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I like stories. I feel that stories explain people’s
motivations, and help us to understand what
drives them. I like listening to stories, and I es-
pecially love telling them. That’s why this book
starts with a story.
The setting was not a glamorous or dramat-
ic one - it was an office space, a bare of-
fice space that my colleague and I had vis-
ited when we were considering renting it. But
empty spaces, as you know, are
full of promise. And it was with prom-
ise that we regarded the space, considered
where to put the furniture, how long the tables
should be, and how many people would fit in-
side each training room.
It is a story that most people will see mirrored
in their own lives. When we move into a new
home or office, this is one of the first things we
do. We consider where to put things, how to
make the space work for us, and how it will
fit our lifestyle and needs. We want to
fill the spaces with something
special, utilitarian, and visually
Most of us, though, don’t actually make the
furniture that goes into our homes and offic-
es. Graphic design and visual communica-
tions are really not that different. There are
two aspects to design - the stra-
tegic considerations, and the
The building aspect is like a carpenter’s job -
to build the furniture, to varnish the wood, to
put pieces together. The ‘builder’ in design
will use the tools and techniques in software
to create shapes, colors, textures, and words
to make a poster, website, or image. The strat-
egy, though, is like the job of the interior deco-
rator. This requires the ability to understand
an aesthetic, to consider motivations, and to
make decisions. If you are reading this book,
you probably already know how to do the car-
penter’s equivalent of design.
CHEIF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
You’re probably fluent in a few, or several,
design softwares and have had technical
experience in creating visual communica-
tion. What I’d like to draw your attention to is
the strategy.This is about considering the rea-
sons that something looks good, or doesn’t
It’s about how to use the tools you already
know, to communicate what you want to say.
It’s about being a designer - a person who
designs, not just a person who builds things
We’re going to explore the essential concepts
of design and visual communication - why it
works, why it doesn’t, and the logic behind it.
This knowledge is far more fundamental than
knowing which tool to use to create a certain
effect in a given software.To do this, we’re go-
ing to go on a journey that passes through the
human brain, a journey that takes you years
into the past, and that will propel you years
into the future. I’m going to tell you of my own
story and journey - from my childhood in Italy
to my work and life in Asia.
It’s a journey that will empower
you to become a designer in the
truest sense of the word - someone
who sees promise in empty spaces, and can
create stories within them.
FACEby mark plunkett
My journey in the design industry began as
an Account Executive in 2001. I moved up as
a Junior Designer and then a Senior Design-
er and gradually became an Art Director in
2006. Today, I helm the creative team in VOX
Lab along with Stefano, for the past three
years. In the time that I have worked with him,
Stefano has never ceased to amaze me with
his dedication in showing up to work everyday
and doing what he loves with the same zeal
as he had the day before.
There are some lessons that you learn in school
but it takes a few tries, many in the case of the
industry we are in, to grasp that concept. My
Italian friend's expertise in design and his spot-
on judgement on Colour Management and
Typography remain unparalleled and this has
helped me pick up a great deal of technical
know-how; actually understand things that I
The creative industry is vast and continu-
ally expanding and this offers the exposure
to learn something new; be it from a major
project, new client or a change in an exist-
ing piece of work. We see an array of clients
coming through our doors, some surpassing
us in years of experience and knowledge in
the economy. But there is a reason they come
to us for their creative requirements; our pro-
ficiency in understanding what the industry
craves for. This does not come with a certifi-
cate from design school but the hunger to
know how a need is addressed and wanting
to do it better.
I urge any young designer to read this book as
a guide to keep pushing forward even when
that beloved piece was thought of otherwise
by the client; to the industry veteran as a re-
minder to keep pushing your boundaries as
creativity knows no limits and to any other as-
piring designer out there on how to see prom-
ise in any empty space.
This book is about my thoughts on design.
Design is an industry that excites me with its
possibilities. Yet, it can be frustrating because
of the limitations that audiences, clients, and
we - as designers - put on ourselves.
I didn’t intend to write this book as a textbook
or guide. It’s simply a consolidation of insights
- of my contribution to design, and of my per-
spectives on how this industry has evolved
before my eyes. I started in the industry about
eighteen years ago. I worked in design in my
native country of Italy before moving to
Singapore, where I live now.
The experiences I have had reflect not only on
design and technology, but also on business
and culture - and the way these factors inter-
mingle when it comes to creating design.
I hope to inspire other designers
- and non - designers to observe
the world through a similar lens,
and to understand how design and its corol-
laries are changing the way we communi-
I’ve used examples from my own experiences
in this book, because I believe that experi-
ences make designers who they
are. I’ve also used examples from what I’ve
seen around me, and what I observe in my
world. As far as possible, I’ve tried to keep
technicalities out of it because I don’t want
technology to become the focus of design.
However, on some occasions, technicalities
are requisite - and in these cases, I have kept
things as simple as possible. When I refer to
the term ‘design’ in this book, I am referring
to a variety of design types - not just static de-
sign. So I could mean video, animation, web
design, or mobile application design - any-
thing that is to do with visual communication.
The reason for this is that the term
‘designer’ has evolved in many
ways over the past decade. For
example, at one time, being a designer
meant only one or two things. Now, you could
be a web designer, or a mobile application
designer. You could do front end or back
You could be working independently, in an
agency, or in a corporate environment. Per-
haps you work in advertising only, or in social
media only. Even more specifically - you could
be creating tablet applications for hospitals.
The propensity for design has multiplied to in-
clude a huge range of industries and areas,
to an extent that has not been observed be-
fore. This means that the term ‘design’ also
has to expand in the same way. We need to
be able to understand ‘design’ in the way that
it applies to the world today, because that un-
derstanding will shape the way in which we
create, buy, sell and use design.
To some people, design is deeply personal.
But when it comes to selling a product or com-
municating a message, design should
be clear. And it’s not always possible to
DIY design - especially when you want de-
sign with value.A young, gifted designer with
a lot of technical knowledge cannot hope to
command the rates of a veteran designer -
because no matter how talented
you are, you cannot become an
expert in a month. An experienced
and knowledgeable designer with little innate
design talent cannot match a designer with
all three components.
Ten years ago, a startup could decide to cre-
ate a website or a business card - and choose
to have it done for free with minimal conse-
quences. Students, young designers, and
even your nephew or niece who dabbles in
design software are common sources for free
or low-cost design. “It’s just the website,” or
“The business card doesn’t have to look that
nice,” are common sentiments that accom-
pany these projects.
