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Graphic Design 101: Understanding Layout


Designing your own invites? This is where you start.

CREATING YOUR OWN WEDDING INVITATIONS, PROGRAMS, OR OTHER PAPER GOODS CAN BE OVERWHELMING IF YOU’RE UNFAMILIAR WITH THE BASICS OF DESIGN. BUT FEAR NOT! BECAUSE LONGTIME APW SPONSOR AND DESIGNER ELEANOR MAYRHOFER OF EM PAPERS HAS OFFERED TO BREAK IT DOWN FOR US OVER THE COURSE OF A MINI-SERIES APTLY TITLED: GRAPHIC DESIGN 101.

Graphic Design 101: Understanding Layout | A Practical Wedding

by Eleanor Mayrhofer, of EM Papers

If you’re attempting to design your own wedding stationery (or anything for that matter) it’s one thing to know what you like; it’s quite another to bring the vision in your head into reality and onto paper. It’s hard for designers too, trust me. It may sound counterintuitive, but constraints are helpful when coming up with a design. The first, and most basic constraint to consider is layout, which we’ll be discussing today.

A visual design layout has three basic components : Visual and text elements, scale, and composition (or arrangement). Let’s look at each one of these in detail, using wedding invitations (surprise!) as examples. (I used talented APW sponsors work as examples, because why not?)

Imagery and text elements

“Form follows function” is a utilitarian phrase that comes from architecture. It means that the design of something (building, car, or a card, etc.) should be dictated by what it is being used for. You can deviate from this dictum a bit when it comes to wedding invitations, but the basic principle still holds.

The primary function of your wedding invitations is to convey information. There are also less strictly functional tasks, like setting a tone or mood and perhaps (subtly) communicating who is hosting and family relationships (more about this later).

There are two basic elements at your disposal for this fundamental communication: imagery and text. These will inform the size, format, and style of your layout.

Think about how much text and information you’ll need on a card. Are there four different family members hosting, each of whom wants their first, middle, last names, and titles on the invite? Or are you and your partner hosting people for hot dogs and potato salad at the local park? One of these layouts is going to have a lot more text than the other.

Do you want a photograph on the invite, or will a small illustrative dingbat do the job? Getting clarity on the importance and prominence of each of these elements is a good place to start. Let’s look at some examples.

Minimal Text

The information on this charming vintage destination invitation from A Printable Press sticks to basics. There is a short intro, names, date, and location. The minimal amount of text allows for the clever use of map imagery and the couple’s names to serve as the main visual elements.

Graphic Design 101: Understanding Layout | A Practical Wedding

More examples of minimal text layouts on this Pinterest board.

Text Heavy

This is an elegant and slightly more formal invitation from Up Up Creative. By using a smallish monogram and simple visual element (the skeleton key) the invite allows for a substantial amount of text without getting too busy or crowded:

Graphic Design 101: Understanding Layout | A Practical Wedding

More examples of text heavy layouts on Pinterest here.

Photography

Graphic Design 101: Understanding Layout | A Practical Wedding

Okay this isn’t a wedding invitation, but it could be. This card from Up Up Creative uses a photograph as the all-encompassing element. There’s enough space below the main focus of the image to allow for a small amount of text. When using photography in a layout consider two things:

1. If the image is a full background element, the photo shouldn’t fight with the text, there should be some non-busy area of the photograph where the text can be displayed comfortably and is easy to read.

2. If the photograph is not used as a background element, make sure that it is tightly cropped and works well in a smaller format to allow room for text.

More examples of photo layouts on this Pinterest board.

A word of warning: When perusing photo-based designs you’ll see a lot of lush, gorgeous photo invitations. These cards are only as good as the photography! A great layout can’t save a badly lit, poorly composed image. Just sayin’.

Scale

Once you know how much imagery and text you’ve got, the next thing to consider is scale—how these elements work with one another and which ones take prominence. The scale and contrast of elements does a lot to convey certain moods.

Go big or go home

If your design were a song would it be Bjork’s “Violently Happy”? Then pick an element (text or photo) and make it big, Big, BIG.

That’s what I did with my Love, Joy, Happiness design. A phrase set in unapologetically large type takes center stage and indicates that this is probably not going to be a formal, understated affair:

Graphic Design 101: Understanding Layout | A Practical Wedding

More examples of full-throttle, large-scale style designs over here on Pinterest.

Would you have any Grey Poupon?

