Print design with readers in mind

There's something to be said for books and brochures that give you a sense of familiarity and usability when you pick them up and flick through... It's something that often goes unnoticed in many print materials, and that generally means it's because its designed well. It got us thinking about why consistency is crucial in print design applications, as well as branding (and most corporate design actually). There's no doubt that consistency can often come across as bland and boring if poorly executed, but we thought we'd talk through how it can be used really effectively in print applications.

To do this, we thought it might be worth walking through a little bit of our process of designing The Mix Annual as we explain... (you can check out more photos of the project on our project page)

Just as a bit of background, the idea behind this project was a simple one really; we were tasked with designing a book advertising the services of The Mix, a youth work charity in Stowmarket (which we're part of), as well as being a services directory where young people and professionals can find organisations that can provide the support they need. This video will give you a bit more of a flavour about why CTG Mid Suffolk wanted to create a directory like this:

The title of this post seems a little bit obvious as the question you may be asking yourself could be something along the lines of; "Shouldn't all design projects have users/consumers in mind?" - the answer to that is YES, but that doesn't mean that's always the case. This requires a level of trial and error when designing concepts for print, as you will see from the photo below.

These are just a few of the iterations of just one page design we tried out initially, in order to make sure the important information featured was in a place that was readily accessible and easy to access. It seems like an obvious thing, but I'm sure if you just looked at some posters and books that are out there as you go about your day to day life, there's a lot of important information that is harder to find than in needs to be in some print pieces.

With that in mind, that's the first reason consistency is key: When you have consistency in print, you develop a reading habit in people's minds, giving them certainty of where the information they need can be found.

In order to make sure this was the case, we sketched out page layouts to work through ideas and get a sense of how we wanted the format of each page to work. This is much quicker than trying things on InDesign, as we've suggested on other posts. The reason we did this was because every page for The Mix side of the book was going through the same framework, so if the framework didn't work, then the pages wouldn't be as reader friendly as we wanted them to be.

This stage wasn't about completely finalising the design on paper before going on screen, but it was about thinking through what information needs to be where without having to create new concepts within the software. From a quick sketch we could then tell which ones could work and which ones instantly wouldn't. From there, we then went into InDesign to try these concepts in action.

There's very little difference between a lot of the designs above, but it's always worth trying these ideas out because once you have a design that works, it can be transferred across the whole book and different iterations of the design can be created. Every page for that design followed a similar format, because it was almost a profile page for each project. For some designs though, it needs more depth and design flair. That can be created from those initial concepts.

With The Mix Annual, it was important to design something that was still engaging and enjoyable to flick through but also create a design that brought about familiarity with readers. Sadly, some of the young people and families using this book/directory may not know much of familiarity themselves and so using a design that looks "cool" and is all over the place is not going to help because they'll have to really search for vital information rather than it being in a certain place on each page. In some cases, that delay can make difficult circumstances that little bit more stressful.

You know where this is going don't you? So the second reason why consistency can be so important is that it allows people to enjoy the design of a print document because it works for them, rather than it being visually enjoyable but functionally awful.

There is definitely room for some extra design flair in some projects, if not all of them - but it's important to get the basics down first! Context is key with every design project, and sometimes the latest design trends don't always equal good design.

Paul Rand once said "Design is so simple, that's why it's so complicated". It's so important to design with users/consumers in mind, rather than thinking about what you think looks cool. The goal of any portfolio should be to have work in there that solves challenges for your clients, but solves it in a visually compelling way and value driven way. Design that works is cool, design purely for aesthetics is not. We're not saying we've always had that idea, in the early days we did just over design for the sake of it rather than thinking about it, but this flies in the face of what design is all about; solving challenges for businesses and people. It's finding that happy medium between solving the challenge and doing so in a creative way that takes a lifetime of practice. But back to print...

We often put some much effort into the branding of our companies, but then so often fall into the trap of creating inconsistent and messy print design to go alongside that. It's not about just slapping the logo on something and following the brand guidelines, but it should also be about meticulously contributing to the overall branding and designing with users in mind around that initial identity. Brand guidelines should be restrictive enough to maintain consistency, without killing creative freedom.

The key thing is, it's not always easy to spot consistency - but it's something that is subconsciously instilled in you by many top design agencies. It's not always as obvious as ours was for this project, but it's still there. You can see that in action from our last post about Identity Designed by David Airey.

There'll always be things to improve in every project, and we're no different. To a certain extent you'll never truly know if you succeeded in developing a consistent and engaging design until it's out there in the real world, despite your preparation. But through going through the journey of thinking about your target audience and the people that will be reading the document, you increase the likelihood of the design working and most importantly, people enjoying it and gaining support/advice/whatever from it.

So as we close, here are some good questions to ask yourself when designing layouts for print:

Who are we targeting?

How will the piece be used?

How can I clearly deliver the key information people will need a compelling way?

What's most important for each page?

How does each page work together in the document, and how does it flow?

It's likely we'll keep adding to that list, but they're the key ones to get you started!

Let us know if you found this helpful! PS. You can pick up The Mix Annual/CTG Directory from The Mix now, or take a look at our short case study on the project.

See you soon!

The BRIX Team