These are great projects in terms of giving
young designers a chance to try out their
skills. And, in fact, I recommend that
starting designers do all the free
work they can lay their hands
on, because that is really the only way to get
experience and exposure in the industry. You
need to try things out with your own hands
and experiment to create a frame of refer-
ence for yourself.
However, what often happens when the start-
up becomes more valuable is that there is
suddenly a disparity between the design and
the company. When the company starts get-
ting more revenue,and the website or business
cards are still the ones that you got for free -
then you end up with an imbalance between
the value of the company and the value of
This brings me to my point that design has val-
ue.That value is determined by the three com-
ponents which I mentioned earlier - experi-
ence, technical knowledge, and
talent.It then comes down to a simple math-
ematical equation - design has higher
value when those components
represent greater numbers.
This could be expressed in more years of
experience,or greater talent,or more technical
skills, or fluency in more software, or more pro-
jects that the designer has worked on, or more
awards that the designer has gotten.The point
is that design - and designers - take on greater
value when those components take on great-
er value.This means that comparing designers
according to price becomes a moot point.
It’s only natural that an experienced design-
er will charge more than a young designer -
because there is more value there. And the
design itself will become more valuable. It will
mean more. It will represent more. It will com-
municate more, and there’s a higher chance
that it will be more effective than a shot in the
dark by a less experienced designer.
Serifs are semi-structural details on the ends of some of the
strokes that make up letters and symbols. A typeface with
serifs is called a serif typeface (or serifed typeface). A type-
face without serifs is called sans serif or sans-serif.
Becoming a designer is a process in itself.
Many people ask me how I became a de-
signer, and how designers get a foothold in
the industry. This question is a common one
because of the way the industry has evolved.
First, there is more competition than ever.
There are so many designers, so
many softwares, and so many
opportunities. Therefore, there
are also so many threats to a
designer. It is only natural, therefore, for
a new designer to look at the industry he or
she is stepping into, and ask the question,
“How?” When it comes to answering this ques-
tion, one of the first things new designers do
is something quantifiable, measurable, and -
they believe - transferable.
They learn software. Then, they try to become
very good at the software. Many new de-
signers learn it very well. They become fluent
in the tools, and know how to apply effects,
transform shapes, and animate. They know
all about the definitions of software terms and
they know how to create a certain look. Then
comes the first project, and then the first few
Suddenly, the new designer enters
a startup phase when his or her
work isn’t as good as expected.
If this has happened to you - or if it’s still
happening to you - rest assured that this is
a part of the natural learning progression
of design and that it is a necessary part of
Some of the things that you might experience
are that you’ll feel that you’re do-
ing the right things and moving
in the right direction, but some-
thing will always be missing.
Bleed refers to the information that etends pass the point
where the page will be trimmed,and allows color or
images to continue to the very edge of the cutpage.
Mainly used for decorative purposes, a die cut can
enhance the visual impact of a design through the
creation of interesting shapes, apertures or edges.
“It’s not quite right,” and “Something is wrong
here,” are very common thoughts that you’ll
have. You may also find yourself assessing
yourself with every design that you do. You
may see every piece of design as a reflection
of yourself as a designer, or of your design
worth. No matter how well you know the soft-
ware, and how much expertise you have with
the tools, you might not know which ideas to
It’s likely that you’ll have an abundance of
ideas, but you’ll be unsure of how to express
them or which ones to combine in each de-
sign. This syndrome often results in staring
blankly at the screen, or creat-
ing random designs that you’re
not a hundred percent satisfied
with. You may not have anything to com-
pare yourself or your designs with because
you haven’t worked on enough projects.
Once again, I urge all new designers to rest
assured, because this is a completely
natural and normal phase of
starting up. This phase of self-assessment
and self-critique is part of the process of be-
coming a designer - and it’s a necessary one
when you’re stepping into the field. It’s hap-
pening for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it’s likely that you’ve flipped through the
pages of a design magazine and seen great
design. You might have been inspired by it.
Then, you look at the design you’ve just cre-
ated and you tend to compare the two. This
leads to the second reason- you may be a
gifted designer, or have an eye for colour, or
you may know the software insideout. And
that’s why you wonder. “How come I’m sup-
posedly a good designer, but I can’t produce
work that I’m happy with?” “How come I have
the best tools at my disposal but I can’t create
As you venture further into the world of being
a designer, you’ll find that the tools
themselves are not enough. You
may find yourself getting frustrated with the
software, or just using the same tools again
and again to create design. At some point,
though, there will be a breakthrough. You will
start to envision a project in your head, but
you won’t go straight to the tools. You’ll start
with the idea, and then use the tools as a
means to represent and recreate what you’re
That is the essence of design - to
create an idea, not just to use
the tools. This is a significant breakthrough
for any new designer. However, it comes with
its own challenges.
You may have a very clear idea of the design
in your mind but when you execute it, you’ll
find a disconnection between your vision and
the result. This stage disappoints many new
designers - you may feel that you’re not good
enough at the tools, for example. You may
feel anxious - what if the market isn’t ready,
or if people don’t accept your idea? What if
you’re convinced of the design but the client
An image surrounded by a border that
fades at the edges, specifically to highlight
or isolate the central portion of an image is
called a Vignette.
Vector is an image that contains many individual
and scalable objects.Vector graphics can be
displayed at any size and are resolution
Unfortunately, this happens more often than
we’d like.A meeting with a client may progress
something like this:
The client tells you that she doesn’t like the de-
sign.You ask why.The client brings up a detail
that seems irrelevant.“The text is too small,” she
says.“The margin isn’t narrow enough.” So you
change the text and the margin, but some-
thing still doesn’t add up.
The client suggests another change, and you
make it.This happens a few more times. You
begin to feel like a pair of hands
operating the software. The client
seems to be holding on to the reins now.You’re
not the designer anymore, you’re just the user
of the tools. Then you start questioning your
worth. “Am I a good designer? I thought it
looked nice, but the client didn’t like anything
I did.” You question the situation.“I’m not even
making any more design decisions. I am just
doing what theclient tells me to do.”