On the other hand, a formal, understated affair may be more your speed, keeping both typography and visual elements in relative proportion to each other will do a good job of communicating this. This classy Classic Calligraphy invitation from A Printable Press shows how it’s done:

Graphic Design 101: Understanding Layout | A Practical Wedding

Note the variation in the style and size of the text; they aren’t dramatic. The sole visual elements are the flourish-y but restrained border and ornamental dingbats which serve to support the text rather than act as a main element.

More examples of elegant, understated, or minimalist layouts here.

Striking a balance

There is a middle road as well. In this case one element like the sea star in this wedding invite from A Printable Press serves as a visual anchor, allowing room for the text to take center stage, without being the primary graphic element:

Graphic Design 101: Understanding Layout | A Practical Wedding

More examples of middle-of-the-road, balanced layouts on Pinterest right here.

The main thing is to prevent elements from competing with one another so the eye is drawn to the most important aspects of the design.

Arrangement and Composition

The possibilities are endless when it comes to arranging elements of a design. An excellent resource for this is the Graphic Design Cookbook. Whenever I’m stuck on an approach, a quick flip through this little book will usually get my design juices flowing again.

The three to four most basic design compositions are bordered, borderless, full bleed, and partial bleed. These are pretty self-explanatory, let’s take a look:

Borders

Bordered designs, well, have a border. Kimi at a Printable Press has many bordered designs that work beautifully. Here’s a recent one:

Graphic Design 101: Understanding Layout | A Practical Wedding

The floral border color and size makes it a striking visual element on the card, but as it surrounds the text, that is ultimately where your eye is directed.

A key consideration with a border is to make sure there’s sufficient space between the border and the text, and the border and the actual physical border of the card.

More bordered designs right over here.

Borderless

You guessed it! Designs without a border like this one from yours truly:

Graphic Design 101: Understanding Layout | A Practical Wedding

Actually, borderless designs do contain a border; the amount of negative (empty) space between the visual and text elements and the physical edge of the card. Allow at least a quarter inch of space to keep the design from looking too crammed.

Let it Bleed

A full bleed is when an element of the design (usually visual) expands beyond the edge of the page or card, like on this stunning design from Up Up Creative:

Graphic Design 101: Understanding Layout | A Practical Wedding

More examples of full-bleed designs on Pinterest right here.

A partial bleed is when an element expands beyond online to three edges, like the bottom border element on this invitation from Up Up Creative:

Graphic Design 101: Understanding Layout | A Practical Wedding

Check out more examples of partial bleed designs right here.

Production is the main thing to keep in mind when working with bleeds. If you’re printing designs at home it can be hard to print bleeds on pre-cut cards. I have a printer that is otherwise great, but despite endless futzing, I still can’t get it’s bleed (borderless) function to work.

Please don’t misunderstand; you can easily print full bleed designs on your own, you’ll just have to trim each one out on all four edges. If you were hoping to avoid this task, choose or create a design without bleeds.

Key take-aways for creating a layout:

1. Think about how much text and imagery you want/need first.

2. Visual and text elements should contrast one another, or support each other without fighting for prominence.

3. Designs with a border should leave a comfortable amount of space between the border and the text, as well as the border element and the edge of the actual card.

4. Designs without a border should have an ‘invisible border’ of at least a quarter inch of space around the physical edge of the card.

5. Give some thought beforehand about your production method for designs with bleeds.

Now, go forth and lay out!

EM Papers is an APW sponsor (and has great wedding invitations), but this is not a sponsored post (rather obviously).


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  • blimunda

    Perfect timing! Thank you!!

    • Eleanor Mayrhofer

      Glad to have helped!

  • APracticalLaura

    Thank you for these tips! What design software would you recommend for a novice looking to experiment with graphic design?

    • Kaitlin

      My fiancé made our Save the Dates and invitations using Gimp. It’s free, open source, and basically Photoshop lite. You’ll still want to go through some tutorials and read up on it, but I found it much easier to pick up than PS.

      • Rebekah

        That’s what I’m currently messing around with. It’s got downloads for Mac and PC, plus it’s free., like Kaitlin said. So far I haven’t had much trouble (but I’m saving everything as I go so I can go back fairly easily)

      • Lindsey d.

        I’m going to have to try Gimp. I designed our program and a few signs in Microsoft Publisher since it’s the best thing I have available to me. I have a basic understanding of design, but no training and no desire to lay out the cash on software.

      • APracticalLaura

        thanks for the recommendation! Wedding invitations have come and gone, but I’m finding more and more reasons to learn graphic design myself (friends’ baby shower invitations! bridal showers! the list goes on…) Sounds like this would be the best place for me to start, since the free pricetag makes it worth trying out to see if it’s something I’m interested in pursuing further.

