ve Learned in 20 Years

Posted by on Mar 30, 2016 in Blog, Copywriting, Creative Process, Graphic Design | 0 comments

20 Things I’ve Learned in 20 Years

In 1996 I was having a blast doing creative projects for friends and family on my first personal computer, while studying the principles of design from library books and the occasional seminar that came near my rural part of northern California. My brother Tim mostly taught me the basics of Adobe Pagemaker (precursor to Adobe InDesign) from across the continent via email.

It soon dawned on me that if I started a ‘desktop publishing’ business, I could justify all the toys (hardware and software) I needed to take the fun to the next level. After five years of operation in California’s Napa Valley, constantly honing my craft, my (now) husband and I made the jump across the Pacific, and Kauai Design was born.

As I celebrate 20 years, I’m looking back at a few of the essential lessons I’ve learned along the way.


1. Listen…
…to understand my client’s goals, products, services, and target audience so we’re on the same page, solving the right problem

2. Inform
Share design expertise, technical knowledge, and resources, give honest feedback, and communicate throughout the process. I’ve learned it works better to err on the side of over-communicating than under-.

3. Be Generous
After meeting with a new client, I summarize our agreement in a written proposal, spelling out the cost, scope of services and timeline for their project. Then I strive to exceed my promises and over-deliver on the goods.

4. Be open-minded
Design is subjective. As with all art, personal taste looms large. While I find long-standing principles of good design valid, and generally worth heeding, sometimes they must be over-ridden by the client’s preferences or an inspired but offbeat idea.

5. Small business owners rock
I am continually impressed with the vision and commitment, the willingness to take risks and do what it takes to launch and maintain a business. Entrepreneurs are a special breed and I’m honored to have collaborated with so many on their branding and promotional needs.


6. Get psyched
Get my head (and body) in a good space before sitting down with a project. Approach the work with the mindset of being receptive, curious, interested, eager, and open to relationships between the parts.

7. Be willing to walk away
For me, a swim in the ocean is the best way to clear my mind, work out my body, and re-boot the creative process when I’m feeling stuck.

8. Stay open to possibility
Allow for the unexpected flashes of inspiration, the seemingly off-the-wall ideas, and the breakthroughs that emerge from “mistakes”

9. Trust the process
Know that the unfolding requires incubation and marination and sometimes even divine intervention. Stretching to take on something I’ve never done before, though sometimes intimidating, has always made me a better designer.
See let-it-incubate-germinate-marinate/


10. Start with art
The reader’s eye will be drawn to a picture first. Make it count. Fonts, colors, and other graphic elements can take their lead from the art.

11. Crop tightly and boldly for impact
Actually I knew this already from my years of experience in photography and picture framing but it has been strongly reinforced over the years.
See Cropping-in-the-Viewfinder.pdf

12. Capture images at high resolution
For print purposes, 300 ppi (pixels per inch) is standard. I can’t count the number of times a client has provided low resolution photos or artwork for a print project that ultimately had to be scrapped due to the poor quality. (Screen resolution images are generally 72 ppi.)
See photo-quality-print-resolution.pdf

13. Less is more
Clean, clear minimalist design with breathing room around your focal point makes a clear, strong statement. One focal point is optimal. One powerful idea (or story) is ideal.
See One-Focal-Point.pdf

14. Lead the viewer
Direct the visual flow dynamically, from photo to headline to subhead to body copy to call to action to contact information, for example. In the West, a typical flow might be left to right, top to bottom. Graphic ‘devices’ can lead the eye through the messaging in a logical, user-friendly way.

15. Go for contrast
Go big/small, dark/light, thick/thin, round/square, tall/short, wide/narrow, high/low, dense/airy (…) to add interest to an otherwise gray page.

16. Use repetition
An echo of your image can be enlarged to serve as a ghosted background, or a detail from it can serve as an accent element on the page. Repetition helps pull the page together. Repeating colors, fonts, spacing patterns and other design elements also adds cohesion.

17. White space (or negative space) is a magnet
It gives the eye a place to rest in a sea of words, giving emphasis to whatever object it surrounds. (And of course, ‘white space’ doesn’t have to be white.)


18. Hierarchy rules
Present information in the order of importance, adding emphasis to the top tiers with size, boldness, color, placement in the layout, etc.
See Visual-Hierarchy.pdf

19. Chunk information into clusters
In page layout, a few well-defined clusters of information communicate more clearly than content scattered all over the page.
See proximity-why-it-matters/

20. Make it easy to read
Graphic design is, above all, about communication. If the font is hard to read, or the text is too dense, you can lose your reader before they even start.
See break-up-text1.pdf

That’s it for now. Still learning.

Looking back at early projects and early newsletter topics, I can see how far I’ve come in aesthetics, technical skill and knowledge. But the biggest gifts from all these years in graphic design have been the rewarding collaborations and relationships I’ve enjoyed with clients along our intersecting paths. A big mahalo to all of you! See partial Client list.

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