These feelings are inevitable, no matter how
many courses in design you take, and no mat-
ter how expert you are at using the software,
and no matter how gifted you are as a design-
er. Once in a while, the best thing you can do
for yourself is to work up the courage to erase
all the files, and start over from the very begin-
ning, on a clean slate.
That does sound like hard work. In reality, it is
hard work. But one of the most valua-
ble things a designer can do is
to try - again and again -
until you get it right.
There’s no substitute for amassing experience.
The reason I am able to say this is that I went-
through the process of trying again and again
when I was starting as a designer in Italy. I was
creating slides for advertising space in movie
theaters - for advertisements to be shown be-
fore the movie started.
A Process whereby two different
materials are bonded together
to produce a substrate that has
different colors on each side.
th e lazy
br own fox
th e lazy
br own fox
The quick Design
I went through so many sizes, frames, and
types of paper - buying them and trashing
them again and again. I’ll discuss this more
later in this book, but suffice it to say for now
that the experience was a very valuable one.
Despite using the rather inefficient method of
trial and error, I learned a great amount.
Trial and error is therefore a val-
uable method to learn - you may
take longer to get to your goal,
but you amass a huge bank of
knowledge on the way.
I have seen many young, motivated design-
ers fall into the trap of thinking that, by getting
a client, they can do whatever they want. This
is actually quite far from reality. The first ten
design projects you get as a designer may be
awkward experiences because of the lack of
New designers working with clients also find
that the client - who has little understanding of
design - will end up telling the designer what
to do. In a situation that quickly becomes
characterized by the phrase ‘blind leading
the blind’, the designer and client use trail and
error to create work. Eventually, both may get
to stage where they’re happy with the design,
but the design isn’t necessarily solid, and may
not have the basis to be accepted globally.
1. For a designer starting in the field, these
challenges are inevitable and are a part of
the growing process - so take them in this
spirit, and use them to add to your breadth
2. Even the most software-proficient designer
cannot hope to achieve design mastery
without the solid backing of experience -
which leads to better conceptualization
and better work. Software isn't everything.
3. If you're working with a designer on a pro-
ject, remember that hiring a designer isn't
about hiring someone to use the tools for
you. It's about taking the expert advice
of a person who knows what works, and
Neither designer nor client may have a con-
crete idea of what they are representing in the
design. So far, I have exposited on the chal-
lenges and difficulties faced by new design-
ers. I wish to assure my readers that this sec-
tion is not meant to discourage anyone from
taking up design as a profession. I simply use
these examples to highlight three very impor-
I run a software training centre in Singapore.
We instruct learners on how to use a range of
design software. Naturally, many of the peo-
ple who come through my doors are aspiring
designers. Their reason for coming to learn is
that they want to get to know the software.
Some are brand new to the field, and they
know nothing about the software.
They start from the very beginning. Others are
more experienced, or self-taught, and they
pick up faster. Some are really quite proficient
in the software. In my time running this cen-
tre, I’ve seen designers in various stages of the
process. Instructing these designers, I have
found that there are some tips that apply to
designers at every stage of learning.
The best analogy I can think of is learning
an instrument. Take the piano, for example.
Learning design is like learning
to play piano. You start off playing kids’
tunes and get really good at them. You be-
come more familiar with the way your fingers
should move. You learn to read the notes and
you become more confident. Soon, you can
play Christmas carols fluently.
In order to get up to each level, you need to
push what you’re comfortable with. So you-
learn to play progressively difficult pieces.
With enough experience, knowledge, and
practice (plus talent of course) you get to a
higher level in piano playing.
Here is where the comparison with design
comes in. Playing the piano doesn’t require
creating something. In the same way, using
software doesn’t require creating something.
Creating your own music - or
your own design - is a different
skill. You won’t be able to cre-
ate your own music unless you
experiment. You have to move away
from the pieces that you know. You need to try
your own little tunes - simple at first, but gradu-
ally more complicated. You need to play a
wider repertoire, listen to more music, and try
The Silver of a binding Margin. The gutter is often nicked
during binding, which means that anything printed at this
extreme edge of the page may not be visible.
You need to be unafraid that it doesn’t sound
nice from the beginning. Practising scales
and playing the same pieces over and over
will not get you to this stage no matter how
much time and effort you invest in it. If you
play scales for ten hours, you’ll
get really good at scales but
not at much else.
This experimentation is essential for anyone
who wants to create. Design is very similar.
If you only learn with examples you find in
books, you won’t ever get to be a great de-
signer. I advocate that designers move away
from what they are used to. Create work that’s
out of your industry - do things that your clients
won’t require. Make a video for a bike race, for
example. The reason is that you need to chal-
lenge what is familiar. You need to try things
with your hands and your mind that you have
never tried before. This exploration is what cre-
ates great design.
I also encourage the idea of get-
ting influenced by design. This
doesn’t mean being a copycat
- it means that you see what you
like, and work towards it. Many de-
signers starting off in the industry buy several
issues of design magazines, and read several
design websites. This is a great idea to keep
you inspired, but if you really want to improve
your own design, try this: buy a magazine and
flip through it until you find something you like.
Tear it out. Stick it on your wall or keep it with
you. Do this until that particular style of design
has become a part of your routine.
Once you master that style, repeat the
process. Remember, if the design is featured
in a magazine, it means that the designer has
expertise. If it worked for that designer, it might
work for you. Consider this question, “Why is
that design on a design magazine, while
Obviously, there is a gap between your de-
sign and that design. By keeping that
design with you as a frame of
reference, you’ll be able to work
your way up to it. This reference is cru-
cial, and only comes with repetitive prac-
tice, no matter how many design courses
Once again, I would like to emphasize that you
don’t need to copy. What you need to
do is get inspired by comparing
yourself to a standard, and then
working towards that standard.
You’re not looking to replicate someone else’s
design. You’re trying to reach someone else’s
standard of design.
A question many designers ask me is, “Does all
this hard work pay off?” You may be asking that
very question as you read about the amount
of effort design takes. The answer is yes, mostly,
but it depends very much on your definition of
a payout. I’ve seen ‘celebrity’ designers spend-
ing up to 6 months on a single, super-cool info-
graphic, which they then propose to other com-
panies (or get contacted for). The amount they
make selling a single infographic pays them
back for the 6 months they invest. That’s great
money and if that is your idea of a payout, it’s
very much possible.
What is certain is that this isn’t going to happen
overnight though. At first, when you start as a
designer, you’ll need to do some work for free.
