Colordance Design

Conceptual Design – A Framework

Ever wondered why so many people take the time to frame a piece of artwork?  For practical reasons a frame protects a print from damage. Yet, framing also serves a more fundamental purpose. It bounds, organizes, unifies, defines, and differentiates one composition from another. Even in the case of a canvas, the taunt edges of the plywood stretcher, invisible to the eye, function as a border to accent and draw one’s focus to the art.

No Frame = Chaos

Picture for a minute (no pun intended) a large wall hung with artwork. What if all the compositions were missing frames?  It would be challenging to decide where to look first. You might notice the wrinkles, imperfections, and torn edges of several prints as everything competes for your attention. It would be easy to become visually overwhelmed by the chaos, and turn away, potentially missing valuable information and visual treasures.

George Catlin, White Cloud Head of the Iowas 1844

Consider why so many homeowners spend time fixing up their house before placing it on the market for sale.  They understand their home needs a “frame” to enhance its curb appeal to best position it in the competitive real estate market. If the paint is peeling and the landscaping is overgrown, prospective buyers will notice those details rather than focus on the assets of the house.

Effective framing is evident in George Catlin’s painting of White Cloud, Chief of the Iowas 1844.  The portrait of the proud warrior is framed with a simple, solid black frame matching his black headband.  Thus, the frame serves its purpose. It encourages the viewer to continue examining the chief’s regalia in more detail.

Concept Impacts Profits

Just as a picture frame defines and structures a composition, a consistent conceptual business identity connects your target audience with your business messaging. A conceptual theme acts as a picture frame (in both in print and media applications) to imprint your business in your viewer’s minds. You want your business to be recognized and stand out, so repeating your identity consistently throughout your promotional materials matters.

Small business owners and non profit organizations may be unaware of the importance of a “picture frame” and how that impacts their financial bottom line.  Like a picture frame, conceptual design organizes, unifies, differentiates, and defines one business from another. A conceptual design contains specific components to reinforce a business identity in your viewer’s mind. These elements include an iconic brandmark/logo, color scheme, graphic elements, layout, and type treatment. Repeated consistently throughout your print and media applications this “framing” makes your target audience remember you. Furthermore,  conceptual design instills a sense of trust as your organization appears solid, structured, and dependable.

Small business owners and non profit organizations may unknowingly settle for less than optimum website solutions or print advertising collateral. Their marketing materials reflect a “helter skelter” approach by implementing one look for their business cards,  a second for their signage, a third for a website, and so on.   The lack of a consistent, well thought through conceptual design hinders their ability to connect with their audience. In effect you “stand in your own way” using ad hoc design.  This impacts audience participation and bottom line profits with your business.

What’s the solution? Take the time to work with a graphic designer to develop an overall visual identity strategy. Effective framing with conceptual design adds the finishing touch, the extra flourish, and the creative pizzazz to keep your viewer’s engaged.

By the way,  are you fascinated with Native American culture? Then take a peak at Midwest SOARRING Foundation’s redesigned site.

Photographing Your Artistry For Online Shopping Carts

Since the advent of photography over 180 years ago, photographic image making has served both practical and aesthetic purposes. With the popularity of online shopping, artists and craftspeople have an additional venue to market their artistic creations. Photographing your work in optimal studio conditions highlights your careful craftsmanship, which in turn increases sales. However, contracting with a studio that specializes in product photography may be beyond the reach of many small businesses. Nevertheless, with minimal investment in equipment and time, you can take reasonably good product shots yourself.

High Key Lighting on White Glass

Four Seasons – High Key Lighting on White Glass

High Key Lighting on White Glass

One effective photography technique involves high key lighting on white Plexiglas to reveal an object and its captivating reflection. This is a popular solution to photograph jewelry, ornaments, china, artwork, and various glass objects. High key refers to a brightly lit white background that is achieved with several diffusion panels and white Plexiglas.

