Latest update: April 5, 2016: Out of the huge number of fonts used by graphic designers, there really is quite a small pool of fonts consistently chosen over and over again by graphic designers as their “most used”. I took some time to search out as many “top fonts most preferred for graphic designers” search results (plus variations) that I had time to visit. I spent several hours visiting blogs, forums, magazine websites, etc..
We did the homework so you can pass the test!
We spent a bunch of hours weeding through the menagerie of great and not so great blogs and websites to see if we could come up with a nice cross section of agreed-upon, best font recommendations from sources the collective brain of the web has deemed reputable. The results to any seasoned graphic designer will not be surprising.
[Note: amended article to get rid of a spam blog that hijacked someone else’s article]
But first, an analogy.
I went to the Boston Science Museum as a kid in the 70’s and saw this huge wall full of ping-pong balls dropping from a hole behind a big sheet of plexiglass. In between the plexiglass and the wall was a grid of pegs forming a diamond shaped pattern across the entire wall. At the bottom of it all was a row of slots the size of a ping-pong ball. A ball would drop from the center and bounce all over the place and finally come to rest in a slot at the bottom. Over the course of several hundred balls, a perfect bell curve would form. Once it filled up, the balls would clear out and the process would start over.
I took my own 3 kids to the Boston Science Museum on Father’s Day. I was younger than my oldest son the last time I was there. I wondered if 2 things were still there: the ping-pong ball wall and the 1969 VW Bug that was flattened to about an inch thick. Well, the VW was gone, but that ping-pong ball was still there. And guess what? The bell curve the falling balls made was exactly the same, producing the same bell curve it did some several decades back.
What does this have to do with fonts? Everything.
If you could grab 1000 pieces of printed material and do a font count, I bet we’d see similar results to the list below. We went to umpteen sites (good and bad) and took the best “top fonts for graphic designers” lists and tallied up the top 10. When it came down to it, there were really only 6 websites which we felt were really indicative of what people were finding when they did the “top fonts” search. Yes, there were a lot more, and our decision to not tally this or that site was simply due to the law of diminish and return. A much larger sampling set would not have really altered the results. Our search was not looking for top new fonts, but rather the top classic fonts.
And so, like the falling ping-pong balls, font usage falls into a bell curve, with the zany and crazy and all-but-useless on either end of the curve. But the middle the bell curve is piled high with results from the same core set of best fonts. I would venture it’s less than 100 faces that make up the bulk of all printed material (that print Roman characters, that is!).
Top 10 fonts for graphic designers
In alphabetical order, we have the following classics:
- Akzidenz Grotesk
- Franklin Gothic
- Helvetica / Helvetica Neue
- Lucida Grande
We culled this list from the following sites:
- Die 100 Besten Schriften
- Just Creative Design – Top 7 Fonts Used By Professionals In Graphic Design
- David Airey – 13 typefaces for graphic designers
- Typophile – Top 10 typefaces (a long list of user submitted entries)
- Spoon Graphics – 25 Classic Fonts That Will Last a Whole Design Career
- Smashing Magazine – 80 Beautiful Typefaces For Professional Design
The top fonts for graphic designers will change very little over time
The moral of the story is that while these sites may not be indicative of search results in 6 months or 6 years, if you do the search and matrices again at that period of time, my guess is that the results will vary little, if any. Garamond has made it 500 years so far. I suspect it has some legs left in it…
A few of my favorites didn’t make this list. A few of my favorites didn’t make my own list of top 10 fonts, so I could keep it to a nice number like 10. All said though, if you have these 10 fonts in your library, you will have 10 weapons of mass design at your disposal…
Working with BonFX to put together your corporate identity package is easy and enjoyable. We have a streamlined creative process that always yields results that please our clients. With 20 years of experience in the field of brand identity, BonFX knows how to help you reach your business identity goals. We figured out that there is a process to doing this, and we’d love to show you how!
Corporate Identity Packages & the Logo Design Process
Our corporate identity packages follow a set of well-trodden steps. While there is no wrong way to approach logo design, experience has taught us that there really are quantifiable steps that repeatedly produce good results. Any of these steps can be repeated, and no next step is taken until the current one is completed satisfactorily, ensuring a professional end product by means of mastery of each step along the way:
- Scope Definition
We work out in writing what the expected course of action and deliverables will be including budget and timeline.
The first step in the creative process is gathering information on similar companies in your industry. We also analyze any logos that you like, or envision you new logo having a similar look and feel to. We ask you a set of questions about your marketing goals and how your company needs to be perceived to attain these goals.
