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Don’t Do These 5 Dirty Design Deeds

A man showing his hands

Design is a series of decisions. When you know enough to make good decisions, everything you design looks better. And it’s not hard. Anyone can do it, even you!

Maybe it’s because I’m such a visual person, but I see a lot of really bad design decisions out there. I’m ready to call them what they are: dirty design deeds.

They’re cheap and they’re easy to abuse. You can avoid them once you know what they are.

In recognition of these dirty deeds, I’ve created a Please Stop list. If you’re using these techniques, please stop. Now.

Please stop using a rainbow as your company’s colors

Some companies can’t make a decision. They use all the colors of the rainbow to communicate their visual brand.

If you’re Binney & Smith’s Crayola crayons, you’re allowed. But if you’re not, then it’s time to get choosy about how many colors you use.

Color can work for your brand or against it. The way to make color work for your brand message is to pick two colors, and use them consistently in everything you do.

You can expand this palette with background tints and an accent color, but nothing should replace your two main colors. Use them all over so that your audience will come to associate your two colors with your company.

Please stop dipping into the font honey pot

I know what you’re thinking. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m the girl with over 13,000 fonts. I know … I have a problem. I’ve admitted as much. But I’m a designer, and I use them! I really do!

You, on the other hand, have no excuse. You don’t have to clutter your hard drive with thousands of fonts. You just need two.

Pick two fonts that represent your business. If your business is traditional, or your company wants to look large and corporate, pick a classic serif font.

If your company is contemporary, modern and high tech, pick a sans serif font.

If you’re a little of both, try combining them, but follow the hints here to find out how to do it right.

Please stop embossing everything

Remember glass buttons? Sure you do. They looked like this:

how to create a brand that's timeless by avoiding design trendsThey were all over the web a few years ago. Everything was shiny and glossy.

Now the trend is embossing. You know what I mean, don’t you? It looks like this:

Don’creating a brand that's timeless by avoiding decorative trendst get me wrong: it’s a nice style, and it’s a lot more streamlined than those glass buttons. But it’s all over. Everywhere you look!

And it’s not design. It’s decoration. Design isn’t trendy graphic treatments. (More on that later.)

This year’s embossing is last year’s glass buttons. When it comes to design, if you want your site to look timeless, don’t hop on the visual trend bandwagon. And don’t depend on trends to communicate your message.

Please stop adding unnecessary drop shadows

Here’s another visual trick that is overused. There’s nothing wrong with drop shadows when they’re used to make things clearer. I made a short video to show you when to use them and when to avoid them here.

What it boils down to is this: if you put either type or an image over a background and there’s not enough contrast to see the edges of the image that’s on top, add a subtle drop shadow to help define the edges.

But if there’s plenty of contrast already, don’t add a drop shadow. It only makes your design look muddy and dark.

create a brand that's clean by avoiding unnecessary decoration

The best solution of all? Don’t pick colors or tints that will obligate you to use a drop shadow in order to see type or a shape. Drop shadows may be unavoidable at times, but you shouldn’t depend on them to make up for bad design decisions.

Please stop thinking good design is about visual tricks

Good design is about communication. That’s why I believe any one of you reading this blog can learn to apply design principles to your marketing materials.

When you focus on communicating clearly and make all your design decisions with that filter in place, you won’t expect graphic trends to carry the weight of your brand. You’ll know that only clear copy and visuals will do that.

Pamela Wilson

Pamela Wilson is the Chief Marketing Officer at DCS. She’s the creator of the Offer Accelerator Program. Learn more about Pamela’s content marketing books, and read reviews of the tools used to run this site.
Pamela Wilson coaches people in midlife to build profitable online businesses
I’m Pamela Wilson

In 2010, at the age of 45, I started this site and grew it into a business that offers freedom, flexibility — and consistent revenue.

22 thoughts on “Don’t Do These 5 Dirty Design Deeds”

  1. Now you tell me about embossing and shadows – hmph! Goes off to sulk!

    I know, you’re going to tell me I should have done your design course – this is true ;o)

    • (Laughing here!) It’s not that embossing and drop shadows are all bad, they’re just not design. They’re like dessert, not a main dish … you wouldn’t want to rely on them to sustain you!

      Thanks for your comment, Rachel. 🙂

  2. Ugh! Like Rachel, embossing and drop shadows are things I like to use, and in fact have been using a lot recently (double ugh).