Bead necklace suspended over white glass

Bead necklace suspended over white glass

It is possible to create this studio setup without a lot of expense if you have an SLR camera set on manual mode with a tripod. A light meter will be helpful to ensure your background is sufficiently bright as compared to the product. Your studio setup is complete with a tabletop, sheet of white Plexiglas, white towel or board to lay underneath the Plexiglas, at least two white diffusion panels, and four full spectrum utility lights. A small amount of post production work in a photo editor (e.g. Photoshop Elements or Photoshop) will complete your finished image.

In this technique, the lighting is placed to insure that the white background is roughly 4 times (2 f-stops) brighter than the object to be photographed.  This “washes out” the background providing the appearance of a properly exposed product on a white background.  Additionally, the Plexiglas base provides an effective reflection.

Positioning Objects on White Glass

Jewelry can be suspended from a pole with fish line over the white glass so it barely touches the surface of the glass, midway between the background and the camera.  Other objects can be positioned on top of the glass. If the object is small, moving the camera closer and composing the image so it is in the center and fills the camera frame will help.  Some objects may require several exposures to capture the texture, contour, shape, and spectacular highlights. Merging these shots later in Photoshop is easy if you have positioned your camera on a tripod, maintaining the same distance from the object for each exposure.

Studio Setup

To create the studio set you will need the following:

  • Tabletop (two saw horses and a flat board for a top will work fine.)
  • A sheet of clear Plexiglas available at most large hardware stores.  The size of the Plexiglas depends on the size of the product you are photographing.
  • A white towel or cloth (e.g. a white sheet) to place between Plexiglas and table top to ensure a bright reflection in the glass.
  • Two or three white diffusion screens (One or two for the back of the set and one for the front light. These can be purchased at a camera store or, if you are handy, can be made from white nylon and PVC pipe. Instructions to make these are easy to find on the internet. )
  • Four compact fluorescent or LED full spectrum utility lights (three to light the back diffusion screen and one to light the object directly 45 degrees to the left of the camera).
  • Camera on tripod, usually directly in front or 45 degrees to object, approximately 3 to 4 feet from the object (closer if object is small.)
  • Light meter to ensure the background is two f-stops brighter than the main light near the camera. (See lighting diagram). Alternatively, you can use the light meter in your camera by noting the meter reading of the camera when it is zoomed onto the background and making sure this reading is 2 f-stops brighter than when you zoom in on the product itself.  You will likely need to adjust the lighting, moving lights forward or back, to achieve the desired exposure ratio.
  • Set your camera to manual exposure so that the product is perfectly exposed.  Your camera light meter will be fooled by the white background and will naturally underexpose the product. You want the white background to be overexposed making the white a very flat uniform white.

Different product shots will require some adjustments so take a number of images with different exposure settings.

Lighting Diagram

High Key Lighting Diagram on White Glass

An Alternative Setup

Alternatively, if you don’t want a shadow effect you can also drape a white cloth (e.g. a sheet) from the top of the back diffusion screen down across the table top.  By draping the cloth, you avoid showing the horizontal line that normally occurs where the back meets the top of the table.

Post Production in Photoshop

Post production work of your image in Photoshop (or Photoshop Elements) involves several simple steps once your image is opened and saved as a .psd document. Remember to float the background layer of the .psd file by double clicking on the locked background layer and selecting “OK” in the New Layer dialog box which appears on your screen.

Stained Glass Window Handcrafted by A Touch of Glass

Stained Glass Window handcrafted by Amy Potvin, A Touch of Glass,

Copy this layer by selecting Layer | Copy This Layer. It is important to preserve your original image if you need to start over. Now you are ready to begin your work.

