Learn to Love a Font

There is so much to say about typography and font choice that there is simply no way to cram it all into a single article. So you may consider this the first in a, perhaps randomly timed, series of articles concerning type.

The best way to approach typography, if you are completely unfamiliar with the subject, is to start with a broad understanding of type and work your way in to a more targeted look at specific fonts and font families. Most people, unless they are themselves designing fonts or logos, will not have to look at type in that much. But an understanding of some fundamental rules will help you look more professional and communicate more effectively.

1. Type is a picture, too.

Sometimes, it is not necessary to spend a lot of resources on photography or illustration to make a graphic statement. Words on a page function as much as an image as, well, an image. Well-placed words can create emphasis and interest. They can convey an emotion or a concept.

Below are two examples of this principle. In the typography book cover, the large vertical text immediately grabs the reader’s attention. In the advertisement, the large, tight words immediately give off a feeling of being crowded and uncomfortable. In both of these instances, nothing more is needed than the words on the page.

2. It’s ok to just use one font.

In fact, it’s more than ok. It’s ideal. If you must, absolutely must, you may use two. But please, by all means, stop there. Using too many fonts is confusing and creates unnecessary visual tension. Your readers will not know where to look first or what point you are trying to get across. The money you may have spent on these materials will be wasted – confusion never leads to conversion.

Some clarity: when we say “one font” we mean “one font family.” If, to take a basic example, you’re using Times, then it’s ok to tastefully sprinkle in some Times bold and Times italic. This helps distinguish headlines and important points. But don’t start throwing in Chancery or Garamond, too. And please, just take Comic Sans off your computer altogether. It’s for the best.

Here’s a great example of the appropriate and inappropriate use of fonts from www.desktoppub.about.com.

3. Know your content and your audience

There is a big difference between an audience of say teenage girls and an audience of business professionals. But, we have seen resumes and reports done in handwriting fonts. Unique, yes. And not in the good way. This is a practice that falls under the umbrella of “being different just to be different” with no thought to the impression the choice might give.

Take the two menu descriptions below. Imagine the scenery in which you would expect to see each of them. Both can work, given the appropriate setting but would look foolish if switched from one scene to the other.

Nine things not to do with your website design

This list has been compiled out of our years of designing websites, and is intended to act as a set of loose guidelines to consider when embarking on the design of a new site. We do not make any claims that this list is comprehensive, as it is compiled mostly of things that we consider to be most annoying and most damaging to a website’s usefulness.

1. Do not use only images on the homepage.

Everyone wants to have a great home page. And for good reason. A well designed home page can draw users in and help create conversion. However, in no way is a home page well designed if it does not contain any text. The pictures might be nice and pretty, but they are working directly against a website’s success. A website with no copy on the homepage will be pretty much invisible to search engines and will provide no useful instruction to users.

2. Do not use only Flash on the homepage, create a splash page, or do anything that requires a user to “skip intro.”

For reasons not to do such a thing, see item #1. Flash can be fun, it can be neat, and it can provide a little extra something to a home page if it is done well. But it should not, ever under any circumstance constitute the bulk of your site’s programming. If a designer suggests such a thing, fire them immediately. The same thing applies for intros and splash pages. User’s don’t have the patience for it and Google doesn’t recognize it as content. Doing such a thing will only land your site on a list like this one.

3. Do not use templates that others in your industry are using or unoriginal photos.

Now when we say, “Do not use unoriginal photos,” we do not mean to say that you cannot use stock photos. Just do a little research to see what’s already out there and steer clear of those. There are some stock photos that are used so frequently that as designers, we can look at it and know instantly where it was purchased from and name several other sites that use the same image. The same goes for templates. Most template sites sell templates in “categories” by industry. So all companies in the same industry are looking at the same templates. If you are going to purchase a template, which we advise against, at the very least look through all the categories and choose something that a competitor is not already using.

4. Do not resize the browser window.

One of the most annoying things a website can do is resize a user’s window when it loads. Most people have their desktop set up the way they want it, and resizing a browser window on load messes with that delicate balance. This, in our opinion, is cause for immediate closing of the site window, never to be opened again. If you want people to stay on your site and actually use your product or service, stay away from this tactic.

