Plain and simple, with a bit of pizzaz!

Plain and simple, with a bit of pizzaz!

I often see ads for writing courses and conferences on various social media platforms, and it really surprises me that many of them are so visually unappealing. Weird colours and strange font combinations don’t make me want to sign up, and let’s face it, I’m probably their target audience.

I appreciate that the fine folks promoting these events are writers and not graphic designers, and they probably don’t have any money to spare, but I really think that design matters if you are trying to attract new readers, clients or customers.

I know I’ve written about this before, but for those of you who’ve missed it, here are three reasons why I think that you should care about your visual design.

  1. Good design makes you look professional and reassures your customers that you know what you are doing. If you are offering courses or promoting a conference, you want people to be confident that it is safe to spend their money. One way you can do this is by investing some time and effort into making sure your website is well organised, clean and attractive, and that your ads are informative and not laden with unnecessary information.
  2. Good visual design helps you tell a story about who you are and what you stand for without you having to use a lot of words. I love words, but I’m also a busy person so I don’t have time to read a lot of waffly stuff on your website or in your ad. Cut to the chase. People want to know when it’s happening and how much it costs. They also want to know a bit about you, so a photo of yourself is a good idea.
  3. Good design also makes your content more user-friendly. A nice uncluttered design is easy to read, and your visitors won’t have to search for the information they need.

I’m definitely not an expert, but here are a few tips that you can apply to any kind of graphic design.

  • Use a limited colour palette. Use one or two main colours and a third to highlight any really important information. Avoid using red unless it’s part of your branding. Red text, in particular, is very alarming and shouts warning, warning, so be very cautious about using it.
  • If you’re unsure about what colour combinations work, look to nature for inspiration. I’ve used the beautiful image of the blue kingfisher by Vincent van Zalinge as a header for this post as an example of how mother nature always seems to get the colours right.
  • Don’t use more than two fonts. Ever. And make them different, not similar. There are some classic font pairings if you’re not sure what to choose, but in general, choose one bold font and one lighter font.
  • Line things up neatly. Don’t plonk things all over the place. Don’t be afraid of being tidy, it’s very soothing and people like it.
  • Don’t centre justify your body text, it makes it very hard to read. If you aren’t sure what to do, just align everything left and use columns if necessary.
  • Use lots of negative space. This is sometimes called white space, but it doesn’t have to be white. Just make sure you have a bit of room around your words. They need to breathe.

You can be quirky, you don’t have to be boring. Let your personality shine through but don’t go mad with colours and fonts. In general, good design is about making careful choices. Everything needs to be there for a reason.

If this still seems all too hard, there’s plenty of help at hand. There are lots of graphic design apps that are free or very inexpensive and Shutterstock has a free online photo editor that helps you design Instagram ads and other social media posts. They want you to use their photos (which costs money) but you can also upload your own photos and just use their templates which are excellent. You can look more professional in no time at all.

If in doubt, make it plain and simple and use some nice images. It always works.

The emperor’s new hat

I’m currently on holiday in beautiful sunny Darwin. Last Saturday we have a fun time pretending to be toffs at the Derby Day race meeting. Apart from graceful racehorses, there were also many wonderful outfits to look at and a vast array of headgear on display.

This got me wondering why women wear fascinators (as opposed to hats) especially since so many of them are just downright hilarious. Don’t get me wrong, some of these creations are beautiful, but most just make me laugh.

A small amount of research revealed that fascinators have been around since the 1600s with the first versions being a type of lace shawl with a fastener (hence the name). According to this article, they become newly popular in the 1950s as a cousin to those small pillbox hats made famous by Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy. My mother wore a beautiful pillbox hat with a small veil at her wedding in the early 1960s.

Fascinators have made a resurgence since Princess Beatrice wore her famous “pretzel” fascinator at the Royal Wedding. Apparently this fascinator became so famous it has its own FaceBook page.

We are going to another big horse race in October and several friends have offered to lend me a fascinator but I think I’ll pass. I might be persuaded to wear a proper hat (maybe not my gardening hat), but I can’t imagine wearing feathers and lace fastened atop my head. Each to her own, but it’s just not me really.