I mentioned this before and I will reiterate this
point - working for free is a great opportunity for
a new designer.
The more work you do for free at first, the
more you’ll make in the future. Free work
means more to put into your port-
folio. It means more contacts,
networks, and experience. It means
that you get to experiment and create things of
your own - with much less in terms of expecta-
tions and pressure from clients.
When you move on in the world of design, you’ll
find the disparity between experienced and
less-experienced designers. Sometimes, pricing
gets in the way - by creating competition that
shouldn’t exist. For example, when I was in Italy
creating business cards, I priced my services at
98 Euro for a box of 100 cards. This included de-
sign and printing of those cards.
One day, a customer told me that he was going
somewhere else because they were charging
90 Euro for the same thing I was doing. That
translated into an 8 Euro savings for him. But
it also meant that if I considered my work bet-
ter than my competitor’s, I was worth only 8
My design expertise and my talent was worth 8
Euro more compared to someone else’s.It’s hard
to put a price on your expertise, and even hard-
er when that price is low. This is what happens
when very competitive rates affect designers.
-7 -3 -3
Kerning is the manual or automated removal of
space between letters to improve the visual look
Leading is the space between lines of type
measured from baseline to baseline.
These revelations show that competition
based on price can’t get you the best design.
A designer offers the three things I mentioned
earlier - experience, knowledge of the tools,
So if you’re paying less for one designer com-
pared to another one, you’re giving up one or
more of those three things. A designer could
go his or her entire life making business cards
or letterhead- and never increase prices more
than what is necessary to adjust for inflation.
Conversely, a designer could in-
crease his or her price with eve-
ry project because of the depth
and breadth of experience. A stu-
dent’s work is cheaper than a veteran design-
er’s - but that’s because the veteran designer
has more experience.
This is why I would like to reiterate my point -
that design does have value - it’s not just a
drawing or a collection of shapes. The more
experience, knowledge, and talent a design-
er has, the more his or her design is worth.
This comes down to the same essential point I
made earlier. Design has value. If you’re a
designer, you’ll have seen by now how much
effort goes into creating that value.
If you’re someone who purchases design by
paying a designer, this section would have
explained to you why you pay a certain
amount. If a price that you’re quoted seems
low now, you’ll know that it’s because some
part of the process that I just mentioned
didn’t quite pan out the way it should have.
OVERPRINTOVERPRINTOVERPRINT OVERPRINTOVERPRINTOVERPRINTOverprinting adds texture to a design. Interesting type
effects can be obtained through overprinting.
I’d like to address the inevitable decision that
every designer has to make when starting off
in the industry - take that design job at a cor-
porate company, or work in a design studio.
Most designers will pick the design studio. It
seems more cutting-edge, more creative. But
remember that design studios and creative
agencies work with hierarchies.
Your freedom as a junior designer is limited to
what the Creative Director’s vision is. In an
agency or a studio, there are
very few people with the auton-
omy to create and conceptual-
ize. This is a reality of working in a design
studio, because practically, there can only be
one or two people holding on to the reins of a
design. Most junior designs in creative agen-
cies end up doing rather than creating.
Being a graphic designer looks very differ-
ent from the creative end of the table, com-
pared to the executing end of the table.
Junior designers end up on the executing
end - they can only do, or watch, or learn,
and put in the necessary time to get the
Eventually, a junior designer can rise to the
creative end of the table - but that takes time,
effort, and experience. Until then, you have to
resign yourself to the fact that you’ll be work-
ing on someone else’s direction.
Working in an agency does have its plus points
too - there is the exposure to great design, the
options available to you, and the opportunity
to learn from excellent designers, to name a
few. I think that most designers already know
what these plus points are, because most de-
signers look to agencies first, before any oth-
er segment of the industry, when looking for
So I’m going to present an alternative point
of view - the advantages of working in a cor-
porate setting. I am not endorsing either set-
ting, but I am presenting an alternative point
of view so that designers can consider all the
options before making a decision that suits
their situation and needs the best.
Corporates actually provide a great context
to be a budding designer. The corporate en-
vironment requires a lot of design. Collaterals
have to be created; marketing material has to
be published. Let’s say you work in a pharma-
ceutical firm as a junior designer.
You know you won’t be doing cutting-edge
design work for a range of products - it will be
pharmaceuticals, day in and day out. How-
ever, you’ll get more freedom. You’ll express
your creativity much more. You’ll get a better
pay, and you’ll have more room to grow. From
a business point of view, you’ll be able to grow
as a design leader and work your way up to
managing a team of designers.
You can expand your creativity, practise, and
even make a few mistakes along the way.
These same mistakes could cost you your job
in a design studio or agency, but they might
even go unnoticed in a corporate. It’s likely
that you’ll be one of the most proficient de-
signers in that organization, so you’ll get a lot
more credit and autonomy than you would in
a studio setting.
The corporate environment
provides budding designers
with a great opportunity to
experiment and create with
relative autonomy while earn-
ing a decent salary. In general, it also
provides a greater measure of security than a
studio setting. It’s a good deal for someone
trying to break into the field.
Good design is something that you perceive.
This perception comes with experience, knowl-
edge, and an eye for detail. I ran a class in de-
signing presentations - and one of my students
showed me a slide with three lines of text.
The text was center-aligned with high leading.
At a glance, I was able to see how it would
have looked better. I suggested applying a left
alignment, and making the lines closer to one
another. Together with the student, I identified
one key word per line of text and made it bold.
I also suggested capitalizing the first letter and
putting a full-stop at the end.
When I made these suggestions, I did not
make them as part of an academic,analytical
process. I did not refer to a design concept or
a design tool. It was an almost instinctive reac-
tion to design.
How was I able to tell, straight away, what
the solution for this issue would be? It was be-
cause I have had several examples to use as
reference. This comes from experience
and from having a good idea of
what design is, rather than just
knowing about the tools that
Reference gives you comfort and support.
Good design isn’t just knowing what looks
good - it’s about knowing the difference be-
tween what looks good and what doesn’t look
good, as well as why.
of a publica-
The heavy cartridge paper
at the paper at the front
and back of a book that
join the text block to a hard-
The backbone of a book,
which is formed by the
The part of the cover that
wraps around inside the
Head and tail bans
Pieces of cloth tape that
cover the top and bottom
of the spine to protect it and
add a decorative touch.
