Knowing how to finish a design unlocks your potential talent. Here’s how to push through, when to stop, and how to recognize what makes a design finished.
Ideas come easily to you. You got concepts and visual puns falling out of your sketchbook and don’t even notice. But you still get that feeling that your work sometimes isn’t, like . . . done. What are you missing?
Whether you went to fine art school, have a design degree, or picked it up on the side, the refinement is one skill you must learn on your own. The general assumption is you figure this out through experience, which makes it hard to find advice on just how to know when something is finished, when to press on, or when to put the mouse down.
Out in the world, we find out very quickly there’s a missing link between satisfying the mandatories and good design. There seems to be an extra gear, a phantom skill in the work that makes it look “finished.” Refinement is a principle that, to me, is every bit as important as Balance or Information Hierarchy, we just kind of have to teach it to ourselves.
Let’s pick this apart and define it. Then, we can discuss some ways to think and move forward to the finish line more confidently and efficiently.
What Does Finished Mean?
In design and various other artistic pursuits, the concept of “finished” is a challenge to describe with authority. It’s one of those “I know it when I see it” brain-twisters we profess to adhere to as a principle but find a hard time elucidating. But, pair a piece considered finished with a piece considered unfinished, and most of us can easily recognize the more refined piece.
Finishing can be interchanged with refinement. Refinement is a quality that communicates a professional, finished treatment. The strength of the design’s concept notwithstanding, there is balance, angles are sound, line-work sweeps without distraction, there is just enough flourish to evoke high quality but not so much that it gives an air of incompletion. But, every design is different, so it’s nearly impossible to define a concrete set of qualities that mark something “finished.”
Other vocations have it easier, where finishing is a standardized part of a process. In woodworking, for instance, finishing means that after the piece is assembled, the builder applies a specific protective coating in a certain way. They complete the steps for a certain compound to properly adhere to the wood so it will now do its intended job.
So, as designers we are left to find this magic combination of virtues, which makes our work stand as completed and professionally “done,” on our own. Perhaps you’ve found this out the hard way. You’ve proudly turned something in and had it kicked back covered in marks to push, pull, tighten, send back, or omit and thought “I was done with this.”
Now, there will always be situations where someone is simply more in charge of the aesthetic choices of a firm or company, and you’ll just have to learn those preferences. However, by exploring the ways you can think about your own work, and when to keep going or stop, you can have fewer of those kick-backs or revisions and, honestly, cringe less at past work. Everyone knows that terrible feeling of finding something old and we all do it.
We need to find those principles and feed them so they grow big and loud. Specific things to look for, or exactly how to achieve the look of finished work, is a little nebulous, but here are some ways to get there faster.
Tips to Promote Refinement Within
Breathe, Move Around
In the throes of an all-nighter it’s easy to hunch over and lose track of time and basic self-care. Set a timer for thirty minutes just to remind yourself to take a deep breath, look around, get up, or just flap your arms like a bird. Get the blood flowing. Think of your sitting body like an hourglass – your blood eventually settles at the bottom but your brain needs it. Every thirty minutes, flip the hourglass and recharge.
Image via Look Studio
Schedule Time With Some Fine Art
If you live near a city or large town, chances are good there’s a museum or cultural center with art on display. These places can be temples of meditation for those with artistic temperaments. You’ll be surrounded by work of widely recognized quality and imagination that can inspire you to see things differently. Or, it can remind you that there are connections still to make within you, and help coax them out. Inspiration is generally important, so seek your favorite method of inspiration and employ it often.
Take Another Break
No work or job is worth the effects of high stress and self-abuse. Don’t kill yourself because your deadline looms. As above with breathing, you gotta remember to just pause, for your blood pressure and eyesight. If you’re having a hard time meeting deadlines, evaluate your workflow and see where the logjam is. Clear it up and you will have time for the following ideas for putting a more finished touch on your designs. You will always have time for a break.
Tips for Achieving a Finished Quality of Work
Refer to the Thumbnails, Concept, or Brief
Put simply, make sure you’re on track. Sometimes we can lose sight of where we’re trying to go with something and realize we wasted hours trying to figure out how to make some pattern that isn’t part of the original design. If you have a design brief, check it often. If it’s thorough, it’s a great way to stay focused, by providing a clear vision or guidelines of what is expected.
Sketching hand-drawn thumbnails gets ideas out of your mind in the purest way. This is especially true for logo work, but it works for anything. Refer back to the thumbnails to see if you’re staying true to the idea. This can organize or reorganize your thoughts.
Writing notes, doodles, just using pen or pencil on paper helps us remember things better and make connections between disparate ideas. In the refinement of work to a finished degree, referring back to these ideas can help remind you of the original ah-ha moment.
Scoot Back or Print It
This tip covers the difference between on-screen and physical existence of a design. It’s extremely important to remove yourself from tunnel vision. After all, working on a single thing can put you in sort of a trance. Here are two ways to approach changing your vantage point, and reaching your goal of satisfaction with your work.
Working on a screen to produce a printed piece can be an obstacle between seeing how the actual layout will work. Often, we can wait too long to print something and toil away on it through flat two-dimensional screen. Once we do print it, you see relationships between the different elements how they really are. Do this early, for instance when making a wireframe or template of a printed layout, to ensure the decisions you make will translate.
You don’t have to print designs that will live in a digital space. Scoot your chair back and study the design from a distance. Similar to taking a break to reset your vision, this can reset your spatial awareness and help to see the design by changing what else is in your field of view. Also some details can meld together close up. Stepping, or rolling, back can help you see whether you need to worry about working at that fine a level.
Mock It Up
Taking the advice of printing your work a step farther, trim a layout to size to see it exist completely on its own. For package design, affix the printed label design to a similar container to its intended use. Seeing it in the round can inform you of relationships to the container as well as where visual weight will exist, or how much one needs to turn the container to see all the information.
The above image illustrates how transplanting the design to its intended environment totally changes the context, making adjustments easier to evaluate.
Understand the Intended Environment
Now taking that farther, understand where your design will exist. For package design, go to a store and see how similar products interact. Take your mockup with you and put it on the shelf. How can yours stand out better? How can you improve, refine, the design to make it look as high-end as the most expensive brand? Or, will it stand out by simplifying it?
How can you make your design its best self, or its most self, independent of what exists in that segment? Then refer to the previous tips to reset, clarify, and focus the vision to see and complete the finished results.
Image via fotografaw
Send It to a Trusted Peer or Colleague
If you’ve exhausted your inner resources, or just want fresh eyes on something before committing it to a proof round, let someone whose opinion you value have a look. Feel free to allow an impartial observer to check it out, but a quick review from a peer or mentor with values you admire is invaluable. They can have different, or more, experience and be able to spot something quickly. You’ve been looking at it for days, while they see it with fresh eyes. Ask to see if anything about it sticks out or doesn’t make sense. Answering a specific question, instead of asking them for help, lets you keep the idea as your own and can give you a little boost of confidence, or help you figure out how to give attention to a specific area.
Devising a procedure, a modus operandi, or a workflow, is a personal journey. Use these tips and ideas as starting points, or tips to keep in your pocket as you develop your own ways of evaluating your work. Refining work to a recognizably finished condition is a pretty nebulous topic, but one that is very, very important to our success as designers.
Finished, refined designs is work that doesn’t make you want to pick it apart. You’ve taken away all that doesn’t serve the design, and you’ve included helpful elements that highlight the message or concept. These tips will help you get there, and more importantly, help you develop your own processes to execute your best ideas.
Image via Viktoriia Hnativ
Top image via Look Studio.
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