The Client’s Guide to Design

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Selecting Materials

Before moving on to specific types of design projects, let’s take a moment to discuss one of the most common problems that typically faces a client: delivering high-quality materials in the proper configurations.

Quality

Choosing and collecting the appropriate materials comes early in the project, and it’s an area in which the client, of course, is heavily involved. Making sure that all materials are in the proper formats is important; but even more important is the question of quality.

Marketing materials are all about making a good impression on your market. That’s hard to do if the raw materials used are not of good quality. Writing, photography, and design should all work together to achieve the intended results; and if any of them are deficient, the project suffers.

Of critical importance to both web and print projects is the quality of images used. We’ll get into the question of formats and resolutions in a moment; but it’s equally important to assess the image as an image, and not just as a file. Does it look good? Could it be better? Does it have the quality you want to be associated with? Too many projects go downhill simply because whatever comes to hand is thrown into the breach—rather than carefully planning for the desired effect, and culling any images that don’t pass muster.

Sometimes the problem is with the subject of a photo; sometimes, with the execution; sometimes, with the processing of the file. Without technical expertise, clients are often left at the mercy of the professionals they hire, but they should never lose sight of the fact that it’s their company’s name—and its reputation—that’s going to be laid on the line. The best way to assure an excellent result is to refuse to settle for anything less than excellence at all points of the project. Photos must be the best they can be; text must be engaging and informative; design must be appropriate. Never hesitate to reject anything that isn’t excellent. It’s what you’re paying for.

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Quality is subjective, of course; it all depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If all you want is to illustrate what strawberries look like under cultivation, Photo 1 is probably good enough. On the other hand, if you’re trying to convince a potential customer to buy strawberries, you’d do much better with Photo 2.

Resolution

The most common problems involve images; and the single most common problem, by far, involves image size. Most clients are unaware of the relationship between image size and resolution, and frequently deliver files that are much too small for their intended use.

The Non-Problem of Resolution

Resolution is expressed as the number of pixels within a particular unit of measure. In America, we use pixels per inch (ppi). The use to which you intend to put the image will determine the necessary resolution: for most print jobs, proper resolution begins at 300 ppi. For signage, it can be much lower—say, 150 ppi. For web graphics it’s lower still: 72 ppi is the standard. The confusion comes in because the same file can be output at different sizes depending on resolution.

An image of 2400 pixels by 3600 pixels will display or print at 8 x 12 inches if the resolution is set to 300 ppi. If the resolution is lowered to 150 ppi, the image size increases to 16 x 24. Further lower the resolution to 72 ppi, and the image is now 33 x 50. But no matter which resolution you set, you haven’t made any change in the number of pixels, or in the color of a single one of them.

That last size is far too large for a website displaying on an average monitor. To use the image on the web, such a file would be downsampled: at 72 ppi, an 8 x 12 image only needs to be 576 x 864 pixels, a reduction of more than 94%. Downsampling works fine; it’s upsampling that’s a problem. That smaller file would now print smaller than 2 x 3 inches if the resolution is increased to 300 ppi. And if you start with the smaller size, and try to enlarge it to 8 x 12, you need to increase the number of pixels by more than 17 times. And that wrecks the quality of the image.

But here’s the good news: you don’t need to concern yourself with resolution. Ever. Leave that to the designer. Changing a resolution is a simple matter that is easily accomplished in any professional-level image editor. The only factor clients need to worry about is actual image size; and the simplest solution is: always deliver the largest files you have. Designers can reduce large images to produce files which fit their intended use, without being so large in terms of sheer file size that they slow down production. This is routine. What’s not routine, or even possible in most cases, is enlarging an image beyond 15% and expecting the quality to be good enough to use.

If you don’t have images large enough to accomplish what you had in mind, all you can do is change your plans, or hire a photographer and take new photos.

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Photo 1 began as a larger scan, and was reduced, or downsampled, to fit here. Notice the sharpness of the detail. Photo 2, on the other hand, began as a smaller image and was upsampled to match the size of Photo 1. Notice how all the details have become soft and pixelated.

Image Formats

Another issue is one of image file formats: JPEG, TIFF, EPS, and the like. This isn’t something that a client typically needs to worry about either. If you deliver TIFFs when your designer needs JPEGs, don’t worry: he can open either and resave it in the proper format. There is only one common problem here that clients need to worry about, and that’s poor-quality JPEGs.

The JPEG format (the most popular format used by digital cameras) is an example of a file compression technique called lossy: it makes a smaller file by essentially throwing out information. It’s really more complicated than that, but the upshot is that compressing a JPEG too much can result in an unusable image—and once the file is damaged, it can’t be fixed. If you’re taking your own photos for the project, be sure to set your camera for its highest quality JPEG setting.

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The problem with saving a JPEG at too low a quality setting: Photo 1 is a high-quality JPEG, and Photo 2 is a low-quality one. The defects in the second image cannot be remedied.

Other Common Problems

Already-Screened Photos

Another common quality-destroying problem stems from providing images that have already been commercially printed, instead of the original photos. When an image is prepared for print, it is commonly screened—that is, converted into a pattern of dots. The problem lies in that pattern: if you try to reprint the image, you’ll wind up with what’s called a moiré pattern (you can read more about this in the section on Print Design). If you try to use the photo for the web, bear in mind that you’re already working with a compromised image: much of the original detail is simply no longer there. And the only way to get rid of the pattern of dots is to reduce the size of the image until they all “run together”; if reducing enough is not an option, you’ll be left with a noticeable pattern in the image.

A moiré pattern happens when you attempt to screen an image that already has a screen in it.

Incorrect File Formats

Outside of the usual issues concerning images, you should encounter few problems if you keep in mind that business software and graphics software are not the same. Don’t expect, for instance, that you can hand off a Microsoft Publisher file to your designer and expect him to do something with it: he more than likely doesn’t have the program. And always send information in the most basic way possible: text as text files, and images as image files. Don’t provide him with text or images that are embedded in a format such as Powerpoint or PDF: he won’t always be able to extract the information. Remember that having to re-type text takes time and is a billable item; if someone in your office already typed it, the file exists somewhere. Passing it along to your designer can save a lot of time and money.

Raster vs. Vector

One more format factor can be critical to the quality of your final results: the difference between raster and vector files. The word raster refers to a grid—in this case, a grid of pixels. A raster image is one composed of pixels, and so of course it has all the limitations we’ve just discussed. Raster images are definitely the way to go when reproducing photographs; but as we’ve already seen, they’re not easily scalable.

Vector graphics, on the other hand, are (relatively) simple mathematical descriptions of shapes. They’re created in specialized programs, such as Adobe Illustrator, that allow a designer to see and manipulate a shape that, in the file itself, is nothing but an equation. That not only makes them usually much smaller in terms of disk size, but also scalable: you can output the same shape an inch wide (for a business card), or fifteen feet wide (for a billboard), and it retains not only its shape but its sharpness.

Certain designs, such as logos, should always be created as vector files. Clients typically don’t have to worry about this, unless they’re called upon to furnish a logo; in that case, always make sure that logo is in a vector format. If you’re unsure, ask your designer, or have him send it along instead.

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When displayed at its actual size, a small raster image can look pretty good. But if it has to be enlarged, it winds up looking pixelated, blurry, or — worst of all — both at once (Image 1). On the other hand, a vector image (Image 2) can be enlarged infinitely without any damage, because it’s a simple mathematical equation.