My own journey into - and through - the world
of design has seen many change in the way
design is created and approached. When I
started in design, it was 1998. I was living in my
hometown, in Italy. I worked in a real estate
agency, creating advertisements for proper-
ties using MS Publisher. My initial job descrip-
tion was to show apartments, but I didn’t like
it. Instead, I stayed in the office, making ads.
That was my first attempt as a designer.
I learned how to use the software that was
available at the time, which was of course
much more limited than what we have today.
As my design experiences grew, I started to
create advertisements for newspapers and
stores. It was especially fun to do festive
themes like Christmas or Valentine’s Day, be-
cause it gave me opportunities to do some-
thing different and to experiment. It was here
that I first realized the value of experimenta-
tion when creating design. It gives you the
chance to do something that’s different from
I also had opportunities to work with SMEs -
and there were many SMEs in the town where
I lived. For example, I would make business
cards, letterheads and envelopes. For a start-
ing designer, that kind of work was great be-
cause it gave me the opportunity to carry on
a little more.
I saw is as having a car with an
empty fuel tank - and every cli-
ent gives you an additional litre
of fuel. Of course, you can’t make a living
out of something like this - so the patterns had
to change. I had to start doing something
more permanent, something where I could
At that time, my dad bought a cinema theater
in our hometown. He would show slides before
the film started - slides that people could use
to advertise their products, services, or stores.
My job was then to sell ad space and ad de-
signs on those slides to clients who wanted to
advertise their services. At first, I hired a de-
signer and handled just the sales.
But eventually, I started to do the design my-
self. I took pictures from magazines, cut them
out, composited them to A4 size, scanned the
A4 paper to a transparency, bought a frame,
mounted the transparency on the frame, and
put it in the machine. It was a long process
and, as I mentioned earlier in this book, a
valuable one. I would test paper sample af-
ter paper sample. I learnt that rough paper
would cause ink to stick when it was photo-
copied, so I bought smoother paper. I bought
and trashed a large number of frames and
sheets of paper.
However, this trail and error experience was
great for me because I could learn so much
through each version. Soon, started getting
jobs doing the same thing for other cinemas.
I also came to a realization that selling was an
important part of what I was doing. So I exper-
imented with selling across other platforms.
When I was in my teens, I was a radio DJ in my
local radio station. The producers asked me if
I wanted to sell commercial air space, which I
did. Eventually, I started creating and execut-
ing the commercials myself. I would also pro-
mote clubs - and earn up to 2000 lire per ticket
I managed to get in a great deal of busi-
ness for local clubs - unprecedented num-
bers - which gave me an insight into how to
sell something. When combined with
design principles, sales princi-
ples work particularly well to
create effective visual commu-
nication. Although I didn’t know it at the
time, this was where I was heading.
At the time that I had to stop work to enter
compulsory military service in Italy, I was sell-
ing ad space for my dad’s cinema, another
cinema, and 2 radio channels - plus club pro-
motion. That was good money for a kid my
age. After military service, though, I lost con-
tact with most of my associates and went into
other jobs - sales, and insurance.
This is the stage where, like all designers, I had
to make a choice. Design is a full-time career.
Icould not hope to become good at it by do-
ing it part-time. In fact, fourteen years after I
started, I met a person who told me that he
was getting a full-time job in banking, and
would pursue a design career part time. I think
that, while praise-worthy, it’s a hard thing to
do. That would mean 8 hours of his day work-
ing with numbers, 8 hours or so sleeping, and
the rest of the time commuting, eating, and
doing other activities. That would mean get-
ting less than two hours a day doing design
or getting educated in design.
For me, design is all-consuming,
and it’s not just a part of my day
- it is my day.
One of the things I have learned about doing
business in Asia is that the business
card is a very important part of
any negotiation. As opposed to the
United States or Europe, where people some-
times don’t even bother exchanging cards,
it’s common in Asia to start every meeting by
exchanging business cards.
Practically, communication and technology
has evolved to an extent that you’d think that
it makes more sense to bring a single busi-
ness card and have everyone take photos
of it on their cell phones. Or, you could save
the information on your cell phone - or con-
nect straight away on Twitter or Facebook or
LinkedIn. A business card is static
- it doesn’t change when your
employment details change,
or when your contact details
But you can update your online profiles when-
ever you want. You can send out an email to
all your contact telling them about your new
You can’t do that with a business card. So-
practically, the business card seems like an
anachronism in a business climate like Asia,
which is normally associated with high-tech
and cutting-edge advancements. However,
business card design in Asia is extremelycrea-
tive and people put a lot of money and effort
into it. I once got a business card from some-
one, designed like a $50 bill - but with his face
on it. This is just one example of the very crea-
tive business cards I’ve seen.
There are designers in their late teens, straight
out of a design course, who have much bet-
ter business cards than I do. There’s a lot
of effort put into business cards
in Asia, perhaps more so than
many other aspects of the busi-
ness’s first impression.
Even in the Asian context, though, branding
is catching on more - and the need to brand
much more than the business card is catch-
ing on. People understand that you can now
make videos introducing yourself, or use so-
cial media. People animate what they do, or
use infographics to represent the concepts
that they’re standing for.
What does this mean for the business card
in Asia? Advancements in design
technology are rendering the
business card almost obsolete,
but business culture continues
to being the business card to
the forefront of negotiations.
It remains to be seen what will happen, but
it does reveal that things are changing and
that a successful designer has to be ahead
of these changes if he or she is to benefit
When I first started in design, there were very
few tools available to the designer. It was hard
to decide what you wanted to do. Now,
tools are available to do just
about anything you want.I re-
member not having any afford-
able video animation tools at
that time. I could only animate geometric
shapes and text - even with the more costly
animations software. Our options for design
were Corel, Photopaint, and Photoshop.
At this early stage, it was imperative that you
had good material to work with, but content
was much harder to come by. When I sit in
front of a browser now, I type the search term
‘landscape’ into Google and find millions of
image results in varying resolutions. When
I first started, Altavista would have given me
about a thousand photos - most of which
were too small.