- Thumbnail Pencil Sketches & Brainstorming
At this step, we generate as many thumbnails sketches as we feel is necessary to cover the bases and give you many options based on our research and your answers to our questions. We get your feedback for each concept and repeat the process as many times as possible while keeping on track with the project budget and timeline.
- Narrowing the Range
After the necessary rounds of sketches are complete, we work with you to narrow down the sketches to a few choices that we will being formal digital design on.
- Preliminary Digital Sketches
We present the initial translations of the narrowed range of sketches into Illustrator, along with any variations the translations process avails. This is a bit like an archaeology hunt – you never know what you are going to find, or which path leads to great and unexpected discoveries.
We work to refine one, at most two concepts, by producing another set of variations on our now tightly-focused vision for your new logo.
- Final Selection
A final variation is chosen from the refinement process to receive one last round of focused and detailed refinements. This logo is then completed and made ready for print and other media.
- Corporate Identity Package Collateral items
If business cards and letterhead were ordered as part of the corporate identity package, a similar but much shorter process that includes most of the previous steps now takes place.
The final logo is delivered in Illustrator (AI), Adobe PDF (PDF) formats, along with any bitmap requests you may have, like TIFF, JPG or PNG. Corporate Identity Package collateral items are delivered in (AI), Adobe PDF (PDF) and sometimes InDesign (INDD) file formats depending on the nature of the collateral.
That covers the essentials steps we follow for corporate identity package creation and logo design for virtually every corporate identity client that we have served in the last umpteen years or so. If you are looking to hire a graphic designer to do identity work for you, we would like to cordially invite you to contact us about getting your project started.
Update on my WordPress development…
There are wise ways to spend time these days, and there are unwise ways to spend time these days. It turns out that the worst way a freelance graphic designer, who’s days are measured in dollars and minutes measured in gold shavings, is to spend time trying to build a website by hand. After years of lovingly and achingly “staying true” to my craft, I’ve adopted WordPress to do all the heavy lifting of putting together and running a website. I feel like an old-world watch maker who sees the new Seiko factory cranking out digital watches by the pound for pennies on the dollar. Amazing insight: “craft”, while noble, no longer applies to tinkering with every piece of HTML code, if one wants to stay afloat in the graphic design world as freelancer. This is a good thing. That kind of attention should go towards fine art, illustration, better print pieces, etc. In other words, I’ve awoke from a bad dream (hand coding everything, writing home-brewed CMS systems, etc) and found that an amazing community of people have done all this work once and for all, so that freelance graphic designers like me can focus on what matters. And what matters? Content! I’ve known this for some time of course but the constant nagging of overly-customized work was taking all my time. Projects went too long and I would eat the overage on a fixed bid job. This is bad if you want to stay on as a freelance graphic designer in a competitive environment!
Here are some WordPress tips learned so far:
- Keep your blog design simple. Think whitespace.
- Use a high-quality template. Even better, use a template framework with a budding and buzzing support community. Don’t bother with one-off templates from one-shot Joe designer
- Discover, through astute observation and archive reading, what your favorite WordPress blogs are doing and emulate it. Chances are they have let the cat out the bag for you. There is no “secret” to blogging other than, apparently, reading a lot and doing what those with more experience tell you to do.
- Work hard at the basics and you will have more time later for what you really should be doing, like in my case, freelance graphic design.
- Don’t fiddle with things that take away from what is most important: content.
Anyway, I’m rapidly working my way through implementing a new design in WordPress. I’m using Theme Hybrid (themehybrid.com) and getting through the initial orientation and learning curve. So bear with my franken-site for a few more days!
One of the hallmarks of Renaissance art and architecture is stability in composition and design in both art and architecture. The desire of the Renaissance artists and architects (often one and the same person) was to create a sense of solidity and permanency in all that they did. This required, as they discovered, adherence to some basic laws of math. They discovered ratios that universally achieved balanced, pleasing designs. Graphic designers, especially web designers, could learn much from this.
Grid based design and HTML
Web designers for some time eschewed grid based layouts. This was due in large part not to a disdain for grids, but rather a lack of HTML suited to the task. Table-based layouts where the pinch-hitter stand in that ended up going 313 innings for no other reason than there was no other way to get the job done and stay in the game. Then along came CSS and most designers immediately shuddered and 1) embracing a new way of doing layout since tables and “1px transparent gif shims” just worked and it was predictable. Not easy to edit, those tables, but they were predictable. CSS layout, or “tableless layout” as it was first monikered, was not easy to grasp nor easy to implement. After about five years of bickering and reluctant education, along with much CSS griping, graphic designers en masse adopted CSS layout.
