Design Q&A

Design Q&A with Melanie Burk

One of the most important things you can do when you are learning is to ask questions. I notice that my students who progress well are actively engaged in the learning process — asking questions, searching for feedback, and open to critiques. As a professional designer, I have learned to ask questions myself and to search and read when I don’t know the answer.

I get emails from my students a lot (which I love!) and inquiries via the blog, and there are a few questions that are repeated over and over. Here are answers to some of those oft asked questions (and a warning: they cover a variety of topics since these are from all of my photoshop, web, and design classes):


Q: Where are some places to get free fonts? Which fonts do you recommend?

A: I hear this question from all of my students, and especially my Typography students. I have posted lots of of lists of my favorite free typefaces on the blog, and  you can check out these lists here, here, and here. Also, you can check out my list of condemned typefaces (what not to use) here.


Q: (Web question) What is your suggestion for sidebar links on a blog? (If you must have them)

A: Good question. Sometimes it can be hard to work in everything you need on a blog. There are so many things that can be important to a blog, so my number one rule is, less is more. When I am working with a client, we really try to identify what their viewer needs. So start there — think of your average viewer. What do they look at? What do you want them to look at? How can you make it easy for them to find things? How can you help keep them reading?

The typical sites I design have archives, categories, and maybe some “favorite” posts on the side. I also like to have other common links, like press, support, faq, (depending on the blog). Then lastly, it’s important to look at how to link in sponsors.. How are you going to treat it and integrate it to make it seamless? There is no cookie cutter answer here, it really depends on you, your viewers, and what you want to focus on in your site/blog.


Q: What is a good minimal WordPress template to start & work with?

A: One of my favorite bloggers, Swissmiss, did a great post not too long ago on good minimal WordPress themes. You can see her suggestions here. I am really digging a few that she points out here and here. Although there are some great ones here as well. So be sure to check all of those out. Another great place for WordPress themes is themeforest, but beware, you will have to do a bit of sifting here.


Q:  When you are creating your logos on the computer, what size do you work with?  Do you work in 300 dpi mode or rbg mode, or what do you recommend?  And what generally is the font size that the final logos are in?  

Great question. I tend to design on a 8 1/2 by 11 sheet, and design the logo to be about a quarter of the page. That way I know that it can size smaller (which I am always sure to check) and also scale bigger (which I am always sure to check as well). The biggest challenge with logos is that they must look good big and small. As far as size of type, it just really depends. I would try looking at the logo at a business card size and then also at a big poster size. How does it look?

Also, I always design it in Illustrator as a vector, so the dpi doesn’t really matter because it is vector it can scale. I also recommend working in CMYK mode, and giving them coordinating Pantone swatches.


Q:  When starting out do people work for free to build their portfolio?  How do you know you’re ready to start charging more and not cheat the industry as well?  And I’m not even sure what a good starting point is to charge at while I’m still growing myself.

Such a good question as well. It is such a challenge when you are first starting to work. I go over this a lot in the last week of my Creating an Identity class. But I will answer this question briefly here.

It’s all about starting somewhere. When I first started, I did do a few projects for free, but it was always for people who would appreciate it — a non profit organization (I still do work a few times a year like that for free) or for a really good friend who you know won’t take advantage of you. However, for everyone else, I charged. Maybe it was ridiculously low, but you have to start somewhere. Also, when you charge, you will take it more seriously and so will your client. Do you know what other people are starting at? Ask them! I know that when I first started (as in, when I was still in college) I charged $25-35 an hour. And that was scary to me! What do you want to make? What do you think is right for your skill level and time? I obviously don’t charge that starting rate anymore, because I have worked for years and my skill level, my speed on the job, and my training has made my designs and therefore my rate worth more. And now, I also charge per project as a flat fee.

A great chart about working for free is this chart by Jessica Hische. She also has some great writing about it here. It is a learning process for sure, but you have to just start, and believe in yourself. You can do it!

  1.  My typefaces are all messed up on my computer! I think in the typography class you mentioned you use font suitcase?  Is there a way to organize typefaces easier into serifs and san serifs, and cursives etc?

A: I used to use font suitcase. It’s not too expensive, and it is really wonderful. The only reason I don’t use it now, is because I am completely obsessed with typography, and I know them all a little too well now. I had it, and then realized I was never using it. But font suitcase is wonderful, and it’s great especially as you are getting started. You can organize typefaces into groups. So let’s say you want to choose a typeface for “weddings”. You could have already grouped the typefaces that you wanted into a “wedding group.” I highly recommend it, and I used it for about 3 years until I got the hang of it.

  1.  What do you think about Etsy accounts?

A:  I think its a great platform. It just really depends on you (or your client) and what their needs are. Etsy is a great place to start because you can become part of a community, and don’t have to worry about advertising right away. You know that your products are part of something so its actually a great place to start until you are ready to go out on your own. Then I would recommend Big Cartel, which is an inexpensive solution to creating a beautiful, simple easy shop and is actually easier to set up than Etsy.

  1.  Was there a point in your career where you wanted to design a logo for someone, or a project for someone but weren’t sure how to create it in Illustrator or Photoshop and so had to research and learn to develop your skills?

A: Absolutely. Part of being a good designer is constantly pushing yourself. I am always trying to learn how to sharpen my tools, become better, and learn more about the programs I use. I am consistently trying new methods, whether it’s just for fun or part of a professional project. It is essential to challenge yourself, or you won’t progress! I often look back on work from 2 years ago and cringe — and I take that as a good sign. If you are looking into your work from a few years back, and thinking it is your best work, you need to push yourself harder!


Q: Do you have exercises for practicing good typography?

A: This is a great question! One of the best exercises for practicing and improving typography is making yourself design things without any other design element. When I know that the type is it in terms of design, then I really, really have to nail it. Even if I am including other design elements, I always try to start with the typography element, then add color and designs, so that I don’t slack on the type. Most students when they are new to design tend to throw in the type last, which can really be dangerous in the design process.


Q: Can fonts from and be used in artwork I sell?

A: It depends! For Da Font you need to make sure and check the copyright to each and every typeface (font) you download to check the usage and rights. You need to make sure its copyright extends into commercial uses.

I really like Font Squirrel for this reason — it only posts typefaces that are free for commercial use (meaning for artwork you sell) so you know you are safe if you download a typeface from there.


Thanks everyone! If any of these questions intrigued you, check out my classes on atly!


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