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Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

Whether you’re a business owner managing your own marketing or whether you’re a freelancer or in-house social media marketer working running accounts for your boss or client you can’t have escaped the trend for visual content online. This trend means your visual design skills need to be next level. If you have yet to be convinced of the importance of visual content let’s look at the evidence and trends quickly before we move on to helping you avoid making basic design mistakes.


Why visual content is important


Humans are visual creatures

  • 93% of communication is visual so visuals attract our attention.

  • Our brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster than text and on estimate roughly 80% of readers only skim online content.
  • Coloured visuals increase people’s desire to read content by 80%.


Visual content performs better than static and text formats

  • Various studies demonstrate that posts with images and graphics produce significantly more engagement than those without, however, frustratingly most of this research is out of date, with 2020 blogs citing evidence from studies done in 2014/15 which let’s face it is hopelessly old in the world of social media marketing. We did find data from 2017 backed up the 2015 research and it’s unlikely to have changed since then so I think we can be confident in stating that using visuals in your social media posts is important.
  • 91% of consumers now prefer interactive and visual content over traditional, text-based or static media.

Use of visual content in marketing is on the increase

  • In 2018 80% of marketers stated they used visual content in their social media marketing.
  • 32% of marketers said visual images are the most important content format for them overall.
  • In 2018 63.5% of marketers said more than 70% of their content contained visuals which rose to 74% in 2019.

To illustrate the benefit of visual content we have represented the above set of bullets in a visual format. Which do you find more appealing the above bulleted list of stats or the infographic below?

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

Regardless of the evidence there are also other benefits of using graphics in your marketing, particularly if you’re a small business and a business that doesn’t have the luxury of beautiful product shots. We use graphics because:

  1. It can be difficult to create enough high-quality images. While we supplement our photography with a yearly photoshoot we don’t have physical products that look great in photos. We also don’t have an office. So we find generating 1-2 quality photos for the Instagram feed in particular a real struggle.
  2. It can be tricky to find an image that perfectly encapsulates your post. We share all sorts of thoughts, insights, research, and more on our social media accounts. Sometimes it’s impossible to find a photo that works.
  3. It can be a clever way to make stock photos more interesting and more on-brand. We use stock photos but add elements over the top to turn them into feed and stories graphics.
  4. We find sharing quotes and tips directly work well and the best way to grab attention with these is a text graphic.

For brands that don’t have a budget to outsource to a graphic designer, and for social media marketers, all the above means that now more than ever you need to have visual content creation skills in your portfolio.

In my experience there are some basic mistakes that novice designers make over and over again. And when you make these mistakes it’s easy to spot you’re an enthusiastic amateur rather than a professional graphic designer.

I have pulled together the most common mistakes I see and have given you easy fixes to avoid making them in the future. Read on to learn more.


Mistake #1 | Illegible text over photos

It’s so handy to be able to create professional looking text-over-photo graphics as they can be useful to cover up a not-quite professional enough image from your image bank that would otherwise be wasted. They are also a great way to use stock photography whilst avoiding that ‘stock photo’ look and managing to feel on-brand.

But I see so many text-over-photo graphics that aren’t up to scratch, predominantly because the text isn’t legible enough over the image.

It can actually be challenging to work with text-over-photo. If the photo has areas of single colour it’s not so bad but that’s pretty unusual for a photo. It’s much more common for the photo to be a mix of colours, dark, light and everything in between. This means when working with dark text you lose contrast in the dark areas of the photos. When you use light text you lose contrast in the light areas of the photos. So what do you do?

