The Twelve Deadly Sins of Design

harlanwestblogphotoBy Harlan West, Design and Marketing Professional with nearly 30 years of experience designing communications for major healthcare organizations, municipalities and large corporations.

Old Cemeteries - Row of Tombstones

Heed the warning and don’t make the following mistakes. Successful corporate communication designers know how to avoid these pitfalls:

1) Failure to include a call to action.  What is the purpose of a marketing or sales publication if it doesn’t produce a return on investment (ROE)? Let’s face it, the print world has largely gone away. Clients are looking for results from their advertising and marketing budgets. Promoting awareness or providing information alone just won’t cut it in today’s marketplace.

2) Failure to follow the client’s corporate design standards. Don’t overlook the brand. Shame, shame, on you if you do!!! Effective corporate communications are branded to help promote awareness of the corporate brand and to promote consistency of look and style.

3) Failure to select images that are not carefully vetted. For example, never show a person not wearing a seat belt in a carpool photo. Never show a bicyclist not wearing a helmet in a promotion for Bike to Work Day. Never show just one person driving a car in a brochure on ridesharing or commute options.

4) Designing text using colors that are too difficult to read.  This means colors that are too light, too bright or that are printed with fluorescent inks. I once saw a publication created by a popular art school that was indeed beautiful but you needed sunglasses to read it. Beautiful as it may have been, the publication was completely illegible since all the type was printed in bright orange fluorescent ink against a pure white background. Yikes.  Pass the sunscreen!

5) Failure to place functionality over aesthetics. A beautifully designed work of art which does not sell the product, promote awareness or even reach the targeted audience is a zero design. A piece can be the really beautiful, but if it doesn’t work what is the value? Remember what my grandmother used to say, “Beauty is only skin deep but ugly is to the bone.”

6) Failure to design a piece that cannot be easily printed. Many inexperienced designers create pieces that do not have proper bleeds, do not contain proper color call-outs, do not have plates that separate out or do not have postscript and properly licensed fonts. Have the printer review the art during the process to make sure that it can be printed using their equipment. Make sure that the printer has the correct print specifications.

7) Failure to include diversity or demographics.  Today’s world is important—it is a global community. Don’t “look yesterday!”  Be sure to represent people who are the intended audience and who represent the local community. Publications that fail to do so will be overlooked.

8) Failure to modify or enhance a stock image. These images can be easily spotted. Furthermore, you don’t want your photo to show up somewhere else.  All stock images need to be customized to the publication. Change the cropping, colorization, angle. Add a funky border treatment or combine photos or superimpose type so that the images do not look generic.

9) Failure to use high resolution images for print. Cell phone images usually don’t cut it. When designing for print be sure to use images that are at least 300 dots per inch. Low quality images almost always look bad.  Remember, ”garbage in is garbage out.”

10) Failure to use fonts that are easy on the eye. Using a condensed font, italicized type or all caps throughout can be a legibility nightmare. Don’t make your client go blind while attempting to read your publication.

11) Failure to design for the audience. Use large type for an older audience. Use graphics and color schemes which relate to the demographics and cultural traditions of the target group. Don’t design a super hip publication for an older audience and don’t create a stodgy traditional layout for a group of teens or millenials.

12) Failure to properly outline hair on people or what is known as the “helmet-head effect.” Avoid those bad hair days when your parents put a bowl around your head and cut off the excess hair. Hair needs to be soft with flowing strands, not hard angled and choppy. Don’t attempt to give someone a haircut if you are unskilled in Photoshop.

Follow these valuable tips and design with confidence.  Don’t be a sinner along the way.


If your company or organization needs an innovative or unique solution for a promotion or marketing campaign, please contact HWDS at hwdesign@west.netWe make beautiful things happen. To find out more, please visit

Harlan West is the author of and has been working as a creative director and design professional for nearly 30 years and has designed and art directed hundred of publications for both print and online purposes. HWDS and Associates, Inc. has been in business for 25 years.

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