Grid based CSS systems
With the advent of easy-once-you-know-how-to-use-them CSS layouts (“easy” might still reasonably be called a relative term), the focus sharpened on grid based layouts. Today, there are entire CSS frameworks built on Grids. The 960 Grid System system is the foremost advocate of this design / CSS approach to solving the problem. Any system is going to have it’s strengths and constraints, but the 960 system works for many people. There are many ways to achieve a grid based system, from open source collaboratives to home-spun frameworks adapted to a graphic designers own peculiar way of working. But what about results? And how does this connect to the Renaissance?
Grids and the Renaissance artists
The Renaissance has had a permanent affect on all Western architecture present to this day. Of course, we have to go all the way back to Greek architecture to give full credit. But let’s stick to Renaissance for now, since it was during that time that a clear and communicable rationale was established for their methods of design and architecture.
By way of a quick musical analogy, a famous musician (nobody know who for sure) was once asked in an interview about what notes or scales he chose while improvising. The musician responded “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Well, in this case, writing about grid based layout is like designing a building about poetry. Instead, lets look at some pictures. So here are 6 Renaissance building fascades and 6 grid based layouts. We can see immediate parallels to the idea of header, footer, side bar, main content, etc. One obvious note is that a building is going to have a grid layout focus exactly upside-down compared to a web page. We don’t (not usually anyway) enter a building at the top floor, but we do enter a web page that way. Hmm…imagine a site that scrolls up? There’s a thought…Enjoy!
6 Renaissance inspired building facades.
Now, for 6 grid based web design layouts…
Further reading on grid based design
I’m biased towards Mary Bonneville, graphic designer at marybonneville.com because…we’re married! Here’s to 19 years and counting!
We’ve worked together as freelance graphic designers in one capacity or another since the early 90’s. She’s now broke out into her own style and direction apart from mine and the work we’ve done together over the years.
In the early days, Mary was the brains behind the marketing and 100% the catalyst in all our new business directions. She did production, research, and art direction for years in our home-based graphic design studio. The last several years she has sharpened her focus on style, focusing on solid grid-based design and smart use of white space and color. I think the results speak for themselves!
So stop by and visit my favorite new graphic design portfolio at marybonneville.com!
Over the next few days, I’ll have the new blog coming together, built on Theme Hybrid, a WordPress theme framework. I’ll be using the “Skeleton” child theme which is really just the raw output of WordPress with all the HTML tags in place, together with a complete bucket load of empty CSS styles ready for me to fill in. This will be an experiment! I’m used to coding from scratch, but the classes and reasonably semantic names of the HTML tags of Theme Hybrid should make this a relatively easy endeavor.
I couldn’t bare to look at the temporary theme with no header up there on top of the new blog, so I tossed my new header (which is wraping because it was too short). So, yeah, the site looks befuddled as of 9/03/2009. Don’t let that fool you!
WordPress vs ExpressionEngine
Going to WordPress from (rather, in addition to) Expression Engine feels a bit like giving up my chisel, hammer and leather apron for a lathe, band saw, and lab coat. However there is so much packed into WordPress, and Theme Hybrid in general, I’m looking at it quite differently. Different solutions for different problems indeed, but in wanting ever to be the craftsman, it feels strange and liberating to hand over the custom functionality I’m used to creating in ExpressionEngine to the WordPress backend. It is very, very powerful stuff!
As a freelance graphic designer, time is limited, and time is money. When it comes to publishing on the web, the key is speed and ease, since spending time on a fully-customized blog or web tool is simply counter productive, when at the end of the day, it would take months of work to equal what WordPress with Theme Hybrid (or any of the other popular frameworks) provide practically right out of the box.
Taking a buckshot approach to the graphic design business is a sure-fire way to miss your target. Perhaps I should rephrase that. The buckshot approach to the graphic design business is a sure-fire way of making sure you don’t know what business you are in.
You’ve been to “those” websites as you researched creating your own website, where it seemed this small graphic design company had every service under the sun available on their site. They had a “huge” portfolio with average looking work. You weren’t impressed by the creative, to be honest, but you were a little bit baffled how they got the work to begin with. At this point, you wished you at least had their business. Then the thought crossed your mind: maybe by offering a lot of services (like twenty of them!) that I too will get business and have a successful run at getting my freelance graphic designer career off the ground.
