Advise from a Professional Graphic Designer

Keep It Simple, Stupid.

September 19
Posted By : Elle Phillips in Graphic Design

My name is Elle Phillips, and I am the Owner and Creative Director of Elle Phillips Design, inc.

If you recognize my name, it might be that you know me from my time as a freelance designer, doing business as Elle Phillips Design. Over a decade ago, when I started freelancing after working as a professional graphic designer for 10 years already, I had no idea that my ambition of simply “making money on the side while I continue my real job” would lead me to where I am today, starting my own small agency/creative design group. But with a little luck, growing skill, incredible clients, and by taking a lot of chances, I’ve made it to this point with the future looking bright.

Along the ride from 19-year-old college graduate, to working graphic designer, to freelance designer, to agency owner, I learned something very important about myself and about the business of design: Quality matters. As I’m sure it is with most right-out-of-college designers (or even those who are self-taught), when I started designing professionally I cut a lot of corners and yet was eager to use every tool available to me. I was so thrilled to know these cool new graphics programs that I HAD to use every filter I possibly could in Photoshop… all on one design. When web design started becoming important, the only way to build them was through straight-up HTML where tables were a designer’s best friend, so of course I stayed within those limitations and every design I created was based on a square grid with everything packed into a small space. To break it down to a single statement: I didn’t have that “professional eye” I’d heard thrown around… I just thought it was cool to be a designer creating cool designs.

It wasn’t until, truly, I started freelancing that I began to sit back and actually look at my designs. It might be that the pivotal point was winning the Pepsi Design-A-Can competition in 2008. If you don’t already know about it, there was an open competition to all persons across the US by Pepsi to design their next can, and along with a cash prize the artwork would be featured on the can for a full year. Not just designers were encouraged – ANYONE could submit work… and let me tell you, there were tens of thousands of entries, many with varying degrees of quality. Every time you submitted one, it would be uploaded to a gallery that was posted on the Pepsico website, and you could see what other people had done. My sister pointed out the competition to me, so I thought, why not? I’ll enter a few designs. I ended up submitting 6 of them… a few that took me hours to create, and a few that took me a matter of minutes. Now, to be clear, I didn’t win the grand prize. What they didn’t tell anyone was that after receiving so many entries, Pepsico decided to contact 10 additional “winners” and use their designs on 1- and 2-liter bottles. I was one of those winners, and when they contacted me about my design, I was shocked at the one they chose (aside from being absolutely thrilled at having won and receiving a fat check for it). It was the design I had literally spent the LEAST amount of time on, and it was by far the most simple of every design I submitted.

I didn’t understand it for a long time… why would they choose a design made up of simple circles and squares when I had spent hours upon hours developing and illustrating these more complex, unique and GLORIOUS designs?! Then years later, after further developing my personal talents, I finally understood. They chose it because it was simple. It was neat. It was clean. It fit well with the “minimalist” Pepsi brand.


Do you get my understanding? Let me break it down for ya: For years — hell, over a decade — I’d heard the words, “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Yet, I never listened. I was the “stupid” one they were talking to. What I didn’t realize was that sometimes the simplest-looking designs are actually the most complex and difficult to lay out… especially for new designers, because they don’t have the discipline or patience to just BE simple. There’s an essence of quality, detail and a high degree of fine-tuning involved in order to create a design that gives off that aura of effortlessness. It took me a long time to realize this, but that realization was escalated when I started hiring employees (Assistant Graphic Designers) as well as worked with other freelancers who were fairly green out of the gate or self-taught. I would watch them, and it’s a blast to my own past… they’re making all of the same choices (mistakes?) that I did. Photoshop filters galore… packing as much info onto a page to fill every space allowed… little sense of simplicity and more effort toward just doing something that “looked cool.” Well, to their eyes anyway. But what looks cool by their definition usually looks horrific to a seasoned professional. Want proof? Just go to a Graphic Design group on facebook and look at the comments for every poor soul who dared to post their amateur designs for critique.


Before you ask, I’ll answer: yes, I am one of the professionals on those boards who often schools the amateurs on everything they did wrong.

Keep It Simple, Stupid, to a true professional designer, means discipline. It means being aware of every detail on the page or design or package. It means opening your eyes to the purpose of the design or layout, and keeping the message as simple and clear as possible. It means NOT using every new feature added into the latest release of Adobe Illustrator just because you can. It means, when you think you’re finished, walking away for 20 minutes, then going back and looking at it again, from a distance, and gauging the effectiveness of the design to deliver that message in a clear way while staying pleasing to the eye and remaining technically flawless. What is technically flawless? That means measuring every edge, arranging every element on the page to be placed in a certain spot because it’s meant to be there, not just because you didn’t have anywhere else to put it. That’s what separates the amateurs from the professionals. That’s what it means to have a “professional eye” and knowing the difference between a good and a bad design.

Once you get there, you’ll know it. People will call you nit-picky and semi-psychotic about your fussiness. Well, at least that’s what they call me. But you know what? I’m glad they do. It’s my reminder that I’ve grown into the design professional I always wanted to be. It’s also the reason I succeeded as a freelancer and was able to grow my business into a small agency where so many others have failed. It’s what may be the reason my small agency turns into a big one some day. That’s my hope, anyway. But until then, I’ll continue to be a spacing-fanatic and trick my clients into thinking everything I do is easy… It’s like my little inside joke, and I love every minute of it.