The process was therefore much longer. I
would take photographs on film, get them
developed, scan them, and then start work. It
would take a lot more time and money that it
takes now. It could take you a few days before
your photo was ready to be worked on. Even
when we got digital cameras, the resolutions
were less than 1 megapixel and file size was a
By the time I got to the fun part - taking texts
and shapes and applying effects to them -
I had to go through a tedious process. So it
was important to be motivated -
you needed to be able to stick it
out, to spend the time needed,
and to invest the money neces-
sary. Technology at our current stage has
greatly lessened the deterrents to becoming
a designer because of the speed and ease at
which we can work.
One of the most significant trends in design
software today is our move away from tool-
based software to feature-based software.
Ten years ago, I would have approached web
design by thinking to myself, “What tools do I
need in this website?” Now, I ask myself, “What
features do I want in this website?” This gives
more choice to designers in terms of strategy
and approach.Visual language and
visual code has the potential to
change rapidly with technologi-
For example, we’ve spent years seeing the
logo on the top left of a website, the regis-
tration form on the right, and the drop-down
menu on top. As more people begin
browsing websites with tablets
and not computers, it’s nec-
essary to rethink the way that
people interact with websites.
The mouse gives you three options - don’t
click, click, or hover. A tablet only gives you
two - touch or don’t touch. This has a pro-
found effect on how people browse the web.
And when one media changes - in this case,
the web - other media platforms are bound
Tablets, for example, have not only affected
how consumers view the web but also how
business is sought and created. Portability
means that a startup doesn’t have to show
clients a slide presentation in a boardroom
anymore. If you’re a startup, you can publish
your own videos on your website - with narra-
tion, animation, live-action, or infographics
representing your business concepts. These
are viewable on tablets as well as comput-
ers. Web media changes have thus cascad-
ed across the industry to affect other media
Video software itself has been the topic of
much debate. Apple’s Final Cut Pro X, when it
was released, was mocked because compet-
itors thought it wasn’t professional anymore. It
was simplified, with many panels removed -
panels that the developers felt were not rel-
evant anymore. Those who worked in the in-
dustry for decades felt that the software had
lost something - there was no more control of
It’s necessary to change with the trends, and
even industry giants have realized that they
need to be quick to understand this. Tradition-
al software has always been produced with
a massive investment, and then sold to a per-
son with a single license.
Once this license is sold, it’s done - and the
consumer won’t buy another license until you
release a new version. Software companies
have long released improvement after im-
provement in different versions to consumers.
However, some software does reach the end
of the tunnel - it becomes perfect and you
can’t add to it anymore. This happened to
Photoshop CS3, and there was little else that
could be done to improve the software.
So, there are repackaged versions for niche
markets - Photoshop Touch, Photoshop
Express, Photoshop Elements.This also chang-
es the way that people consume software.
It’s not necessary to purchase expensive soft-
ware for a single license anymore.
There is great software available for reason-
able prices, with several licenses. Software
developers are also giving consumers the op-
tion to subscribe rather than pay a one-time
charge - so that it gives you the greater
flexibility of being able to pick and choose
what you want in terms of features and
usability. Some software companies are even
letting consumers use the software for free on-
line, and only pay per export.
It’s said that a successful software today is the
software that has several lawsuits against it,
claiming that the code was stolen. This should
provide the understanding that software is be-
coming a highly competitive field, and there
are numerous applications and services
coming out at all price ranges. The flexibility
is tremendous and the market is varied. This
means that it’s essential to embrace many
technologies and tie them together with the
principles of design, picking and choosing
the best tools from each software - rather
than claiming proficiency in a single software.
When people ask me, “Can you make a web-
site with a shopping cart on Adobe Dream-
weaver?” I respond with, “Can you write Ro-
meo and Juliet with MS Word?”
Technically, the answer to both is yes. But can
you conceptualize? Can you use the tools to
create ideas? That’s what’s important. The
market treasures technical knowledge, but
neglects conceptualization. That’s why a
bundle of experience makes a design - and
a designer - more valuable. This also means
that there will be less of an industry standard.
More competition means that
more softwares are emerging
and there is no single software
that a designer can learn and
use his or her entire career.
This means that the theory of design becomes
crucial. It’s not enough to know how to operate
the software. Transferable skills will
become paramount because a
young designer could be very
skilled at a software - but if his
or her first job is in a company
that doesn’t have the software,
those skills become useless.
Eventually, and ideally, this will lead to a situ-
ation where there is less piracy but also more
fragmentation. Performance may get affect-
ed when using web-based software for exam-
ple, working on a 300kb file on a web-based
design software is going to be a slow process.
So hardware will need to keep up to meet in-
creasing software demands. In some cases,
though, hardware has led the way. Consider
the iPad, which was mocked when it was first
released. Consumers complained about the
lack of a USB port. But Apple has overcome its
critics with panache. When the iPad was first
released, it was amid cries of complaint that it
has no USB ports. But it seems that Apple had
predicted the online sharing trend. Today, I
share hundreds of documents via Dropbox or
Google docs, and hardly any via a USB flash
drive. And with file compression, it’s hardly
SephiaA dark-brown ink or pigment produced from cuttlefish that is particularly associated with illustrations
and photographs of the ninetheenth and early twentieth centuries.A sephia tint can now be easily
applied digitally using filter to produce images that convey a historic or nostalgic feel.
What does this mean for the
future of the graphic designer?
Well, first of all it means that the term ‘graphic
designer’ has become as generic as ‘doctor’.
Just as there is heart surgery, sports medicine,
medical research, rural medicine, and scores
more, there are several types of designers. You
could specialize in typography, layout, color.
Or in web, or mobile, or print. Designers
are increasingly under pressure
to understand two very specific
and complementary roles - co-
ordination and specialization.
About ten years ago, a web specialization
meant just a few things. Now, web specializa-
tion has several different meanings.
Design has increased in complexity - and
with it, the designer has become a complex
role that’s difficult to frame. Business-wise, this
means that design is definitely becoming a
more valuable industry. Simple websites don’t
cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but this
doesn’t mean that you should get your neph-
ew to create an HTML website for your
company, for free. If a company makes sev-
eral millions a year but their web presence
costs them very little, there is an imbalance
that needs to be addressed.
They need design with value, as I mentioned
earlier in this book. The stakes for de-
signers are now higher because
there is more competition and
there are more skills to
potentially learn. However, the equa-
tion remains the same - experience, techni-
cal knowledge and talent. These three com-
ponents make up value no matter what the
platform and no matter where in the world the
designer is working.