I have news for you.
99% of those “graphic design” companies that look like they do everything from mugs to “corporate annual reports” more likely have done a few mugs and zero “corporate annual reports”. On second inspection, something doesn’t seem quite right. Haven’t you seen that layout before? Are those real numbers? What on earth does that “company” in the “annual report” really even sell? And so on.
What a lot of dubious “graphic design” companies do is…absolutely nothing. Many websites are abandoned attempts to get business, and what remains is record of the frenetic attempt that is now riding out the balance of some hosting account, or are simply put out to pasture by some serial website creator who among other things at one time attempted to get a “graphic design” business going. The line of reasoning was something like “I can do this easy business! I’ll get templates or some sucker freelancer to work cheap for me while I rake in the bucks.” Yeah, right. Three months into that gig and he’s onto other great ideas like “I’ll start my own template site” or something else more incredible like a Yahoo store selling customized pens with special pricing “for a limited time only”. Or now he’s selling ebooks on the secrets to designing a website that will attract millions of viewers – guaranteed!
What the shady-types the web is filled with do to well-meaning freelance graphic designers is simply confuse and dishearten them. Stop right now and listen! The web is littered with what seems to be “successful” graphic design business websites, but nothing could be farther from the truth. There are many sites, like the hills of California during the Gold Rush period, that are simply abandoned! You might walk up to any fresh looking miner site at the height of the Gold Rush and think, seeing all the panning contraptions and fresh dirt piles everywhere, that some serious gold has been had by some lucky fortunado. In all reality though, you probably just stumbled on a site that was abandoned a few months back. But it sure looks busy! No, the prospector is either 1) dead or 2) selling moonshine in town or 3) selling maps to the “gold in them thar’ hills.”
So should you focus on a niche? Of course. Pick what you love best and focus on it thoroughly. Don’t offer a service you think will make money, just because it might. Offer it because you really enjoy the work as a freelance graphic designer. If you don’t enjoy the work, the idea of a niche might make you cringe. Now a niche doesn’t have to be so narrow you define yourself right out of work. For instance, you could focus on print design, with a bit of a tight focus on small business brochures. Or you could focus on poster design, or logo design. Your freelance graphic design portfolio should reflect a slightly homogenized style and content matter. Homogenized is not a bad word, especially when we think of diary products. It means to be free from harmful foreign matter, protected from it being introduced and compromising the product. A niched-focused portfolio conveys a very professional sense of self-assuredness. Let reason dictate and keep a tight reign on the scope of your portfolio on the website. That reasoning will shine through and convince clients of the one most important thing a niche could possibly accomplish for you: you are worth hiring because you are consistent, professional, and focused.
So, take the laser-focused approach and define your freelance graphic design portfolio around your actual strengths and not around the buckshot method that tries to please both the “cheap pen” and “corporate annual report” client at the same time. You’ll get neither that way!
How much is enough? How much is too much? How much work you should show in your freelance graphic design portfolio depends on a variety of factors. Let’s examine some of them.
But first, let’s say a few words about the reality of freelancers showing their portfolio. In the “old” days, like several years ago, it used to be that you had to bring a portfolio to an interview. The rules for how many pieces are appropriate for an interview are pretty established. The consensus seems to be 10-15 pieces, depending on the work. If your primary focus was for some reason business cards, a few extra pieces per page of portfolio wouldn’t hurt. On the other hand, if your portfolio presentation was a series of 20 page full-color catalogs, just a few pieces would be fine. In the end, having 10 or 12 pages to flip through at a meeting is more than adequate.
What is the client not doing while you are flipping through these pages? They are not thinking very hard about specifics. They are taking in a general sense of you. Your clothing, breath, personality, body language are probably 80% of what they are taking in. How you flip your pages (fumbling or confident?) and what shape your portfolio is in (dinged up? nice and crisp?) is part of that too. About 20% of their attention is focused on your work. You are package deal, which is the unspoken but pragmatic truth about in-person freelance graphic design portfolio reviews. In all my many years of presenting portfolios, the same one with little change from year to year (my best work is timeless…hehe), I only had one person, who was not principle interviewer, ask me a remotely technical question about what they were seeing. I would say that 95% of the time, the portfolio review was flipping page while I talked in beautifully vague language about my experience working on the piece. For instance “Ah…this piece was a fun one. I got to tour the factory after I met the client and got free Asian frozen meals. The president of that company was…blah blah blah.” Many times I would not even talk directly about the work. And nobody asked. It was like a slide show of my summer vacation, more or less. I got a lot jobs that way.