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them


How to fix it

Firstly, feel free to try changing the colour and placement of the text on the photo to seek out dark/light areas that might work. If you can’t manage it then a simple trick is to try adding a white, transparent shape over the entire photo and add dark text over the top.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

But that’s not my favourite way to fix it. My preferred method is to add a colour block behind the text area (left image) or a transparent coloured block (middle image) or a highlight (right image), which I think often looks the best. I find that this is really easy to do using Canva or your preferred design tool (I also use Adobe InDesign for graphic creation). I have created all the visuals in this blog using Canva and other design tools you can find by signing up for our Glossary of Visual Content Tools here.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

There are loads of designs using these tactics on social media, check them out and have a go at using these techniques yourself.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them
Examples of a colour blocking technique
Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them
Examples of a transparent colour blocking technique
Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them
Examples of a transparent colour highlighting technique

Mistake #2 Poor colour choice

Making a mistake with your colour choices in your designs goes deeper than simply looking unprofessional; it will impact legibility. It also means your designs won’t meet basic accessibility standards.

The first thing I see is poor contrast between the text and the background colour. For example, the text is white and sits on a light grey background. Check out the designs below to see what I mean.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

How to fix it

When it comes to poor contrast, sometimes making fonts bigger and bolder makes them easier to read. But the easiest and quickest fix is to simply increase the contrast between the background and text. For example, make the background darker and the text lighter. If you’re working with brand colours simply apply a tint or shade to the colour so that you aren’t changing the colour, you’re just changing the amount of white or the amount of black to make it lighter or darker.

There are tools online where you can input your colours by RGB/CYMK/HEX value and check for adequate contrast. Why not sign up for our free Glossary of Tools for Visual Design here to find a range of useful tools.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

The second problem is there are certain colour combinations that should be avoided at all costs because they create visual vibrations where the edge of the text appears blurry and the colours “run” into each other.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

Some colour combinations should be avoided not because they impact legibility but because they just don’t look very nice. Colours can clash or just look garish. Sometimes, businesses/charities haven’t chosen the right colour palette for their brand. Colour psychology is fascinating and we don’t have time to deep dive into it here. I cover this on our Creating Visual Content for Social Media course but in a nutshell colours communicate different meanings. A jewellery brand selling chic jewellery to modern women wouldn’t use a primary colour palette that would feel more at home in a children’s TV show.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

How to fix it

We have included some useful tools for working with colour in our Glossary of Visual Content Tools here. Our favourite method of finding harmonious colour palettes is simply searching on Pinterest. They can’t tell you which colour palettes you should choose for your business, but you can research colour psychology to learn more.



#3 Poor font choice

If your fonts aren’t right it doesn’t matter how great your other design elements are - your graphics just won’t look professional.

We see people get a tad over excited when choosing fonts, picking overly fancy fonts and multiple decorative fonts and using them excessively. You can often tell an enthusiastic amateur from a professional designer by how they use fonts. Trained designers know that less is often more. For example, enthusiastic amateurs will choose a handwritten font and use it for paragraphs. They use too many fonts, either on the same graphic or across graphics so that the overall feed starts to look cluttered and messy. They also fail to choose the combination of fonts in the right way, so that the fonts don’t match.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them
Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

Handwritten fonts can be tricky to read, so when graphics have paragraphs of handwritten fonts that’s an indication that it’s not been created by a professional.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

It’s also common for businesses to choose the wrong fonts for the brand so they aren’t communicating the right message. Similarly to colour psychology, there are underlying psychological factors that impact how people feel when they see fonts and it’s crucial to choose a font that conveys your brand in the right way to the right audience. The image on the left is a design for a consultancy offering strategic business advice and mentoring to recruitment company founders. However, the fonts are childlike and would be better suited to a toy company.

People also make the mistake of choosing very common, simple fonts that don’t stand out. If you’re working with a font like Arial it’s so ubiquitous that you’re going to struggle to make an impact.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

How to fix it

The first thing is to learn some simple rules for matching fonts but to do that you need to know some font terminology.


Main font types

Fonts fall into the following classifications.

Serif fonts | These fonts have a small ‘kick’ at the end of each letter.

Sans serif fonts | These fonts have an absence of a ‘kick’.

Script fonts | These appear handwritten rather than typed.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

Other elements of importance

The above three classifications can also possess the following characteristics.