5. Do not use CSS that relies on too many browser hacks to work.

Ok, so this is more of a programming pet peeve, but still applicable. Sites should be programmed with nice, clean, standards compliant code that works across all browsers. Now, we know, dealing with Internet Explorer 6 can drive programmers to the edge of sanity. But there are ways to make a site work cross browser without hack after hack. Find those ways, and program accordingly.

6. Do not use sound or video that plays on load.
And never, never use sound without giving the user the option to turn it off. Having done a completely non-scientific investigation of sites that use sound, we have found that it is done most frequently with sites that are programmed using mostly Flash. (See item #2). The first thing that we do when we come to a site with sound or video on load is leave the site, or, if we really have to be there for some reason, search desperately for the “stop” button. Give the user the option to watch or listen, do not force it upon them.

7. Do not use too many gizmos, gadgets and what nots.

Scrolling text, blinking or flashing text, popups, objects that follow the cursor around… all of these things are distracting. We have heard people suggest that such things “get the user’s attention.” But, trust us, this is not the type of attention you want. Too many blinky, flashy things cheapen the look of the site and do nothing to help conversion.

8. Do not try to do something “totally different” with your navigation.
For better or for worse, people are used to seeing navigation along the top of the page, in a sidebar or both. Do not try to reinvent this system. “Clever” navigation can be difficult to find and difficult to use. If people cannot figure out how to navigate your site, then you have lost potential business.

9. Do not use too little copy on the site

This is similar to numbers 1 and 2, but it applies throughout the whole site. Content is king. Search engines index text. Simple as that. If you want your site to be found, remember content, content, content.

What does it all mean anyway?

Designers throw loaded words about all the time. Words like “modern” and “sleek” and “bold” and “editorial.” Words that can have a variety of meanings depending upon the perspective of the observer. Sometimes, professionals like to throw around industry-sounding terms to make themselves seem indispensable or to tout their knowledge around a client.

To be fair, we are not just picking on designers. Professionals in every industry use industry lingo. But, in the field of graphic design is it particularly important that the designer and the client are on exactly the same page.

Sometimes it is useful to broadly define design preferences in this way. In fact, when we begin a new project, one of the important issues we need to work out with a client is how the client wants their company to be perceived. Perhaps the most common answer to that question is “modern.” Since “modern” is a feeling that many clients want to establish, that is the term that we will focus on here.

Modern as a general design attribute.

When we think “modern,” what do we mean? We have found that to a lot of people, it simple means “up to date” which is, of course, perfectly valid. However, in terms of design, there are certain style elements that constitute a modern look. These include:

1. Simple, clean lines
2. Sans serif fonts
3. One dominant image
4. One dominant color
5. Negative space

6. Small amounts of copy (particularly in advertisements)
This design style is not for everyone. An often cited downfall to modern design is that it can be perceived as “cold.” It is, of course, possible to develop a brand that is both warm and modern, but that can present a design challenge.

Tropicana took a shot at this definition of “modern” and was roundly rebuked by its customers. A lot of money was spent developing a new look with a simple, sans serif font, one large focal image and a good amount of negative space – something modern. Unfortunately, this is not always what the market wants. Tropicana wildly miscalculated how emotionally connected their loyal customers were to the iconic logo and graphic of an orange with a straw and were in the end forced to bring back their classic packaging.

Modern in web design
The term “modern” when applied to web design also carries with it certain style elements. With the wider availability of high screen resolutions and high speed internet access, designers have more real estate to play with. Modern web sites are just bigger. Some of the elements that are common to modern web spaces are:

1. Graphics with rounded edges
2. Large dominant graphics
3. Areas of large text
4. Glassy, reflective images (thank you Apple)
5. Box-based design
6. Creative backgrounds
7. Large icons
8. Blogs or some other form of feedback/interaction

The most important thing to remember is that no matter what feel or personality your brand is aiming for, communicate that message effectively to your design team from the beginning. Do not just let your designer throw around industry buzz words without making sure everyone is on the same page in terms of the emotional and graphic impact you want your design to have on your audience.

Goal oriented graphic design

Graphic design is often thought about in the abstract. Everyone wants the elements of their company’s design portfolio, be it a logo, a print advertisement or a website, to look good. And, of course, so do we. But the more important question to ask is what do you want your graphic design to do.

No matter what your industry or area of specialization, all graphic design serves an important function. It organizes the information about your brand that you need to deliver to your customers. Information that you are getting to them for a specific reason.

