How to Make a Big Impression with Your Practice Exercises and Real-World Projects

It's always fun to meet other designers at AWAI's Bootcamp. The work we do – with its focus on direct marketing – is unusual, so getting a chance to share stories and learn from one another face-to-face can't be beat.

One topic that comes up constantly from beginning designers is how best to approach the Graphic Design Success practice exercises.

Having provided feedback on a number of them – and seen exercises incorporated as portfolio pieces at Bootcamp – let me give you some easy tips to make your exercises stand out. These will also serve you well for landing clients and showing your work during the Job Fair at Bootcamp.

  1. Pay close attention to spelling.

    Even if there aren't any mistakes in the copy you're laying out – and often there will be – it's possible that you'll make some yourself when importing text or moving it around in your layout program. So make sure you proofread all the text before submitting your design.

    Clients are grateful when you spot and correct errors (ask for confirmation if you have any doubt) even though you might not technically be responsible for proofreading. That adds value to your service … and clients will notice!

    Tip: In addition to printing out my work and looking for errors, I also take a PDF of my project and look at it blown up on screen at 150% or more. That really helps expose problems in the text that I might have missed at normal size.

  2. Be consistent.

    I see lots of copywriters who use one blank space between sentences, but inadvertently have two spaces here or there. (These days, one space is standard.)

    As a designer, you may think that's the writer's problem. But remember, you're part of a team … so cover your copywriter's back. A client may not notice discrepancies in spacing, but if they do it makes you, not the copywriter, look like an amateur.

    The same consistency issues apply to dashes and ellipses. For example, don't switch back and forth between using a blank space around ellipses or dashes and not using spaces.

    Tip: Use the Find/Replace function of your layout program to search for double spaces. Just press your spacebar twice in the Find field. If two spaces aren't appropriate where you find them, replace them with one space. You can use similar searches to uncover spacing issues related to dashes and ellipses.

  3. Follow the instructions for project page length.

    If you're asked to lay out text so it fits on one page, don't use one and a half pages. It might not matter for exercises, but it does for clients. A specific page length request is usually motivated by money. Extra pages mean extra costs. If a client says they need a 16-page magalog, telling him you need 17 pages to make everything fit isn't going to fly.

    If the text doesn't fit, the most obvious place to start is with font size. Decreasing the body copy font size by a small number like 0.2 of a point is often all the difference you need to make it fit properly. Another option is to play with margin settings by a fraction of an inch. Or slightly decrease font sizes for headlines and subheads. The possibilities are almost endless. You need to consider all options.

    Tip: Once I have my basic layout, I start saving it as multiple files so I can make major changes without fear of having to start over if things go awry. At least I know I always have my “base” layout to go back to. One layout may be with a 14-point font, while another may be 13 points – with appropriate file names that let me know which is which.

    What do you do if the client specifies a 16-page layout but sends you 16 tightly typed pages? In that case – and it will occasionally happen – it is best to contact the client and ask if he wants to cut copy or add pages.

  4. Save your work as a PDF.

    If you don't have Adobe Acrobat, use one of the free PDF converters. When you use PDF, you ensure that the layout you see on your end is the layout your client sees. If you're working in Word for Windows and are using a font the client doesn't have, Word will substitute another font and throw off the look of your project.

    Tip: Search the Internet for “Free PDF Converters” if you don't own Acrobat. There are many free PDF makers available, including

  5. Experiment with designs.

    Once you've done what's required for an exercise or client project, experiment and come up with something extra. I was hired to design a magalog, and instructed to have the cover show an outline of the state of California with a photo of a gas well completely filling the outline. I gave the client some options, with different gas well photos in the outline. On a whim, I wondered what it might look like to also drop in a stock photo of $100 bills over the gas well photo, and make the money photo just slightly visible. It took me less than two minutes to do … and that's the option the client used on the cover.

    Tip: Once you get a design you like, force yourself to come up with a few variations, or even a totally new version of what you have. You'll often find that these are the designs that push your creativity to a new level.

I assure you that it's often the little things that make you and your work stand out.

See you at Bootcamp in November!

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: September 7, 2006

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