Art Deco in Napier

Art Deco in Napier

We are still travelling around New Zealand and in the last few days we stayed in a lovely seaside town called Napier. Unfortunately the weather while we were there was really dreadful. The sea, normally a brilliant blue, was brown and muddy looking. It had a wild and primal look which totally suited the photos we saw in the wonderful museum and library which told the story of the town’s destruction and subsequent rebuilding in the early 1930s.

The town of Napier was almost totally destroyed in an earthquake and the people who survived the event were left with only the clothes they were wearing. The earthquake was followed by a tsunami which only added to the death toll as many people had gone to the beachfront thinking that they would be safe there.

In the aftermath, a decision was taken to completely rebuild the town in the Art Deco style which was popular at the time. As a result there are many beautiful buildings and the Art Deco theme is repeated everywhere, including the street signs. In the museum we also enjoyed a lovely exhibition of teapots and cups, many of which reinforced the Art Deco theme.

A public convenience

A public convenience

I am currently in New Zealand doing a fantastic road trip with my husband. Today we stopped by the most amazing toilet block in the world. It was designed by a famous Austrian artist, Frederick Hundertwasser who lived in NZ for some years.

Little did he know that his toilet block would attract thousands of international visitors and put the tiny town of Kawakawa on the map.

The intricate design is very colourful and different. It’s surely the most popular public convenience in New Zealand, if not the world.

Designing for humans

Designing for humans

I’ve just finished a course in human centred design which was really interesting. If you’ve never heard of this before, it involves designing solutions to problems in an entirely new way, or at least that’s how it’s promoted. Even if it’s not a new idea, it’s a very different approach to the one we normally use in most organisations. The course was designed by IDEO who are a global design company with a strong interest in creating social change through design.

The normal process

What we usually do is identify a problem that we think needs fixing and then go about fixing it in the best way we know how. We rarely think about whether the solution meets the needs of the target group or the end user. Our solutions seem to be more about meeting our organisational needs, rather than meeting the needs of customers. We often design quite complex and expensive solutions that may or may not work for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we develop solutions that are so expensive that even when it becomes apparent that they don’t work very well, we have to keep on rolling out the program because it cost a lot of money to put it into action and as a result, it’s virtually unstoppable. We may make minor adjustments along the way, but we tend to work on the principle of “you’ve made your bed now lie in it”. We have to see it through to the bitter end even if it’s clearly not working.

The new approach – develop empathy

Human centred design is different because the needs of the people impacted by the problem are considered at every step of the design process. This means walking in the shoes of other people and finding out what the real problem is. This might involve watching people go about their daily lives and noting what they do, or talking to people about their lives, or standing in the queue or waiting on the telephone speak to a real person. It’s about gaining a very real appreciation of what it’s really like to be in the shoes of a customer or a client. Human centred design considers what people experience as well as how they experience it.

Define the problem

Once you’ve spent time really considering the problem from the point of view of the people experiencing the problem, then its time to define the real issue so that you can come up with an innovative solution. This may not sound like a particularly new approach, but in my experience we do jump to solutions rather quickly.


The next step in the process involves having millions of ideas. Well maybe not millions, but lots of ideas without worrying too much about whether they are good ideas, or if they are feasible or too expensive. People often don’t voice their ideas because they make judgements about whether they are sensible or realistic before they even leave their mouths. Many good ideas are lost this way.


My favourite stage was developing cheap and cheerful prototypes of solutions. A prototype is nothing more than a mock-up of your solution. You can make a prototype with cardboard and test it to see if the idea will work, and best of all, it’s super cheap. We had an idea about developing an app to help people communicate more effectively with customers who don’t speak or understand English very well and when we tested our prototype with potential users, it was fine to just use a simple drawing of what we had in mind.


When we tested the idea we found that it was full of holes and needed a lot of refinement, but gosh it was cheap! It was just drawn on butchers paper so it was really easy to make a new version and test that with a different group of users. So much better than rolling out a whole program that didn’t quite work. The mantra of human centred design is to fail as early as possible. Failure is excellent because it helps you to improve quickly. The more you test and refine your ideas, the better. It’s so much better than refining your ideas almost to the point of perfection before you test it. You really can’t tell if something is going to work until you test it. You need to adopt an attitude that embraces failure. There’s a famous quote from Edison who said “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.