  1. Fine tune the white background with the Magic Wand tool by selecting the Magic Wand Tool in the toolbar. Set the tolerance to low (15 to 25%).  Click on the background surrounding your object with the Magic Wand.  You can increase the selection by holding down the shift key while you click on the background.  Make sure the marching ants do not go into the shadow underneath the object in the reflection.
  2. Fill your selection with white by going to Edit | Fill with white. Your background should be bright white except for the grey shadow and reflection underneath the object.
  3. Select a medium size paintbrush in the toolbar. Set the brush color to white and  the opacity to 60 to 85%.
  4. Hold down the Shift key and paint with the brush straight across the reflection underneath the object, so approximately ¾ of the reflection is eliminated.
  5. Save your .psd file with the layers intact. This file can be cropped as needed. To create a jpg of your image go to File | Save As and choose jpg as your file format.

The Key Points!

There are many variations that can be used but there are a few key points to remember.

  1. For this type of product shot, you want the background of the item to be completely white with no texture showing.  We do this by adjusting the lighting to “light up” the background (plexiglas, diffusion screen or white sheet)  so that this background is over exposed as compared to the item.  This clearly isolates the item from the background making it easy to turn the white into a transparency in photoshop allowing the item to be displayed on any color background that the website may use.  It also makes it easier to combine items in photoshop.
  2. You will need the camera on manual so that you expose for the item, not the background. It is also useful then to use a tripod as it makes it easy to shoot many similar items.
  3. Make sure the item is completely captured in the frame (don’t cutoff any part of the item) and remove any labels or price tags that may appear.
  4. If you don’t have full spectrum lights, you can always use a gray card with a custom white balance adjustment for your camera.  Its important to get the item colors as accurate as possible.

Voila! There you have it – enticing photography of your artistic endeavors for your online shopping cart.

Dance Your Distinct Rhythm and Design

Speak With One Voice

Imagine your marketing communication as a dance performance. There’s a story line, costumes, musical score, and choreography—all consistent with a theme that is meant to captivate an audience. However, the ballet Sleeping Beauty is in stark contrast to the popular TV program, Dancing With The Stars. Envision a ballerina dancing an arabesque on the TV show. Her costume, movements, and music would be out of place. Likewise, a couple intent on dancing a competitive Latin cha-cha would disturb the rhythm of a graceful ballet. Whenever overarching themes are mixed and not integrated, chaos ensues. No clear messaging is sent.  Effective market messaging needs to “speak with one voice.”

It is best to communicate your marketing messaging with its distinct rhythm and design. If you are presented with two different logos that you like, do you use one for your website and another for your business card? Would you use a brochure if the layout and identity components are not consistent with the rest of your advertising collateral?  Our advice to the above situations is to take into account your viewer’s needs and politely say “No.”

Consistency Matters

Often business owners do not take the time to consider how their advertising collateral is perceived by the audience they target. If the brand ingredients are not applied consistently to all print and media applications, the choreography is interrupted. Consider what occurs when you mix the colors red, blue, and green together—you get a shade of brown. Or, if you cook a soup and add ten spices to the pot, will it taste delicious? Just because you like a specific color or spice does not mean that “adding to the mix” will create a better end product. Too many colors, too much detail, or too many unrelated ingredients muddies the messaging – like melting a box of crayons into one brown blob. You loose your impact and leave your readers confused.  Who will remember you?
Coke signage
Take into account your viewer’s memory bank. Each day they step out their front door, they are surrounded by a sea of images. Photographs and typographic treatments are everywhere. You want your audience to remember your business, even when they are not, at the present moment, in need of your services. Thus, when they do have a need in the future they can retrieve a snapshot or “byte” of information from their neural archives.

Repetition Imprints Your Messaging

Imprinting you marketing message into the minds of your target audience requires repetition of a consistent design. Remember the last time you were thirsty and shopped at the grocery store for your favorite drink? Can you visualize the name and product packaging? Red and white label, Coke, perhaps? Major brands often advertise their brand mark correlated to a consumer need.  Thus, when you are thirsty, your mind brings up the image of the soft drink logo.

Your visual choreography begins with an iconic logo capturing the symbolic essence of your work. It progresses to a conceptual theme embracing a distinct graphic design style. It incorporates meaningful imagery which alludes to a larger context or culture in which your business thrives. It encompasses a successful website which mirrors your distinct business identity. Thus, viewer’s are invited to engage with your business by gently capturing their interest, support, and participation. This is accomplished through the application of good graphic design and web usability features, which increases web site effectiveness.

