10 Graphic Design Mistakes You May Not Know You're Making (and how to avoid them!)

I see you over there… trying to get that social media graphic or pricing guide wrapped up so you can put it out in the world. FINALLY. After slaving away, trying to perfect the layout and make the design look as professional as possible. You’re not a designer, but you’re living by the “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality.

But, you’re looking at your design and you still feel like something’s not quite right. You can’t put your finger on it. Is it the color choices? Is it the spacing? You know that something is off but you’re at a loss.

And you’re ready to tear your hair out.

Designer to the rescue! I’m here to help.

Below, I’ve collected 10 common graphic design mistakes I frequently see…. plus, helpful and actionable tips on how to fix them and avoid them in the future.

Small changes to your designs and your process can make a world of a difference! And I want you to get started right. now.

So, let’s dig in…

 

 
 



1. Lack of hierarchy

Hierarchy is about visually ranking different elements in a design. In short, it determines what the viewer sees first.

When you don’t have good hierarchy, you are giving multiple elements in a design the same visual weight, resulting in the viewer not knowing where to look. And, worst of all, your message won’t be clear. This is a very, very common problem I see!

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How to avoid it:

When you begin a design, start by defining your goals and what the viewer needs to see FIRST. Whatever that might be, it should carry the most visual weight or emphasis within the design. Then, what do you want the viewer to read or notice next? That should have the next most visual weight in the design, and so on.

Good hierarchy will guide the viewer through the design and portray the information in a way that shows an order of importance. It gives the design a nice flow! Examples of how to create good hierarchy and visual weight in your designs (hint: you can just pick one or two to use in a given design!):

  • Size of text: headers and the most important, attention-grabbing text should be more prominent than paragraph text

  • Using color: use accent colors to help bring attention to the most important text and images

  • Proportion/Scale: simply make the most important elements bigger than others!

  • Shape and Line: add shapes or lines that visually bring the eye to the focal point first


2. Blurry, pixelated, or low quality photos

We live in a visual world and we’re constantly being bombarded with visuals all day long. If you’re using low quality photos that appear fuzzy or pixelated, you will stand out… in a bad way. They will make your brand look unprofessional and, to be honest, like there was a lack of attention to detail. Or like you were too lazy to find a higher quality photo. #toughlove

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HOW TO AVOID IT:

Do a photography audit. Take a look at your social media feeds, website, and even your print materials, and ensure all photos are good quality and appear clear.

If you find yourself needing new photos, invest in some high quality stock photos like this one from Creative Market* or, better yet, hire a photographer to take some custom branding photos for your business. Trust me when I say that it’s worth. every. penny.

Pro-tip: Photos for screens and online can be saved at low resolution, but all photos used for print purposes need to be high resolution in order to print clearly. Using the correct resolution will help!

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3. Separated letters in script lettering

You guys, this one is SUCH a pet peeve of mine, I can’t even tell you.

I am all for increasing space between letters in a header, logo, etc. to give is a clean, airy, and modern look. In fact, I do it regularly when I design visual brands for my clients. It’s lovely when done with a serif, sans serif, or display typeface/font. But when I see this done with a script font, it’s like nails on a chalkboard.

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HOW TO AVOID IT:

Don’t fiddle with or adjust the spacing between letters in a script font. Period. Use them exactly how they look when you type out the letters.

Script typefaces are designed to be like beautiful handwriting — it’s supposed to connect and flow from one letter to the next. Yes, you’ll see that some contemporary handwritten typefaces sometimes have separation between letters, which the typographer (who created the typeface) did intentionally. But don’t adjust them yourself.

4. Warping/Disproportionate Scaling

Sometimes when you place a photo or logo into your design program or into your website, the size of the element doesn’t work with the space, and the image ends up stretched in a weird way that ends up looking warped. Or sometimes warping happens because an image or text was scaled unevenly, which causes the ratios to be off, which is causing the stretch.

Of course, this looks unprofessional but it can also affect legibility too!

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HOW TO AVOID IT:

Firstly, when scaling elements bigger or smaller, hold the corner of the element, hold down the SHIFT button and then increase the size. This will ensure the element scales proportionately and avoids warping.

Before finalizing your design, review the entire design — all the text, graphics, and images — to make sure everything is appearing correctly. If you see an image looking too skinny or too wide, fix it! Place in that element again or do whatever you need to do, so it looks right. Don’t let it go!