But let’s get back to the issue at hand, which is namely presenting your work on the web. Once again, the final number for the web is really quite a different number than a live presentation would be for a variety of factors. First, there is no you in the flesh for them to be thinking about. But what replaces the you-factor if someone is perusing your website, sans you? In this case, it is your overall web design and usability that takes that place. How thoughtful have you been in designing the site? Have you nested the categories down inside several layers and clicks with “clever” small type that is hard to click? Did you (please say you didn’t) do a Flash portfolio with some “clever” “advancement” of standard user interface behaviors. If you did, well, all I can say is it’s never too late to change your website. A hard-to-use, overly clever, obliquely usable website is the equivalent of doing your live freelance graphic design portfolio presentation using a sock-puppet and pop-up book that doesn’t quite function correctly to present your work, while at the same time you are mumbling your words, and not to mention you are smelling like onions, lavendar, and fresh hot road tar baking in sun. Not pleasant and also self-defeating. Stop defeating yourself! Your interface is entirely in the way, is what I’m trying to say. You need to rethink your website and make it as easy as possible for a visitor to get to the one thing that matters – your work.
As soon as I could hold pencil, I was drawing. I drew through grade school where I spent time out of boring classes and instead got to decorate the hall bulletin boards. I drew through high school and three years of art studio time every day. I drew before I painted, then painted over what I drew. I drew before I sculpted, then sculpted what I drew. Then I went to art school where I drew some more. I studied graphic design where the first thing we did was…draw. Then we painted in black and white on top of our…drawings. Then I did printmaking where I…drew…such classic printing methods as stone lithography and entaglio. I even did linoleum print making where I took wood carving tools and cut out what I had just finished…drawing. I had a sketch book I carried (and still carry) with me everywhere. At lunch I drew.
Then one day…
I got Pagemaker on PC back in 1992. I made a box on the screen and was smitten. Look at that straight line! Wow! I stopped drawing completely. I was so smart! Why mess with stupid lead and erasers? I got into web design. Why mess with paint and pen and ink to pay the bills? Drawing was for fine art, which I continued to do. Then print and web design got hard. And harder. It was not so fun even though I had, by the late nineties, multiple undo’s and dozens of versions of projects saved with names like “brochure_v74_alternative_FINAL-03b.ai”. What was I missing? I have a pen tool, even a pencil tool. I have an eraser tool. I have delete and a hi-res mouse. What was wrong?
And then one day…
I got my sketchbooks back out. Thumbnails all around for all print layouts and web layouts. Sketches for all my freelance design clients. Sketches for everything FIRST and foremost. Good ol’ NO.2 and a Pink Pearl or kneaded wonder. My graphic design skills got better the more I drew and hesitated to get on the computer.
And so today…
After 20 years, I draw more than ever. I draw every day at lunch. I draw in my sketchbook. I draw in my business meeting notebook. I draw on whiteboards in meetings with programmers who give me quizzical looks. The marketing team likes when I draw, as they are visual thinkers too.
Don’t fool yourself! Thousands of years of cultural development of art, graphic design, typography and media have not changed one simple fact – drawing is the foundation of all graphic design and art. The Flemish master painters from the Renaissance handed us the seven layer method of painting, of which the first three steps are essentially drawing with lead and ink, and that several layers of colorless paint before color is introduced. They solved all the problems of design, composition and layout well before a single pigment was a figment in their imagination. Is graphic design any different? I don’t think so!
If you want to be a more impressive freelance graphic designer, if you want to turn work around faster and with greater grace and speed, if you want to converse fluently with your artistic muse and drink deeply from that fountain of inspiration, pick up a pencil and sketchbook, and draw it out before you think of hitting Command-N in Illustrator or Fireworks or InDesign or Photoshop. Get your layout worked out. Get your grid lined up. Get your whitespace flow spaced out. Rough out some typography. Erase, start over, work it on paper. Flip the page. Work fast and then slow down when something coagulates. When you have the elements all worked out, you may proceed to the application of your choice, with your trusty pencil and notebook telling you what to do next…
Don’t start your next freelance graphic design job until you’ve discussed it with your NO.2 pencil and notebook. They offer the counsel you need for a successful project.