Knowing the goal of your branding and design is critical to achieving a successful outcome. Your goals can be organized into two categories: overall branding goals and project specific goals. Overall branding goals should be infused in everything your brand does from the behavior of your employees to the décor of your office to the design of your website. Constant reinforcement of your brand should be in the background of everything that your company does.

However, unless you are a huge global company with a well-known brand story, like Nike or Apple, brand reinforcement should not be the only goal of your graphic design and advertising. Design should also have a project specific goal. What do you want your audience to feel, how do you want them to react, and what do you want them to do? If you can answer those questions then you are well on your way to solidifying your goals and creating effective design.

With a project and branding goals in mind, information and graphics can be organized to lead the reader through the layout and prompt and emotional response that moves them to take the desired action.

Take, for example, a website layout. When choosing your colors and graphics, make sure they adhere to your overall brand story. If your brand is modern and serene, like a spa or therapy service, do not jar your audience with cautionary reds. On the other hand, if your brand is bright, modern and playful, draw your audience in with colors and graphics that are bold and vivid. Every color tells a culturally understood emotional story that can be harnessed to add power and focus to your brand.

With overall branding goals satisfied, move into the gritty details of the layout. Establish a hierarchy of sizes for your text, headlines and images to create emphasis. Separate important elements graphically to draw a user’s attention and lead them through the page. Make navigating your site and understanding your message as easy as possible for your audience with careful placement of design elements.

Goal-oriented design will increase your conversions in both the long and short term. New customers who have connected emotionally with your brand are more likely to become loyal brand followers, repeat customers and a source of referral business.

When a handshake has no meaning.

No matter who we talk to, it seems to be universally agreed upon that the stock “handshake” image is completely unbearable. Its used over, and over, and over on every type of website, book, flyer and postcard known to man.

Please, everyone, in future designs, let the handshake go. It is meaningless. It says nothing about your brand, who you are and what you can offer to your customers. Unless, that is, your only branding goal is to make people understand that if you were to ever meet them face-to-face, you would more than likely shake their hand.

Since we can all agree that that is not an admirable branding goal, then we can also all agree that there is no reason to ever, ever use the handshake stock photography again. It in no way makes you or your site (or brochure, etc) unique or memorable. Using tired, stale imagery gives the impression to your audience that you have nothing new to offer them. “Move along, nothing new to see here,” it says.

Case in point: we did a simple Google image search for “handshake.” We then went to a few random sites to see if there rhyme or reason to who uses handshakes on their sites. In our little two-minute experiment, we found a DJ company, a consulting company, a tech company, a business services company and a design and engineering company all using “The Handshake.” Here’s a sampling.

Four completely different industries all using the same image. Don’t let yourself get lumped in with everyone else. The imagery you use in your marketing is a critical part of your brand vocabulary, so make sure it is uniquely suited to your company.

Do you need to hire a design, marketing or branding expert?

Every company will have a different set of requirements and needs when choosing to hire a professional graphic design company or marketing company. Maybe you’re a start-up who needs to establish your brand. Or, maybe you’re a well-established company who need some re-branding so that you can shore up you position at the top of your industry. Whatever situation applies to you, they key is to create a well-defined set of goals and then find the best way of achieving them.

Your company has a message it wants to get out and a story that it wants to tell. How can you get that message out in the most effective way?

This is where the advantage lies in hiring a design and branding professional. It may seem more economical to try this on your own. But you have to consider what exactly the cost of doing it yourself may take away from your business objectives. If your employees have to shift their focus to marketing, then how can they also be achieving their stated goals for your company? This may actually have the effect of setting you back. A good design firm can take your goals and your message and produce results efficiently. And you can keep focusing on what you do best.

Memorable Designs Make Your Website Work for You.

Development of a creative online presence too often gets put off during the process of brand building for one reason or another. This is unfortunate. In order for a company to build the maximum amount of brand recognition and by extension, create conversions, their brand must be consistent across all channels.

Your website works as a 24 hour, non-stop, worldwide brand ambassador. It is open for business when you are not, spreading your brand story and, hopefully, creating sales and grabbing new customers.

Too often, however, people let the medium define the message – opening up a copy of Dreamweaver, or even worse, FrontPage, and stumbling through the editor without any overall creative strategy. Or, they go to the other extreme and try to use every bell and whistle known to the web – marquees, scripts, Flash, do-dads and what-nots, none of which work to enhance the user experience or create brand value.