Your promotional materials should communicate a distinct, consistent identity. Brand consistency is vital. Our human brain thrives on it. Be firm and steadfast with your market communication.  Our advice?  Dance your distinct rhythm and design and speak with one voice.

Beauty – Essential But Not Sufficient

Remember the phrase, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever?” Beautiful visual design greatly enhances the messaging about your products, services, or programs. Yet, beauty by itself is not a comprehensive measure of effective marketing materials.

Remember the caveat, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder?” What enthralls and inspires one individual, another barely notices. Yet, when beauty is merged with the structure and tools of professional graphic design, memorable advertising solutions can reach their widest target audience.

Ask Yourself

Does your personal taste accurately reflect the aesthetic preferences of your viewing audience? Remember that your marketing collateral is not your personal art project. Your personal likes and dislikes may not accurately reflect how your target audience perceives your market messaging and materials. To successfully reach a diverse target audience, your communications collateral needs to integrate beauty with the science of graphic design.

When you collaborate with an experienced graphic designer, a distinct visual brand identity can be conceived which is “rooted in the very essence of its subject matter.”1 This brand identity, when it is professionally executed and repeated consistently on all of your advertising collateral, has the potential to deeply impact viewer consciousness. Compelling visual design keeps viewers inspired and interested in your market messaging, for the first time, and throughout time.

The Impact of Ad Hoc Design

What are the consequences if you do not follow the principles of good graphic design in the creation of your logo, web site, signage or brochure? The pitfalls include:

  • The absence of an underlying theme to spark viewer curiosity,
  • Imagery which does not reflect your concept, distracting the viewer rather than complementing your theme and brand identity,
  • Photos or illustrations which are poorly composed or rendered,
  • Lack of an underlying layout grid to provide visual harmony and white space,
  • Text line length that is too long making the copy difficult to read,
  • Conflicting typefaces or a color palette which differs from your business identity confusing the viewer,
  • Inconsistent use of your brand mark and identity elements on all of your marketing collateral,
  • Or, a layout that is too cluttered with information, overwhelming the viewer and making it difficult to grasp the key messages you want to communicate.

The net result of these and other design mistakes is that your business communication becomes hit or miss, a mish-mash. Your public wonders how serious you are about your mission, products, and services. Viewers are confused and uninterested when no clear and meaningful messaging is conveyed. Their creativity is not engaged. (Read more about the importance of sparking viewer curiosity.)

Your audience stops reading when the graphic design lacks the ingredients which facilitate readability. As a result, you loose the opportunity to communicate your message and attract more business. Ad hoc design gives the impression that you as a business owner don’t care about what you are promoting.

Graphic Designers as Visual Story Tellers

Experienced graphic designers are visual story tellers. They can create beautiful and compelling visual solutions which communicate an authentic visual business identity. Well versed in the varieties of historic design styles and cultural trends, designers impart clear and vibrant messaging about a business, which appeals to a diverse audience. Graphic designers understand that evocative, well executed design captures and holds a viewer’s attention overtime.

Aristotle said, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance.” Captivating stories unfold with the assistance of a graphic designer. Layout, text, illustrations and photography converge in an imaginative graphic design enhanced by the elegant use of white space. Hand rendered illustrations, thoughtful use of typography, attention to layout, and well written content enrich the creation. These tools and structure require the designer’s inherent passion for visual design and a curiosity with the subject matter. This in turn fuels the evolution of a unique treatment—rooted in its very nature.1

Under a designer’s artistic eye, business messaging becomes convincing. Through the choice of beautiful but meaningful imagery, an underlying grid, typography, and interplay of color, a seasoned designer ensures that your identity components are rooted in the very essence of your subject matter. Your identity is also echoed consistently across your website, print collateral, and PowerPoint presentations. Thus, what is beautiful is merged with the science of graphic design so your materials are readable, memorable, and engaging.