There are approximately 73 billion typefaces out there in the wild the last time I counted. 99.5% of them are either copies of classic fonts, totally useless in regards to real typography, or copies of classic fonts rendered totally useless for real typography because of poor construction of the font files like missing characters and incorrect kerning tables.
Where does that leave the budding young graphic designer looking for the right starting set of best fonts on which to base a career? Well, lets look at painting for a moment and find an analogy.
When you go to the art supply store, you can find a bewildering array of oil or acrylic paints to choose from. What exactly is Cadmium Red Light (Hue) and Phthalocyanine green? If you are an experienced painter, you know what those are. But if you are a new painter and have a good book or instructor, you were instructed to avoid those tubes and go for a classic “starter set”. You have a wise instructor. Put down the Dioxazine Purple, and pick up the 6 tube starter set like you were instructed.
Many painters use a limited palette. A limited palette is a set of colors from which many new colors can be mixed. For instance, my favorite watercolor artist Ray Campbell Smith only uses about 6 colors on many works. The core set of colors that make up the 6 color set is even smaller – only 3. Those three colors, a type of red, a type of blue, and a type of yellow, are combined to give a huge variety of hues. Adding the minimal use of a darker color (like a Payne’s Gray) further extends the hues created with the 3 primary colors, and same goes for the other one or two colors that might be used in limited circumstances. Where am I going with this?
To draw from this analogy, you only really need a very small sub-set of the most popular fonts to create a huge variety of work. Some people collect fonts and use them all over the place. Some designers have worked with a half-dozen fonts their entire careers and are quite well-off. They put the time they could have used looking for “that special font” into a solid grid-based layout, thought about content and white space, and became better designers for it.
So what are the top 10 fonts a graphic designer should have? This list by no means is definitive. However, if you find 20 other articles on the web suggesting an approach similar to this, you will find by and large the same typefaces showing up over and over. In fact, if you search for the top fonts of all time, or top favorite fonts, you will probably see about 20 fonts, out of the 73 billion available, showing up over and over. Not that you can’t grab something off the wall once in a while, but by and large the problem of good typography has been solved over and over, so there is no need to reinvent the wheel or look too hard in strange places for great fonts for regular daily work.
Here is my list of top 10 fonts for graphic designers, in no alphabetical order:
Top 10 Fonts for Graphic Designers
- Akzidenz Grotesk
- Gill Sans
- Helvetica / Helvetica Neue
- Trade Gothic
This list reflects what I actually use on routine basis. I actually use a few more, but I wanted to keep this list to 10. I would gather that other limited-font-user designers like me have 5 or 6 overlapping choices here, or use similar substitutes. For instance, Trade Gothic (which I love) is different but comes close to functioning the same way Avenir does. I own more faces (weights) of Trade Gothic, so I usually end up going with that when the need arises and the other sans serif fonts aren’t quite right. However, if I did own more faces of Avenir, I’d probably use it over Trade Gothic in most cases.
As a freelance graphic designer you might not have lot’s of cash to buy all the great fonts and faces you see and like, but the reality is you only need a thorough set of basics to get you quite far indeed. Remember, some of the greats only ever used a half-dozen fonts with any frequency!
If you focus on using a core set of fonts, like a core set of primary colors, you will be able to create an endless variety of styles, moods, layouts, etc., and not feel in the least bit slighted or hindered in your effort. Focus your work on getting a great layout, white space, grid, visual rhythm, and content, and you’ll be creating graphic design masterpieces in no time at all.
More Top Fonts resources:
Ever had a print job come back only to see blurry small type but nice and crisp images?
When you are designing for 4-color process (CMYK), you have to obey a few rules or you’ll end up with poor results off the press. One mistake that very common to new designers is the flippant applying of CMYK colors on small type. Let’s review the fundamentals of printing in process color and see how they conspire to make small type with process color a no-no in general. As a freelance graphic designer, you can’t afford costly print re-runs and missed deadlines for the clients you worked so hard to get. Don’t blow it at the 95% completion mark of your wonderful new print piece!
When the prepress department at your favorite print shop outputs the plates of your process color print job, the plates come out as a series of dots. One plate for each color of the CMYK spectrum is created. If you are creating a dark blue box in your design, you will see dots that makes your box on both the Cyan and Black plates. Perhaps there is a touch of Magenta in your Cyan to give you a more royal blue. In that case, you’d see very faint dots on the Magenta plate. The pressman lines up the paper and the plates so that in each pass of the paper under each plate and it’s color, the dots from all CMYK plates line up. The pressman uses the CYMK calibration marks you see on the paper to adjust everything. If all goes well, the colors come out great.