5. Ineffective use of negative space

Negative space, also called white space, is the “empty space” in a design that does not contain content. It doesn’t have to be white! Specifically, I’m talking the space between, around, above, or below design elements.

I see many designs that have a whole bunch of text and imagery squished into a small area with hardly any space between elements. It makes it look cluttered, congested, and overwhelming. And it’s hard for the viewer to process — let alone read — the information.

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How to avoid it:

Use white space intentionally. Make sure there are clear paths of empty space between all your text and design elements. Visually, allow people the space to pause and process what they’re seeing, and take in what you’re trying to communicate to them. Give the focus of your design a bit more negative space around it, to help drive your viewer’s eye to it, help support your hierarchy, and create nice balance and flow.


6. Inconsistent + too many typefaces (fonts)

Using too many typefaces (fonts) makes your designs look overwhelming, busy, unprofessional, and just… all over the place. It’s like taping a sign on your forehead that says, “I’m inconsistent and don’t have my brand styling together.” I don’t want that for you, my friend!

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How to avoid it:

Choose a specific typeface for headers, one for body copy, and perhaps one for special callouts — assign those special roles for each. And then… stay consistent! Make sure you’re using the same typefaces in the same way across all your marketing platforms.

Also, make sure any script, hand-drawn type, and other display typefaces are used minimally and for small amounts of text only. A simple, clean easy-to-read typeface should always be used for paragraphs or longer blocks of text.

When I design brand styling for my branding clients, I typically suggest a simple typeface for headers and a different but also simple typeface for body/paragraph copy. Then, if it fits with their brand, we sometimes bring in a script or display typeface as an accent — something that evokes more personality and is used for call outs and special text ONLY.


7. Not enough contrast (specifically with text!)

Have you ever looked at a design and something about the combo of the text color and background color is making it hard to read? This means there’s a lack of contrast. When two colors are similar in value (think brightness or hue), the colors will kind of vibrate or cause a dizzying effect, called “vibrating boundaries.”

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HOW TO AVOID IT:

We want to avoid this for legibility reasons, of course. But we should always be aware of color contrast throughout our designs. You can do this by choosing a combination of light and dark hues, to ensure there’s enough contrast when you overlap colors.

It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a dark color and white all the time, but it does need to be readable. So, test things out before you finalize your design. If you’re having trouble reading it, other people will too.


8. Poor Alignment

Randomly placing objects on a page without any intention behind it results in a design that looks unorganized, sloppy, and haphazard. The viewer’s eye may not know where to look and the text may be hard to read.

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HOW TO AVOID IT:

Alignment helps bring order to the chaos. Place text or other elements on your page so they align — text, images and other elements! Aligning to the left is most common, as that’s how we’re used to reading text. But you can also experiment with right and center alignment with shorter blocks of text.

Also, pay attention to your margins! Make sure you have even space around the outside of your design. Align text and images to them for a more balanced and refined look.



9. Using Dramatic Drop Shadows

Drop shadows… oh, drop shadows. Yes, they create dimension. Yes, they’re a fun effect to add and they can be helpful for legibility purposes when the color of the object is too similar to the background.

But drop shadows should only be used subtly. Many times, they’re unnecessary (not to mention dated). When used on text in a dramatic way, it can actually make it very difficult to read.

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HOW TO AVOID IT:

Don’t use drop shadows unless you absolutely have to. Clarity is king and adding shadows and drop shadows on text many times just makes a design busier and more complicated than it needs to be. It’s also tacky! ;)



10. Lack of grouping/organization of text

Grouping is all about creating a relationship between elements and organizing information in a thoughtful way that makes sense for the viewer. Often, I see a lack of grouping in designs that incorporate a lot of text, like pricing guides, event posters, or even resumes. There is a lot of information that needs to communicated but the placement of everything feels… well, all over the place.

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HOW TO AVOID IT:

When you group related elements together visually, it helps tell the viewer “these things go together” and/or “there’s a connection between these pieces of information.” It gives your design order, helps the viewer digest the information in an orderly way, and is pleasing to the eye.

To accomplish this, first think about what text or elements go together logically. What pieces of information should be processed by the viewer at the same time? Then, place related information and objects close to one another on the page, in relation to other objects.

Also, be sure to use what you learned about hierarchy and alignment to help create balance in your design!


Ready to kick these design mistakes to the curb for good AND elevate your visual marketing as a whole?

My online program, Design Spirit will help you develop a better design eye and design like the professionals do.