Engage Your Target Audience

When beauty and the science of graphic design are integrated with your business messaging, you reinforce your audience’s decision to buy your product, join your organization, or do business with your company. Your customers gain a deeper meaning and appreciation for the results you provide, the education you offer, or products you are promoting. Thus, you fulfill their need to experience something novel, something authentic, and something inspiring.

J. F. Millet wrote that art is “a treating of the commonplace with the feeling of the sublime.” Don’t cheat your viewer’s of their need for beauty and inspiration. Make sure your advertising echoes a consistent identity, and that it is easy to read. Give your audience a direct experience of your subject matter.

Bottom line, beauty combined with professional graphic design communicates an empowering message about your business which is inspiring, memorable and beyond words. Who is better equipped to capture engaging, artistic design in your website, signage, and brochures, than an experienced graphic designer? Take the opportunity to grow your business with Colordance Design.

Resources Consulted

1) Hurn/Magnum, David, and Bill Jay (2009), On Being A Photographer: A Practical Guide. Lens Work Publishing, pp. 43-50.


Spark Your Viewer’s Curiosity

One might wonder why it is important to evoke a reader’s curiosity with a web site design, much less other advertising materials. What does your viewer’s imagination have to do with the service or products your business sells?

Creativity Feeds Viewer Curiosity

Curiosity and creativity go hand in hand in our information age. At the click of a mouse we can access unlimited creative pursuits which fuel our inquisitive nature. Consider the public TV channel “Create.”  This channel is filled with programming that inspires us to cook new cuisines, design outdoor garden living areas, remodel and redecorate our homes, and travel off the beaten path to explore distant cultures. Our thirst for knowledge and sense of wonder seems to run the show.

Is this any different than our desire to eat out, see a new movie, or attend a concert? Remember the last time you attended the theater? As you settle into your seat, you glance through the program, noting the talented cast. As the curtain opens, an actress, clad in an elaborate costume, speaks her opening lines. A single spotlight reveals the emotion etched on her face. Your eye drifts to the rich scenery backdrop behind her. Suddenly several characters emerge in front of the stage. Their voices chime in a loud chorus. You are intrigued. What will happen next? What is the underlying message that the plot reveals? How will it all end?

Concept Provides Synergistic Effect

Compelling theater with all of it’s ingredients —the plot, scenery, actors, props, dialogue, lighting, program, and costumes—work synergistically to spark audience curiosity. A skillful playwright influences theater goers to identify with the characters and storyline. In so doing, the viewer’s curiosity and underlying creativity are tapped.

Consider the last time you ate in a restaurant with a clear and personable concept. The food was tasty, yet there were other factors which made the meal memorable. Perhaps the wait staff wore T shirts with the restaurant logo and a clever phrase ie; an “important person” of interest eats here. The walls, menu, and table top display incorporate imagery, historic memorabilia, and innovative graphic design which captured a conceptual theme from an historic time, culture, person, or location. Music from the time period or location played in the background. Your curiosity was aroused. So, you sample a new dish. All of the restaurant components coordinate to create an enjoyable atmosphere. Your sense of creativity is nourished.

Contrast this dining experience with a meal you partook in an eating establishment where a distinct conceptual theme was missing. Perhaps the physical setting is bland. You are confused about what to order, as there are no specials highlighted on the menu. While your food tastes good, you sense something is missing. The restaurant seems not to “Know itself.” Read more about this in our article about market messaging. Is this a place you would frequent, or would you look somewhere else the next time you chose to eat out?

Winning advertising is like a great meal or breathtaking theater. Each invokes a believable and captivating environment. Memorable web design also includes an imaginative concept or overarching theme which breathes life into your business. You, as the business owner, do not even need to personally like the concept. What matters most is your audience enthusiasm and connection with it.