I can still hear the collective sighs of many a prepress tech when getting jobs from freelance and other graphic designers. They open the job and go “uggh…” when they see CMYK hairline borders and tiny fonts with complex CMYK colors.
Things don’t always go well on a press. Technically, no print job is ever perfect, especially CMYK. What happens is the plates are lined up to the eye as good as can be, but the closer you get, say with a magnifying glass, you’d see things really aren’t perfectly lined up. But most jobs are lined up perfect enough. This means that your eye can’t see the discrepancies. For all intents and purposes, close enough rules the day in printing. It takes time and money to be “extra perfect”. Sorry to burst the illusion of perfection in printing, if you had one! The best pressman is the one who can best hide the inherent imperfections of a print job on the press he or she knows all too well.
So what does this have to do with small type and the CMYK printing process?
Well, since printing is as much art as it is science, the calibration of said press and said paper drifts a little here and there. The pressmen keeps things in a certain tolerance based on the capabilities of the press combined with the type of paper, density of ink, and all kinds of factors. But it’s impossible to keep these things entirely under perfect control. If you see a high-speed 4-color press in full speed action, you will wonder in amazement how it stays under any control at all. Ok, so what happens when there is a drift or if the press is just acting up a bit? What happens is that color plates don’t line up perfect any more while the paper is whizzing by and the layer of ink are being laid down by the drum. Now, let’s say you have a flower made of Magenta, Yellow, and Black. Since the flower is all random and fuzzy-edged, you probably couldn’t notice a mild drift if there was one. It’s hidden by the image itself. But let’s say you have a thin line, the same color as the flower, right next to the flower. You’d all of a sudden see the line look a little fuzzy. What happened? The Yellow went one way, the Magenta went another. Instead of your colored line, you see kind of a blurry thing with a yellow haze on one side and a magenta haze on the other, a little grey thing in the middle, but you don’t see your reddish line anymore. Same goes for your small type done with process color.
How small is 8pt type? How small are the lines that make up the serifs on 8pt Garamond? If you said “very very small” you are correct. Think of having letters made from a complex blue color you made up that had some percentage of C, M, Y and K. Now imagine the press drifting just a tad, just for a few seconds while the pressman wipes sweat from his hardworking forehead. All of a sudden, your masterfully positioned footnote in the wonderful blue you created now looks like mush. And now instead of a subtle footnote you weren’t meant to focus on, your blurry footnote is now drawing undue attention to itself. How awful! And now with no time left to reprint the job, you have to hand the results to your client. That was the last freelance graphic design job you’ll do for them, I assure you.
Another topic for another post is the LPI or lines per inch that the plates for your print job are generated at. This drift problem is compounded even further when you print at 133 LPI on soft stock, and is less pronounced at say 150 or 175 LPI. LPI is the press equivalent of dots per inch, DPI, in your source Photoshop files.
Back to our fuzzy type problem though. How do we fix it? There are several solutions I offer in bullet point form, for you to ponder and ask questions about:
- Don’t use complex colors for small type. Use Black or White or at most 2 colors. Create simple colors as the type gets smaller. Nobody will notice.
- Use a 5th spot color for small type. Yes, very expensive, but if the print job already includes a 5th color, why not use it if you can on small type and lines?
- Don’t use delicate fonts for small type. Use a heavier-bodied sans serif if you can. This will get rid of a lot of potential problems.
- If you simply have to have small type all over your print job and you have full creative control, add a spot color, or do the whole job in 1, 2, or 3 spot colors and avoid creating colors by the CYMK process
- Print at the highest LPI your budget can afford. The higher LPI jobs go on better presses. You get a lot more quality than just increased LPI when you go from 133 to 150 or 175 LPI. You get a better press and usually the more experienced pressman.
When in doubt, talk about your files with the prepress department before you send the files over. Ask them about the press they are using for the job. Some presses and paper combinations have little difficulty with some aspects of a some jobs, but other combinations might not be good news. There is no way you can know for, so your best bet is communication. Your freelance graphic design business depends on two things: successful communication and successful results in the end product.
This is a great topic we’ll revisit in one way or another many times. For now, I’m going to list out some pros and cons in the form of bullets for each type of payment. There is no right or wrong answer here, but rather we have pros and cons based on situations.