I have chosen to address the issue of color be-
cause I believe that it’s an integral part of de-
sign. Color ‘disorders’ can also cause some of
the greatest challenges to a designer. Color
cast, for example, is the worst enemy
of the photographer or visual
artist. I see it as a virus which needs to be
cured by us, the doctors who have to discern
the best approach to take in order to eradi-
cate it. To understand how to cure color cast,
we first need to understand its ‘pathology’.
Color cast is an unwanted overall spread
color that influences our perception of an
image. The influence of color cast can be
at an emotional level because it affects the
way in which the viewer perceives an image.
However, color cast also affects us at a light
perception level. Because color cast creates
a veil over the picture, we don’t see the
actual picture in terms of color
and luminosity. Color cast affects light
first, then color - which means that a picture
with color cast will look darker than it should
be. It will be perceived as duller, meaning that
there is a lack of contrast in the picture. This is
because color cast makes light areas darker,
and shadows brighter.
In practice, stop color cast before it even starts
by trying to prevent it in the photography pro-
cess! You can use white-point calibration to
help prevent color cast. Open up a tone chart
in the screen of your camera, and use this
chart to calibrate the camera. The tone chart
includes gray, black, and white colors.
The white point is used to calibrate the
camera’s white balance. The light cast on the
tone chart reflects the light on the white point
according to the light of the environment.
Calibrating the camera with the tone chart
means that the extra light found on the white
will be subtracted. For example, if the camera
finds extra cyan, it will compensate by add-
ing some red (red being the opposite of cyan,
which I will discuss in more detail later).
Despite preventative measures such as white-
point calibration, color cast is still experienced
because the color cast may be generated
within the camera and within the sensor. This
means that you will not discover the color cast
until after you have clicked the photo.
So how do we go about
treating a photograph which
is suffering from color cast?
Like any good medical professional, I con-
ducted an experiment on this virus.When I was
living in Italy, I surveyed a group of 600 photog-
raphers by showing them a picture with color
cast. I asked them to identify the color cast
on the picture. Most of them reported 2 or 3
color casts - meaning that they would say, “It
looks yellowish, reddish, and magenta-ish,” or
“it looks like a mixture of yellow and red.” Then,
I fixed the picture. Without touching color at
all, I adjusted the contrast on the picture and
then showed it to my 600 test subjects again.
This time, almost everyone reported a single
My findings revealed that contrast is the first
and most important element that deceives
our perceptions of a picture. Color is the sec-
ond element, after contrast. That’s why we re-
fer to it as color cast (in the singular), and not
color casts (plural). The treatment process for
color cast must begin by setting contrast ac-
curately. Set contrast so that the bright tones
don’t hit the 255rgb ceiling, and darken the
dark tones without going to 0. Once that’s
done, you need to prescribe the picture its ap-
propriate medication. To understand which
medicine is appropriate for which picture,
consider this arrangement of colors:
R (Red) (cyan) C
G (Green) (magenta) M
B (Blue) (yellow)
The medicine for a red color cast is the hue
which is directly opposite it - cyan. A ma-
genta color cast requires a green cure, and
Stop and Think
Based on what you see in the chart, what do
you think is the best cure for a yellow color
cast? Or a blue color cast? Think of some ex-
amples of photos you have worked on in the
past, and consider how you can apply this
chart to those photos. Sometimes, though, it
can be hard to determine what exactly the
color cast is. This is because we perceive
blue and cyan to be very similar, just as we
perceive green and yellow, and red and ma-
genta to be similar. So how do we figure out
which color cast it is? Simply put, we work on
the luminosity component of the color cast.
RGB colors are always brighter than CMYK
colors because of the physical components
of these hues.
RGB colors are additive - this means that the
more you add color, the brighter the color
becomes. CMYK is subtractive, which means
that the more you subtract, the brigher
If this seems difficult to understand, here’s a
simplified explanation: RGB colors are
colors of light, and CMYK colors are
colors of pigment. The more red you add, the
more light you are adding. This means that a
red color cast (additional red in the picture)
will have more light - and therefore, it will
The more magenta you add, the more pig-
ment you are adding - it’s like applying sev-
eral layers of paint on a sheet of white pa-
per. Just as the paint darkens when you add
more layers, the picture will darken with a
magenta color cast because you are adding
So a ‘reddish’ color cast could be a red or a
magenta, but when you look at its luminos-
ity, you can identify which one it is. A darker
color cast means magenta, and a brighter
color cast means ted. Once you’ve identi-
fied that the virus is magenta, you know the
cure - green.
Similarly, if the color cast is ‘bluish’ and too
bright, you will know that it is blue (because
RGB colors are brighter). Therefore, the cure
will be yellow. To understand the way in which
the human brain functions, try this experiment.
You will need your computer, Photoshop or
any other suitable software, and a willing hu-
man participant to test your experiment on.
In Photoshop or any other suitable software,
create a red square. Then, copy it and place
the identical square beside the first square.
Take the second square and keep the same
color but subtract 10% blue or 10% green. Ask
your human test subject to see if he or she
perceives any difference in color. Most of
the time, the answer will be no.
Then, send your participant away and take
away 10% luminosity from the second square.
When he or she returns, ask if there is a dif-
ference between the two squares. This time,
most answers will be yes. This shows that the
human brain is more perceptive to a bright-
ness change than to a hue or color change.
There is a common
misconception in the way peo-
ple use visual communication
to sell something:
As long as it’s memorable, it’s a
I’d like to challenge this misconception with
an anecdote about a TV commercial that I
once saw in Italy. It was for a brand of mineral
water which didn’t have much sodium in it.
The premise was that sodium caused water
retention, and led to cellulite - but this mineral
water, having low sodium, would not contrib-
ute to cellulite.
The commercial was an animation of a par-
ticle of sodium floating in the water, lament-
ing in a high-pitched singing voice about
how she was all alone because the water
didn’t have any other sodium molecules.
I remember being highly irritated by this
commercial, and I expressed my opinion to
“Well, at least it’s catchy,” my acquaintance
told me. “It sticks. Hate it or love it, you’ll re-
member it - just like you’re remembering
“Perhaps so,” I told the lady. “But can you tell
me what brand of water it is?” She replied -
with the wrong brand.
