5 Tips for Avoiding Stale Commercial Designs

As designers we’ve all seen it happen. In fact, it’s probably happened to you at some point or another. It’s that moment you step back from a commercial design and realize it’s bland, boring, or just absolute crap.

So what happened? Maybe the quadruple-colored, content-crammed design for postcard printing that your customer wanted was destined to be junk. Maybe you just got stuck with “one of those projects.” Or maybe you could view it as an opportunity to turn this stale design into something inspiring.

So sharpen your colored pencils, grab your graphic tablet, or move that mouse and let’s get back to some basics. There’s no better way to step back from a design than to go to your fundamentals, and review until you get that creativity back. If you feel yourself slipping into the same old boring design routine every time you sit down to a new project, here are some tips for getting taking that design from boring to brilliant.

The Basics

Much of good design is said to come from a good foundation of theories. While this is true for some, for others it’s easy to get overwhelmed with too much theory. Fortunately, the basic design concepts are the most powerful tools, so you can just stick with a refresher of these if your brain feels too muddled already:

  • Balance — Balance brings closure to any design and really helps the eye navigate to all areas throughout the piece seamlessly. Your basic balance concepts include symmetrical, asymmetrical, and radial balance.
  • Color — Color has so much influence on how the viewer interprets the rest of the information in the design, so choose wisely. You may be stuck with a brand scheme that limits your color selection, but you can always change the balance of an image using colors — even when limited to a small pallete.
  • Communication — As a designer, your job is to solve communication problems; to communicate the most information in the most efficient way. Is your copy cramped? Make sure designs allow enough room for creative aspects so that it doesn’t smother readable content.

The Layout

Remember the point of your commercial design. If it’s to advertise a specific product or an event, make sure the most pertinent information is the easiest to find in the layout. Briefly mentioned in the basics above, it is necessary to have a design that viewers can easily navigate through. If there is too much content in on place, it becomes crowded and confusing. On the other hand, if there is not enough content, the viewer may not even take the time to finish looking through the design.

Layout can be used to solve this problem. Balance heavier objects with more lighter objects in adjacent areas of the design. For instance, don’t put all the large content scattered over the design. Organize it into a secure structure that leads the eye into any key readable content. Some people are also afraid of blank space. Don’t be! White space, as it is referred to in the design world, is necessary for the eye to breath. Utilize white space in areas that get busier than other parts of a design to balance it out.


Some designers think of choosing fonts similar to choosing a color scheme. In many ways this is a good thing. The right font is necessary to create the atmosphere and mood of your design. Like picking color, there are fonts that compliment each other but there are also fonts that clash. In any good color scheme, there is a dominant color and a few accents — rarely more than three. In typography, the same is true. Use one creative font to encompass the mood, but then use less obtrusive fonts to communicate your message.

Stuck with a boring font based upon the brand definition? Use the established font for any copy and headings, but see about striking out of the box with something different for a title.


The medium in which you communicate is important. Many people are used to flyers and posters, so try expanding the formats in which you design. See how you might design the same project differently in a different format. How would you make a banner ad for the website as opposed to a poster? Diversity is always a great option when you need to freshen things up a bit.


Context is key! Artists don’t always have to worry about context because they aren’t always communicating, but commercial designs have a very specific context. Designers are visual problem-solvers. That being said, it is necessary to be aware of the context in which you are designing.

Viewers are attracted to good design no matter what, but there are ways to increase interest by making designs more relevant to the viewer. However, it can become easy to blend into what so many people already recognize. Creating an eye-popping design that remains outstanding among other designs and is still relevant enough to captivate many is considered good commercial design.

Take some time to study your core audience for the design. You may find some insights or relevant topics that can make your design stand out.


One of the main reasons a design comes off as stale is that it’s based upon a template. Sometimes a template can help you get a foundation that works, but sometimes it absolutely ruins your designs. Did you start with a template or old version of your project? Scrap it. Start from scratch and see what you come up with.

Get Opinions

So stuck you just can’t look at that project anymore? Get an opinion from a third party. Sometimes you’re too close to the design to be objective and getting someone else’s eyes on the project can snap you out of your funk.

Use discretion. You don’t want to send your ideas off to the competition, even if it is someone you know well. And don’t just send your designs to anybody. Pick 2-3 individuals who can give you solid feedback and help you get back on track.

What Else?

How do you break out of your stale designs? Any techniques you use? What about design tools that help you break out of the mold?

Tara Hornor has a degree in English and has found her niche writing about marketing, advertising, branding, web and graphic design, and desktop publishing. She writes for PrintPlace.com, a company that offers color printing services for business cards, catalogs, posters, brochures, postcard services, and more printed marketing media. In addition to her writing career, Tara also enjoys spending time with her husband and two children. Connect with @TaraHornor on Twitter.