Round fonts | The letter shapes are rounded, the O and Q will be almost spherical

Narrow fonts | The letter shapes appear ‘squeezed’ so that the O and Q have oval or even flat edges

Light/thin fonts | The letters are thin and light

Heavy/thick fonts | The letters are thick and bold

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

When choosing font combinations the logic might dictate that you choose fonts that are as similar as possible. However, the exact opposite is true. Choose fonts that are opposite in nature, ticking as many contrasting elements as possible. The aim is to go for contrasting fonts.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them
Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

Choose fonts that fit the brand. I have chosen two fonts for the consultancy firm mentioned earlier. Now, instead of childlike fonts that don’t communicate gravitas there are two harmonious fonts that are sophisticated and convey professionalism.

For beginner designers we recommend choosing and using just 2 fonts across all your designs. The idea is that you build a consistent visual brand, that over time, becomes recognisably yours. More professional designers can work with 3 fonts or more if necessary.

Our final tip is to restrict script fonts to just 1-2 words to add some punch to your designs without losing legibility.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

If you are struggling with font matching there are lots of online tools that can help you. Check out our Glossary of Visual Content Tools for links.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

#4 Insufficient white space

There’s nothing worse than overly cluttered designs. You might think this is just about making it “look nice” but actually it’s about so much more than this. Cluttered designs without adequate white space tire the eye and put people off engaging. It’s the visual equivalent of being in a massive crowd of people.

There can also be insufficient white space around elements, with elements such as shapes and text being too close to each other, particularly elements being too close to the edge. We also see insufficient white space between lines of text.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

How to fix it

Be very mindful of having plenty of white space in your design, around design elements like shapes, icons and text boxes. Consider whether all the information is necessary - again simplicity is key so strip things back and put less information in your design and more in the social media post itself if needed. There is a clear rule on white space between lines of text and it’s measured as a percentage of font size. So 130% - 150% is considered ideal. This means if your text is 20 points that your line spacing should be set at 30. Tools like Canva make this easy to calculate as their line spacing tool can be set at 1x, 1.3x or 1.5x with a handy slider to go up and down to see how everything looks. Feel free to experiment to see what looks best as it can depend on which font you are using.


#5 Poor hierarchy and poor alignment

You have such a limited time to grab someone’s attention so it’s key to use hierarchy to draw the eye to the most important information first, then the second, then the third and so on. However, we regularly see graphics used on social media that aren’t designed well in terms of structuring information and leading the eye - all the text is the same size. This is something we commonly see on Stories and we’ve even been guilty of doing this ourselves when in a bit of a rush.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

As you can see from the visual below we have applied these techniques to a paragraph announcing a sale on knitwear. You hopefully see that now, you’re pulling people in to read more by using hierarchy of information so that the key copy is most pronounced and the least important information is there for those that want to read it. Instead of someone scrolling past or skipping through, you’re now likely to grab their attention.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

These techniques can be applied across all your designs to work for people’s short attention span on social.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

When you start to apply these techniques you often end up with multiple design elements on the page - particularly multiple text boxes. Suddenly you run the risk of having poor alignment in your graphics, with elements incorrectly lined up. This means it will look messy and unprofessional.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them

There are common mistakes here, from not having every element on the page sharply lined up, to having multiple alignments on one page with left and right elements making things look messy and perhaps worst of all having justified text alignment which is only useful when designing newspaper layouts.

How to fix it

It’s important to take the time to ensure all your text boxes and other elements are exactly lined up on the page. Our favourite design tools, for example, Canva, make this really easy by showing a line when you move a design element around which guides you in your alignment. As central alignment is particularly common on social media, particularly on Instagram grid posts, that’s another option along with left and right alignment. Never use justified text alignment on your social graphics. Never, never, never.

Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them
Digital Mums 5 common design mistakes and how to avoid them
So that’s it, hopefully we have helped you to avoid making these common design mistakes in the future and given you tips and tricks to make your designs look more professional. If you’d like to take this to the next level and learn similar ways to improve your photography, animations and simple videos why not join me for my “Creating Visual Content for Social Media” short course. Sign up HERE.
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