Although we didn’t intend to take our idea to market, the implementation phase of the course involved developing a “pitch” for our idea. This was extraordinarily difficult as it meant getting down to the nitty gritty of what the real problem was and how we thought that our solution would solve the problem. Writing a pitch for any idea that you have is a really worthwhile activity. I recommend it. It can really help you clarify what the main issues are.

And finally…

I did this course with three of my workmates and working collaboratively with them was awesome. We were all different and able to bring together a range of ideas and viewpoints. If you are going to embark on a human centred design project or you are interested in doing the course (which is free) I highly recommend getting together with a diverse group of people. It really works much better when you don’t all think the same way.

Verandah update

Verandah update

Thought you might be interested in seeing what finally ended up on our front verandah! It’s an odd mixture of items. The bench is new, but the tables are a ‘side of the road’ effort.

We have done a bit more painting since then and I’ve become more confident about deciding what I like and don’t like. I think that maybe when you start to renovate (or in our case, freshen up) you probably should start in a small and inconspicuous place, rather like when you iron a new garment for the first time and you’re not sure if it can actually be ironed. We started at the front of the house and my husband left the colour choices up to me because he said that no matter what colour I chose, I wouldn’t like it when it was done. He was right!

In my case, I wanted nice dove grey paintwork and it ended up being quite purple. It’s not what I intended at all, but I’m getting used to it. I didn’t check what was going into the tint (largely red) and if I had it would have been obvious that it was going to come out purple or blue. But hey, you live and learn.

One of the things I found out in the course of this little experiment is that it’s a largely a matter of trial and error before you get the result you really want. It doesn’t just magically come together without any effort and there will always be some mistakes along the way. I know this sounds really obvious, but I had expected that if I thought about it long enough, I would make perfect choices.

In retrospect I should have realised that when I’m designing a presentation or a brochure I make thousands of changes and tweaks before I’m happy with the result, so choosing colours for the house is no different, it’s just a bigger canvas.

I’m thinking of re-painting my study now. It’s a smaller space and I think it’s going to be fun.

Choosing new chairs

New paint
We’ve just had our front verandah re-painted and as a result I’ve been obsessing over purchasing some new outdoor furniture. I’m beginning to realise that:

a) I don’t really like outdoor furniture very much, and

b) the pieces I do like are very expensive (which is very unfortunate).

In my travels around the internet I found a couple of beautifully designed chairs which appeal to me for reasons that I can’t easily articulate. There’s something about them that is very attractive. I think it might be the fluid lines.

I particularly like this funky chair (known as the 45) which was designed by Finn Juhl, a Danish architect and interior and industrial designer.

Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 9.21.26 pm

Finn Juhl was a pioneer in Danish design. In 1945 he designed this fantastic armchair which was one of the first to break with tradition by freeing the seat and back from the frame. The result was an elegant chair that came to characterise Finn Juhl and make him world famous as an unrivalled designer. See more of his designs here.

Another one that caught my eye is this ladderback chair, designed by another famous Dane, Hans Wegner.

Wegner ladderback chair

According to Wikipedia, Wegner (April 2, 1914 – January 26, 2007), was a world renowned Danish furniture designer. His style is is often described as Organic Functionality and in his lifetime he designed over 500 chairs, 100 of which were put into mass production and have become recognisable icons. I’d quite like one (or two) on my verandah or maybe in my study if I ever finish tidying it up!

What do you think would look nice on our verandah? Any suggestions?




The elements of good design

The elements of good design

Photo by Sarah Dorweiler, Evano Community (link:

We all like to create flyers, documents and presentations that are easy to understand and don’t confuse people. Luckily, there are some simple ways to achieve this. The main elements of good information design are:

  1. Clear and appropriate typography (you need to be able to read it easily and the font needs to match the message).
  2. Lots of white space (it doesn’t need to be white, it’s sometimes called negative space).
  3. A clear message (this is the hardest element as it requires you to actually think about what your key message is).

There are lots of other things that contribute to good design, including colour, but I think these are the most important.

Clear typography

This one is fairly self-evident and doesn’t require a lot of explanation, but it really surprises me how often people choose totally inappropriate fonts for their documents. Typefaces have their own personality and should be chosen with care. If you are looking for something whimsical or handwritten by all means use Bradley handwritten, but don’t even think about using this for a board report.

