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Many of us who want to earn more money have side jobs, or a flourishing freelance business or two. We want our customers and clients to take us seriously, but first impressions are often ruined by amateur—or even bad—graphic design. Unless you hire a designer, you’ll never get the constructive criticism you need in order to improve your collateral, but designers are expensive. The good ones are, anyway.

I’m not a designer, either. I have some basic knowledge of what works well on, say, a flyer, but I’m always forgetting how to take advantage of the golden ratio, how line spacing differs between lines and paragraphs, etc. If I could afford it, I’d hire a professional designer to do all my promotional materials all the time, but of course, I can’t afford it.

I work with graphic designers every day, and I can attest that their jobs are quite difficult. They spend years studying and practicing a craft that the rest of us take for granted, but you and I don’t have the time or the inclination. We just need a business card or a website or a flyer that looks good.


If nothing else, make sure you use colors that play nicely together.

A graphic designer friend turned me on to an online resource by Adobe called kuler, which is a free place to go for professionally-crafted color schemes. I don’t know anything about color theory, except that some colors complement each other, some don’t, and I can usually tell when a design doesn’t work because the colors are clashing. None of that helps me to pick good colors, though, and kuler does exactly that.

Look for themes by popularity, or rating, or search with a keyword, then just pick one and use those colors — and only those colors, in addition to black and white—in your new brochure, or a poster for your band’s upcoming gig, or even just a reminder for the fridge about not eating co-workers’ food.

You can register for free at the site and save your favorites, get RGB, CMYK and hex values for each color, and create your own themes based on either a color or a photo that you can upload or find on flickr.

Nobody likes long lines

Good design isn’t just pretty colors and pictures. Some of it is trendy, yes, but there are other aspects which are based on science that won’t change until the human form changes. From maxdesign:

The ideal line length for text layout is based on the physiology of the human eye… At normal reading distance the arc of the visual field is only a few inches – about the width of a well-designed column of text, or about 12 words per line. Research shows that reading slows and retention rates fall as line length begins to exceed the ideal width, because the reader then needs to use the muscles of the eye and neck to track from the end of one line to the beginning of the next line.

That’s all you need to know: keep it to about 12 words per line. If you’ve got a website with words on it, send this link to your web people and they can take care of the rest.

Try new things all the time

Google has an amazing free tool called Google Website Optimizer which lets you try different combinations of links, pictures, paragraphs, anything at all, and lets you know which combinations perform the best based on your goals, such as getting people to click “Buy now”. Check out this intro video:

Some words about fonts

Above all else, make sure the thing you produce is legible. It’s tempting to try to be fancy or fun, but often people end up with this:

or this:

In general:

  • Use as few words as possible to get your point across. If you have information that you think should be small and out of the way, maybe it doesn’t need to be there at all.
  • Use dark gray instead of black.
  • Start with a 13 point font and go up from there.
  • There should be plenty of white space (AKA negative space).
  • The most important information should take up the most space, and that’s almost never your logo.

These are just some basics to keep in your back pocket. If you can afford it, I always recommend hiring a professional, but at least with these tips you’ll be able to make more good first impressions.

Updated December 26, 2017 and originally published August 17, 2010.

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About the author

Smithee formerly lived primarily on credit cards and the good will of his friends. He is a newbie to personal finance but quickly learning from his past mistakes. You can follow him on Twitter, where his user name is @SmitheeConsumer. View all articles by .

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

These are some great tips Smithee. 12 words per line eh? <<--- well that's 12! Hmmm, maybe that makes the case for a three column blog then? I've been wondering about 2 vs. 3 column blogs. Seems like all the big blogs have 2... but 3 column gives more flexibility. Thoughts Smithee, Flexo?

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