Brainstorm/Research Positive Metaphors

For your metaphor to work it must be positive, original, inventive, and inspiring. Thus, there is value in taking the time to research and brainstorm persuasive themes. The theme you finally select ushers forth a creative design  influencing the layout, color scheme, typographic treatment, imagery, written copy, and in some cases the logotype. Viola! There you have it. Your business identity is borne.

Be smart. Engage your customer’s curiosity and imagination in what you have to offer. It will, in turn, encourage your target population to make use of your services and products.

Color Communicates Symbolic Meaning

Color conveys intuitive meaning which can be used to reinforce your marketing message. Envision a conceptual theme of tranquility for your web site. It conjures soft tropical hues — cool shades of aqua and sand.  These colors work well if you want your viewers to relax.
However, if you are in the business of offering a service or product that is upbeat, energetic, and friendly, and your target audience is families, the warmth of orange is a better choice.

Cool Blues

Consider the most gender neutral color — cool dark blue. Dark blue imparts dependability, strength, and authority. It is frequently used in school colors, uniforms, and many corporate logos. However, dark blue would be a mismatch for a progressive, trendy, neighborhood store sign. Unique and classy teal blue might offer a better alternative.

Warm Reds

Red added to any design provides excitement and energy. Many foods are red — berries, tomatoes, and apples — so, red is a great choice for a restaurant or  entertainment establishment as it subconsciously stimulates the appetite.

Shades of warm, Terra Cotta red brown are effective for a spa logo design. We associate warm, red browns with clay from the earth, and the casual lifestyle of Mexico and the southwest.

Rich Browns

Deep browns belong to the rich and delicious world of coffee and chocolate, as well as what is secure, wholesome, and rustic.  In contrast, the color burgundy is red’s more sophisticated cousin. One immediately thinks of aged wine. Burgundy adds a tone of wealth, refinement, and status to a project — an effective choice for an elegant restaurant menu.

A trendy, youthful, carefree, and vivacious theme befits bright pink. Paired with it’s complement — lime-green—hot pink creates an artsy, bold statement. Soft pink invokes anything delicate, soft, sweet, and romantic. Combine soft pink with the purity and innocence of white to communicate that which is  gentle and intimate.

Natural Greens

Green is a primary color in the natural world. Dark green cues us to expect something trustworthy, traditional, restful, and moneyed. Light green provides neutrality, and calm, while bright green enlivens themes that are fresh, spring, Irish, and outdoorsy.

Powerful Black

Black is the color of power, mystery, what is masculine, stylish, and expensive.  It’s nearby relative — any shade of Grey — is effective for what is professional, corporate, practical, and mature.  Flamboyance, creativity, spirituality, and fantasy are often expressed with the use of purple.  Purple and black have been used effectively to promote Harry Potter books and movies. Imagine these same colors as corporate logo for a bank. Would they convey trustworthiness and security?

Complementary Colors Enliven A Design

Finally,  complementary colors enliven and strengthen each other. This is important to take into account as the human eye searches for unity in a visual composition. We experience wholeness and harmony when complementary colors appear near one another.  Read more about the importance of unity on the our web page describing the structure of good design.

Each hue on the color wheel has it’s complement— it’s exact opposite.  Purple is complemented by yellow, blue by orange, and red with green. There are variations with shades and tints of these colors too. While well designed logos synthesize a number of elements, ( read more about this), color selection provides a vital ingredient in the mix. Creative brand marks often incorporate complementary color for added impact.

Effective advertising collateral focuses on several dominant colors, embellishing a design with specific accents.  These accent hues may be analogous colors — colors that are adjacent on the color wheel— thus offering added harmony, which extends a color scheme.

In summary, follow the tips below to connect with your target audience through the discerning use of color.

  • Understand the emotional connections color offers your viewers.  Consult color harmony books to the identify the symbolic meaning of each hue.
  • Determine if the emotional tone of your preferred colors are appropriate for your project. If not, consider other color schemes.
  • Where possible use complementary color for added punch.
  • Explore using analogous colors when you need three or more colors for your project.


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