Lots of white space

A long email or report is more consumable by using white space to break up your text. Use spaces and headers to avoid large clumps of text and people will be more likely to read to the end. I recommend using this technique in emails as well as other documents. Using white space makes people feel less overwhelmed and more able to read the important parts of your message.

A clear message

This is the hard one. Sometimes we aren’t at all sure about what our key message is, and as a result it can get lost in a forest of words. We can beat around the bush and confuse people by not stating the obvious. I strongly recommend writing your key message out in a nice concise sentence and actually including it in your document somewhere, preferably near the beginning.

If you are starting from scratch with a document or even a simple email message, you should put your key idea at the top. If you want someone to respond to your email, why not tell them at the beginning that you expect a response, instead of at the end?

I know these ideas don’t sound very hard or radical, but you would be surprised how much difference using these simple principles will make to the information products you create.

Logo love

I have a slight obsession with logos. Not all logos of course, just the really clever, witty ones. The ones I like best are a little bit quirky and often have an emotional element. Well designed logos send good, clear messages that accurately portray the product or company. A really good logo captures the essence of an idea and wraps it up neatly into a small but effective parcel. I think this is what appeals to me.

People have different tastes, so I know that you and I may not like the same things, but I wondered if you have ever given any thought to all the considerations that go into logo design?

Types of logos

The Coca-Cola logo is an example of a widely-r...
The Coca-Cola logo is an example of a widely-recognized trademark representing a global brand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Logos that are made from words, for example the Coca Cola logo, are more accurately described as wordmarks or logotypes. These text only logos are some of the most famous and recognisable logos in the world.

Combination marks are where the designer has used the name of the product/company or organisation and combined this with a symbol or icon. An example of this is the McDonalds logo, which I won’t reproduce here for obvious reasons! This  elegant logo for a wine company is a lovely example of a combination mark.

Wine Forest Logo

The third type of logos contain just symbols or icons. Famous examples include the Apple logo and the World Wildlife Fund’s iconic panda. I think most people in the world would recognise this distinctive logo.

English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Appl...
English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Apple Inc.. The design of the logo started in 1977 designed by Rob Janoff with the rainbow color theme used until 1999 when Apple stopped using the rainbow color theme and used a few different color themes for the same design. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What makes a good logo?

Not only must the design capture the essence of the organisation or product, it needs to be able to be used in a variety of settings. For example, a logo that looks effective on a letterhead, may need to look as smart on the side of a truck.  For this reason, logo designers need to know about typography, print production, digital imaging and graphic design. It’s not enough to have a logo that works on a computer screen but nowhere else, unless that’s the only place it will ever be seen.

Another consideration is that the logo may need to be reproduced in black and white, so it needs to be reasonably simple and preferably distinctive, instantly recognisable and memorable.

Finally, a good logo should be timeless. The last thing a company wants to do is to keep changing their logo. A major re-branding can cost hundreds and thousands of dollars (if not millions) so companies really needs to choose their logo carefully.

You may not be in the business of designing or choosing logos, but I think that paying attention to how a business chooses to represent themselves is both fascinating and illuminating.

If you are interested in learning more about logo design, there are many websites and books you can read. My favourite is David Airey’s Logo Love Design.

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The ambiguity of signs

Quick, where is the loo?

Last week I had dinner at the RSL club with my 90 year old father-in-law and during the meal he asked what the green ‘running man’ sign meant. I said it was an exit sign and asked him what he thought it meant. He replied that he thought it might be a sign indicating that there was a toilet nearby. When I asked why the man was running, he said “he might be in a hurry to get to the toilet”. This exchange was followed by a lively discussion on whether signs are actually as clear as we assume them to be. Does the green running man really indicate that there’s an exit, or is he just a man in a hurry?

 I noticed that the word EXIT was on another sign, some distance away from the running man, however there was nothing to indicate that there was any relationship between them. In other words, proximity really does matter. If words and pictures are a long way apart we assume that they are not related concepts. Of course, the addition of the word EXIT on or near the sign doesn’t help people who can’t read very well or don’t speak English.

 According to Wikipedia (always a reliable source!), the ‘running man’ pictogram was designed by Yukio Ota in 1982 and is used in Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Norway. So the green running man is very widely used across a range of cultures, but is it clear?

 Can you think of a better way to indicate an exit using only visuals?