Pros for hourly rate:
- You get paid for the time you work
- It’s 100% quantifiable
- It’s your bread and butter with established clients
- You and your client feel good and have a great level of trust to be at this point
- You like when this work comes in
Cons for hourly rates:
- Clients distrust hourly fees when you have not worked with them long enough or built a relationship over time
- Hard to know what rate to set with each client, unless you just have a simple flat fee or simple two-tier system in place
- You have to wobble things around to know what to charge for
- You have to have a pretty good system for tracking hours
- You have to decide how you track time: in quarter-hour increment, half-hour increment, or hourly or daily.
Pros for by-the-project or fixed bid graphic design fees:
- If you do really well and hit the ball out of the park in several key phases of the project, your profit can go way up which makes your internal hourly rate take a nice leap forward
- It settles the client down to know that the bill will not change and makes them happy
- For the right job, it makes perfect sense. For instance, the logo design process can be fixed up front to a certain exact work scope and fixed number of hours. Other technical jobs, like custom programming or web site creation where the content and navigation are changing as the client sees the site coming together are not a good mix for fixed bid fees. Estimated fees for these kinds of projects are the only way the designer can be fairly compensated while trying to hit a moving target.
Cons for by-the-project or fixed bid graphic design fees:
- If you underbid, you are stuck with the responsibility to deliver for your client, no matter what.
- You will have to work on a more detailed scope.
- You will have to say “no” to the client when they request something outside the budget, or at that point work on an additional fee or hourly rate to accomplish the extra task
- Fixed bid projects are larger so you take more risk on the back end of the project for getting paid on time, or getting paid at all (in these trying times…)
- Overall, fixed bid costs to you are time in the planning and documenting department
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but is rather a quick brain dump of the main highs and lows of each billing method.I think one method that is not used enough, not because it doesn’t work, but because some designers afraid of losing a job might not want to try it. The estimate method is very strong:
Pros for the estimate method:
- Gives client a general range of cost, but nails down an expected cost based on a scope you have worked out
- Allows you some flexibility in deciding what to charge and not charge for.
- Allows for some scope creep (inevitable) but at the same time doesn’t create a situation that makes you have to go write more documentation and cost fixing for additional work. Under the estimate model, you can simply verbally or by email tell a client “We can do that, no problem. That will take 5 more hours…”
I have found that the estimate method works great for new and existing clients. The trust-based hourly rate clients all seem to naturally fall into this mode. I’m hourly but bigger projects get an estimate. If I’m way off, I just eat the overages because I value the long-term value of the client. No need to worry over 2-3 hours here and there if over the long run you are able to get consistent work and you are both happy. In that case it all comes out in the wash.
The least workable model for larger projects (typical freelance graphic design projects, especially web design) I think is the fixed bid. It can create unrealistic expectations by default for some reason because it requires copious documentation as well as copious understanding of said documentation on the part of the client to understand what is in and out of scope. In other words, though it’s in writing (and took a long time to write) sometimes it’s not clear to the client what they can and can’t request. Nothing is less fun than saying “that’s not covered in the agreement” to a client. It creates a more rigid eye-for-an-eye type of relationship that is easy to create a sense of resentment in for both yourself and client. The client can’t understand why you just can “tweak the layout a bit here” and you can’t understand why they don’t understand “that’s not in scope”.
Of course, any of these methods can indeed work wonderfully. I have had clients that used me in both fixed and hourly scenarios. For instance, repeat work that involves updating web content or formatting new content into an existing print piece are all hourly. But the same client would also have me working on knocking out basics for new customers at a fixed cost since the scope was always 100% the same. So it makes it easy to just go in and get it done.
Fixed bid graphic design fees – a final good word:
One last thing, to say something good for fixed bid systems: they do in fact work great when you know for a fact the scope will not change. Simple print design falls in this category. There is only so much work a post card could possibly take given the source photo and logo the client sent you, for instance. You could just say 5 hours or 8 hours and it’s no big deal if they decide to swap the photo. In reality, changes to small fixed bid projects, especially print design projects, are easier to just knock out in 10 minutes than to take another 20 minutes for billing and emailing and stress. As I mentioned above, the logo design process can also fit this process very well too.
Summary: Mix up your graphic design fee methods!
There is no one size fits all graphic design fee structure or system that works for all clients and projects. Try and get to hourly by building trust, but be open to fixed bid fees on smaller simpler projects, and try to use the estimate model which doesn’t require copious documentation and onerous detailing of changes in scope as a larger project rolls along. As trust with your clients builds over time, you will likely not have any billing issues, as you both grow in understanding and appreciation for the mutual value and benefit you bring to one another.