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How to be a versatile designer

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How to be a versatile designer

Versatility as a designer is important because we need to adapt to different projects and situations. Many people see design as “art” or “drawing”, where it actually is a very powerful form of communication, able to evoke certain emotions or reactions within the viewer. Since this process of being affected by imagery happens subconsciously, it isn’t something that is easily understood. I will be showing you examples as we go along, so fret not!

Because design is an effective language, the designer needs to be able to speak to the target audience and communicate the intended message. This does not happen by accident. Unfortunately, many people and indeed quite a few designers don’t fully understand this. There are those who simply follow their own “style” and there are those who use design as a communication medium, squeezing the juice out of their abilities! While having a “style” is OK, (I put that in quotations because to me, the word has two meanings) there has to be an understanding of design as communication, in fact, that’s what it essentially is – communication!

People understand elements and colours differently, which is highly affected by their culture and demographic. Varying experiences teach people to react differently to various visual stimuli but fortunately, groups of people generally have similar experiences that make them understand and react to things in a similar way. For example, a heart symbol is almost always, if not always associated with love and romance. This symbol, which is commonly combined with the colour red, has become the foremost symbol for love and overwhelmingly so for St. Valentine’s Day. In saying this, when designers use their own personal “style” (the first meaning) and apply the same design elements, colours and layout in all of their projects they are actually saying the exact same thing, over and over again. This of course, is not the purpose of design, unless the designer holds an in-house position at a company where they constantly want to remind the market of their strong, singular message.


If however, a designer needs to work on varied projects for various clients, it is important to understand the various meanings of design elements, colours and layouts. This is only achievable through thorough research and the patience to understand exactly how these elements and colours communicate, thereby being able to blend them correctly to impart the desired message. This is where it is OK to have “styles” (the second meaning), where the designer has formulated his/her own way of communicating certain subjects. It should be noted that it is important to try and differentiate your work from others — nobody wants to look like someone else!

Research of course, goes further than just understanding design elements/styles and colour theory. With every new project comes a new audience and message. If you truly understand your audience and design theory, you have a very powerful skill set! This would enable you to directly target your audience by knowing what would attract their attention and what would make them take the time to be affected by your message. Consider the differences between the two movie poster examples below. It is very easy to see that one was created for a thriller and the other for an adventure movie. Without looking at the titles; the colours, layout and styling imparts the desired message. The Zodiac poster is dark, misty and ominous, affecting the viewer’s fear of the dark. This is enhanced by subtle red colour usage, communicating blood and danger. On the other hand, the “Bridge to Terabithia” poster is also dark, but the treatment is different. There is a glow about the background and a glow from the lamp held by the girl. Included are fireflies and soft details, telling us that there is nothing to fear. Poses held by the characters show movement, communicating the adventure theme.

ZodiacBridge to Terabithia

While there are designers who say you should not follow trends, I strongly disagree. Trends are important because they are the “latest visual language”. To compare, nobody today speaks English like Shakespeare did and it is in fact hard to understand in modern times where we speak modern English. The language is still evolving with new words being added often. With this said, we cannot make up our own words and expect people to understand them. The same should be applied to design; you can only be so original. We have to use elements and colours that work for the intended message of the design. If we look into the history of art and design, you will see that design has evolved according to events and cultures. Our current culture however, is very different and the way things are understood and done are also very different. If you are currently studying design and taking a history of art/design class, pay attention! It might seem pointless but there is much to learn! If you have completed your course in design and didn’t pay attention then, do yourself a favour and dust off those theory books, you might learn a thing or two! Look at the differences between historic and contemporary design.

Ford HistoricFord Contemporary

Look very carefully into history, not just for the sake of looking, but to try and understand the communication behind the works. Trace forward to a similar subject today and see how the “language” has evolved. This will develop your understanding of the visual language, a hard one to grasp! If you are having trouble understanding it, think of it as the way things are said. Because imagery is commonly combined with writing or speech, design could be seen as the “body language” or “tone” of the message. When people say something, they say it in a particular tone and/or drop body language cues. In this way, we understand what they are truly saying, whether angrily or happily, sadly or sarcastically. The list goes on! This isn’t something that the listener thinks about, however. The understanding of tone and body language lies in the subconscious, and the same goes for visual communication, making it hard for the conscious mind to understand.

Be inspired by other works, not by copying them, but by extracting the message in them. Take careful heed of the colours used and styling applied, even the elements and their placement. They are all saying something.