    Time to put the magnifying glass on my stuff and remove all unnecessary decorations! (But they’re so fun to make.)

    I gotta say you really keep me on my toes, Pamela.

    • I was thinking about you when I wrote the section on drop shadows, Marlene. I know you had some questions about those, so I thought I’d give you a rule you could use.

      Drop shadows aren’t all bad, and neither is the embossing effect. They don’t replace good decisions, though, and might make your materials look dated faster if you over use them.

    • The embossed look is nice, Ana, and if you go searching for button artwork right now, you’ll see it’s almost the only thing out there. I’ve used it myself!

      My point is that it’s a graphic treatment, and it can’t be called “design.” It’s decoration, and that’s it.

  3. Hi Pam
    no one says ‘please stop’ as kindly as you. Your info is great. Solid, useable, practical but with oh, so much room for one’s own stroke of style. I like what you serve up and pass it on.

  4. Pamela,

    Thank you for the thought process behind using drop shadows. I like to use them for certain elements and I noticed that sometimes they just takeaway from the object and not add to it.

    Now I understand why, it makes total sense.

    A question re the “Font Honey Pot” (I love fonts too!). When you say 2 fonts are you referring to the post title font and the post body font only? In other words, as long as those two are properly combined can your logo be a different font?

    Thank you for the great article – Theresa

    • This is a great question, Theresa.

      I don’t count your logo or header artwork as part of the two fonts I recommend people stick with. As long as you use just two fonts for your text, headlines, subhead and sidebar text, you should be in good shape!

  5. Pamela, if only Microsoft spoke to you before they released Office 2007 and 2010! These tools are fantastic, but they make it difficult to control what people are doing if you have a brand to protect. Embossing and 3D effects abound in slideshows and documents, using the rainbow of colours!

    The tools can be customised to a degree. For example, in Word, all formatting can be restricted to a style sheet. That means you can’t use bold, unless it’s in a style; you can’t use odd bullets, unless they’re in a style; you can’t change the colour palette; and much more. But most people don’t know how to control these features. (And I’m still experimenting and learning.)

    PowerPoint is harder to control and, unfortunately, where people tend to make the most mistakes (not only in design). Seth Godin wrote a great little paper back in 2003, I think, called Really Bad PowerPoint, or something like that.

    Unfortunately, nobody learns how to use these tools properly. And everyone could do with some Big Brand System know-how!

  6. Oh, I just realised it might have sounded like I was rubbishing Microsoft. I’m not. They’ve done a great job with the tools and I love them, especially Word.

    The issue is that the tools make it so easy to make all the design mistakes you mention, Pamela. And, in the corporate world, I constantly see people lovin’ those decorative effects.

    And here’s the link to Seth Godin’s paper on PowerPoint

    • Nah, I didn’t take it that way. After all, Microsoft is just providing tools. It’s up to us to make a mess of them! 😉

      I love your idea of creating style sheets. That’s brilliant! It’s a smart way to restrict access to some of the funkier graphic effects so there’s less of a chance to abuse them. Very smart.

  7. G’Day Pamela,
    Just thought I’d say hello and tell you that this is a great post. If web and blog designers would only follow your simple rules, they’d be more successful and we’d have a much easier time trying to read what they write.

    I received a sales page last year that illustrates this.

    The page opened with a cartoon in the top right hand corner. The cartoon was meant to grab attention but it was cluttered and much too small.

    Beside the cartoon were four bullet points except that they were large ticks. In the text beside the four ticks, I counted seven different fonts.

    To top it all off, about halfway down the page was a huge red “buy” button, which seemed to bear no relationship to the text it was placed in the middle of. Of course, being a large red button, it drew your eye away from the text it was supposed to support.

    Keep hammering away, Pamela. Your advice is sorely needed.

    Make sure you have fun



  8. Great post thank you! Your line – Good design is about communication, that really struck me. It something that I “know “… but for some reason having it said that way it completely made sense and made me think about my website in a different way.

    Thank you!

    • Thanks, Marta.

      Most folks think design is decoration. That’s only one small part of it: first you have to create a structure and style that communicates. Then you can decorate it!

  9. Pamela,

    Your headline is great! I had to read this. Thank you for sharing.

    I love “design is about communicating clearly” – it’s as much about having a recognisable brand identity as about encouraging people to read what you write. Isn’t it?

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