A memorable design doesn’t mean it’s effec-
tive. This was years ago in Italy, but I see many
contemporary examples. One of the most
current examples that comes to mind is the
Chrysler commercial during the 2012 Super-
Bowl. Starring Clint Eastwood, this commercial
starts with 1 minute and 50 seconds of stun-
ning visuals. However, only the last 10 seconds
contain a message supporting the brand. I
know where this is coming from, because I’ve
had clients tell me things like, “Use bright col-
ours so that people will notice our ad first!”
What they miss is that visual communication
should operate on three levels:
People focus a lot on the ‘Stop’ part. They
want audiences to stop, and look. But when
the message tries to hold audiences and ex-
plain the reasoning of the design to them,
I received an email recently about a talk I
gave on visual communication. The sender
thanked me for my insights, then told me that
he was having trouble making his presenta-
tion look attractive. “I think if I knew anima-
tion, it would look more attractive,” he wrote.
This misconception needs to be addressed.
More is not merrier in design; you can’t fo-
cus on ‘Stop’ and expect the product to sell.
You can’t have a pink background but not
This is why I encourage the stop-hold-sell
model to be a more holistic concept. Inte-
grate them all - consider how ‘Stop’ affects
‘Hold’ or how ‘Hold’ affects ‘Sell’. Don’t involve
elements of design for the sake of involving
them. Create bridges instead of adding de-
Naturally, I encounter opposition - even from
clients - who don’t grasp this concept. When
I first started in design, I couldn’t help it and I
took what I got. I am now fortunate to be able
to tell clients that I am the architect of this de-
sign - not a contractor. I prefer to plan and
build, rather than build someone else’s plan.
This gives design a much more integrated, ho-
listic and effective feel.
FIRST NEXT LAST
I believe that design should inspire rather
than make a hard sell. There should be less
focus on the product that the design is selling
and more focus on people using the product.
I’ve seen my share of before-after commu-
nication: the user is portrayed in dull tones,
looking sad in the ‘before’ picture - and in the
‘after’ picture, the colours are dynamic and
the user’s life is better.
I think that audiences are too used to that -
it doesn’t work anymore. People want to see
benefits - what they can get out of a product
- and they want the design to communicate
that. ‘Clean’ and ‘simple’ are two words that
I hear most commonly in client briefings. But
clean and simple are given. I don’t think that
anyone really wants a messy, cluttered and
complicated design. However, clients con-
tinue to emphasize clean and simple as if it’s
something new and cutting-edge.
In reality, clean and simple is the only way to
go if you want to create effective visual com-
munication.Unfortunately, clean and simple is
mistaken for cheap. Look at Giorgio Armani’s
website, for example - it’s simple but I can
guarantee you it is not a cheap design.
Look at any number of minimalist designers.
Keeping things clean and simple doesn’t
mean that you remove value. The number of
design elements on a website doesn’t trans-
late into the cost of the website. Design is a
holistic process - value is created in the mes-
sage that it is communicating, not in the num-
ber of visual elements you see.
Achieving the stop-hold-sell model is much
more important than creating several design
elements. The value of the design is in its abil-
ity to create this stop-holdsell process and to
make it effective. Therefore, a ‘simple’ design
isn’t a cheap design.
Elements Used In This Book
History Class -
A brief description of the
historical context of the
principle, to understand how
and why that principle
Science 101 -
An explanation of the
science behind the idea, for
more in-depth knowledge.
In Practice -
Provides a strategy that the
reader can apply to his or her
design work immediately.
Stop And Think -
A point in the chapter for the
reader to stop and consider
the implications of the topic
to his or her practical
Try It Now -
A simple exercise that the
reader can try then and there
with a piece of paper and
The Visual Dictionary Of
Graphic Design -
A guide to the many and
varied terms used frequently
within graphic design.
1.You’re Exactly My Type:
Typography for Clear Design
1.Advertisements for fake
products with typefaces that
reinforce or contradict the
2. Use of typography to create
Topics in this chapter
1. How alignment and
justification affect meaning
and visual impact.
2. How theories of semiotics
form the basis of typography.
3.The stories of fonts - their
histories and applications.
4. How to decide which
typeface to use in which
2.A Place For Everything
And Everything In Its Place:
1.A layout of a city - like a
Google maps view - with
everything in its place:
explain good city
planning vs bad city
2. Layout of an apartment or
a living room.
Topics in this chapter
1. Layout is basically
mathematical because it is
about proportion - but how
does the mathematical
translate into the visual?
2. Seeing things from a
reader’s or viewer’s
perspective - how does this
translate into layout?
How can a designer step into
a viewer’s place?
3.Why are proportions
important when designing
something, even if you can
identify the object when its
proportions are skewed? Is
design just about
identification? What about
the communicative function?
3.What You Don’t See:
Negative Space Creates
1. Rubin’s vase
2. Spaces Between Moth
Topics in this chapter
1. Negative space may make
for a fun optical illusion, but
how can it create
significance to design?
2. How much negative space
to use, when to use it, and
3. Negative space used
unnecessarily - how does it
4.Visuals Can Hack Your
Brain: How The Brain
1.Visual Perceptions and
2. Symbols and their
Topics in this chapter
1. How are images processed
by the brain?
2.What practical design
applications come from this
5.The Rainbow Connection:
Making The Links Between
Color And Meaning
1.Why mood rings were so
2.Why we see color first,
before anything else
Topics in this chapter
1.What does color mean in
terms of optics - how do we
perceive color and
2. How does color affect the
message of your design and
3. Using, over-using, and
under-using color in design -
what do you need to know?
6.The Great Design Quiz
Topics in this chapter
1.Quiz to identify the
that the reader may have,
with an explanation of
each misconception, and the
correct principle with each
In his debut book, Stefano Virgilli pens down his experiences, in both Italy and Singapore, from
his decade long journey in the Design industry. He addresses issues relevant to designers at any
stage in their career, whether they are starting out or are industry veterans. So no matter what
kind of a designer you are, this book encourages you to open up your visual spectrum so that
you can understand that empty space of yours.
Empty spaces represent a lot of things; fresh beginnings,clarity,possibilities and most of all prom-
ise.They carry the potential to turn into anything that one wants them to be.All that one needs
is a vision and the determination to keep striving towards it. However, when it comes to creative
industries like Design,change is constant and this can throw a lot of designers off-track.They key
is to keep an open mind and welcome these changes.This helps you in expanding your creative
horizons and evolving that vision into perhaps something better.