Who am I and why am I here?
Really, who are you and what is the purpose of your site? Everyone has to be plugged into the tubes (see: internet), but is what you are doing there effective? If you’re just there because everyone else is, you are not doing your brand a favor.

I’m here, what do I do?
Establishing a creative web presence should not be last on your list. Having a well-planned up-to-date, good-looking site will extend your brand to a much wider audience, opening up new avenues for growing your customer base. Here are a few things to think about when starting a new project or site redesign.

Know your purpose. Websites offer many things, but there must be one overall purpose to your site. This could be sales, advertising, community building, networking, or any number of things. Nail down what the main function of you site will be, and the features you choose and where you put them will all flow from there.

Develop a profile of your customers. Hopefully, unless you are just starting up, this is something that your company has done already. This profile should include both who your customers are both demographically and psychology. How do you want them to react to your site? What action do you want them to take? Knowing who they are will help you answer these critical questions and develop a site that prompts conversion.

Look at how your brand has communicated in the past. If what you have been doing is successful, there’s no need to make a radical departure from that on your website. Remember, if you want to grow your business, people have to remember who you are. Make it easy on them. Give them the same unique message everywhere they go.

Show off your personality. If you have done your homework, you should be able to describe your brand’s personality in one or two words. Fun, energetic, powerful, elegant, sophisticated – these are all examples of "brand personalities." Play it up online. Make your users’ experience reflect your personality. They should say, "Wow, what an elegant site… I bet they really offer first-class service…" You may have them hooked already.

Questions to ask a potential designer

Hiring a design professional is a process – and it should be. You will need to be able to work closely with whoever you hire, and this cannot be done if you are unable to establish a basic rapport with the person or company who will be creating your professional image.

Below are some questions you can ask a designer or design company before hiring them to work on your project.

Do they have an understanding of your industry and customer base?
Obviously, designers cannot be all-knowing, so do not dismiss someone offhand if they do not have in-depth knowledge your particular industry. However, if someone lacks such understanding, they should express a desire to do research and learn about who you are and what your customers are looking for.

Just because a designer has done websites or logos does not mean they have done the type of site or logo you are looking for. Within each area of design there are different specialties – one might be an expert in font creation but have little experience in abstract illustration. Make sure your designer’s strengths match your project needs.

Do they have advice for you?
You can learn a lot about a designer if you ask them for their take on your current branding/design situation.

Do they have a system for communication and project completion?
Good communication is critical to a successful design project. As is a history of meeting deadlines.

Do they offer reasonable estimates in terms of price and delivery?
Good design is like any other professional product. You get what you pay for. However, some designers will high-ball estimates if they think you have a big budget. If you think this is an issue, you can ask how they have arrived at their estimate. An ethical designer will have an answer for you. Also, look out for designers who offer the moon for delivery in less than a week. Too often a rushed delivery schedule will deliver a sloppy final product.

Keep customer loyalty in mind when building your brand.

When planning and implementing your brand-building strategy, take the time to consider customer loyalty as an important element. Your company should be involved in a continuous process of gaining new customers and keeping return customers happy.

You are much more likely to see a steady increase in your bottom line with this strategy since it will allow you to continually grow your customer base. Also, it is much less expensive to keep a happy customer than it is to win a new one. Loyal customers not only make repeat purchases, they also refer others.  In a time when budgets are tight, remember how valuable your loyal customers are.

According to Jill Griffin, loyalty expert and author of Customer Loyalty, it is important to understand the distinction between customer service and customer loyalty:

“When successfully building a brand, the customer’s experience with that brand needs to be consistent with the image the brand projects. In other words, real experiences with the brand need to match expectations. Customer service is one important touch point in achieving that consistency, but to build customer loyalty, many other elements contribute to the customer experience besides just service. Marketing touch points, sales touch points, the way the product performs, the visual cues surrounding the product or service, word of mouth, etc. all are contributors.”

Insulating your customers from competition is part disciplined brand quality and consistency and part proactive action that benefits your customers. If you know you competition is making a move on your customers, reach out with a special offer or gift that has value to them.

For a longer-term approach, consider building a customer rewards program – that works. Not something that just gives your customers another card that they aren’t sure what to do with and will probably lose, but one that appeals specifically to what your customers consider a valuable reward. This requires an understanding of your customer base as well as a consideration of what is possible with your resources and technology.

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