    • Eleanor Mayrhofer

      If you’re a novice I would stick with what you know and make it work like Power Point/Key Note or Word/Pages otherwise you’ll just get bogged trying to learn a new tool. You can usually set the page or slide size into a custom size (like a 5×7 invite) and import images and set type, create shapes, etc.

      • APracticalLaura

        Thanks! I generally use PowerPoint as a design tool, but it’s pretty clunky at times. I’m excited to try something new (especially since it’s more leisurely/fun to do it when you aren’t under a time crunch). Wedding invitations are done – but baby shower, bridal shower, and gift ideas are forever throwing through this crazy head of mine and while I love paying etsy vendors to do it for me, there’s a part of me that thinks I’d enjoy doing it myself too!

    • Hannah B

      Has anybody used SketchBook Express? It’s another free (mac?) app that is super basic…not tons of flexibility for writing text but does great for rearranging images. I used the free templates at weddingchicks.com and downloaded the png file and then rearranged/resized stuff in SketchBook…not exactly sure how it will turn out printed but hopefully pretty good. Can anyone recommend type of paper to use? Is VistaPrint the best way to have the design printed?

  • Sarah

    This is great, but what’s missing here are the tools to DO the layout! I was able to do mine on InDesign because I had some prior amateur designing experience (and then print via VistaPrint). For a friend, I was able to manipulate some of the existing designs on VistaPrint to get a great-looking, somewhat-custom invite. But I would love to see some other recommendations for the actual tools for folks to do this!

    • lady brett

      for amateur layout work, apple’s pages is actually quite good – it has a lot more leeway with working with objects than word does, and, having only ever used it once, i found it to be pretty user friendly and easy to learn.

      that said, i actually laid out our invitations in word because i settled on an extremely simple idea of “typewritten” invitations – a basic understanding of paragraph spacing and paper sizes (and a lovely font) was about all i ended up needing (which is funny, as i do layout semi-professionally and do a ton of work in indesign).

    • Eleanor Mayrhofer

      Hi Sarah, tools are a huge topic so I was going to work on a separate post for that, but really you can work on anything that you feel comfortable in like the office suite (or Apple equivalent) of PowerPoint (Key Note) or Word. If you feel up to it you can download the free versions of Adobe Creative Suite, specifically Illustrator. YouTube is loaded with videos of people showing how to use these tools. Hope that helps!

      • Sarah

        Awesome! I would love to see that post. Perhaps you could show the same style of invite created in several different tools (e.g., lazy girl’s version – Word or PowerPoint or mucking around on VistaPrint vs. DIY Diva – Illustrator). Or maybe even some templates? And of course, some advice on where/how to get them printed! My own wedding days are behind me, but I feel like lots of folks would love to do this, if only they knew a tiny bit more!

    • Kestrel

      Actually a decent one to use is powerpoint. You can adjust the size of the ‘slide’ to be the appropriate size and most people have powerpoint. Also, if that’s not advanced enough for you, you can download Gimp (basically open source photoshop) but be beware there is a steep learning curve.

    • http://www.thehousealwayswinsblog.com/ Rachel Wilkerson

      I’ve been using the free website Canva to play around with graphic design!

    • GeLa

      I used a free, open source program called Inkscape (http://www.inkscape.org/en/) which is pretty powerful, and there’s a lot of free help available for learning to use it. But – as others have said – the time it takes to learn a new program might not be worth the “freedom” of limitless design options. I use the program for work and so knew a lot of it already, and could semi-legitimately claim professional development for the time I spent learning new tricks ;)

      • ART

        Yeah Inkscape! I learned it to design our invitations, and I’m not an expert by any means, but in the six months or so that I’ve been tinkering, I’ve gotten adept enough that I’ve designed ALL our wedding stuff in it, plus made maps, diagrams for fiance’s business, etc. I freaking love that program. But there is a learning curve, for sure.

  • Winny the Elephant

    I made my own wedding invitations using my Silhouette Cameo paper cutting machine. I designed them in the software it came with which was awesome, it lets you use whatever fonts you already have and you can purchase digital images. After being asked what look/motif/theme he wanted to go with, my fiancé decided that he wanted a dog on our invitation. I told him he was crazy, that you can’t put a dog on an invitation without it looking like a kids birthday party. Next day I saw an awesome dog wedding invitation on pinterest which served as our inspiration. Our invites look awesome and came to less than $3 each including postage!

    Just a tip- make your invitations a standard size and try and keep the weight down, this saves a bundle on postage.

  • sheismle

    Oh my goodness, I just started designing mine last weekend, and was planning on attacking them again tonight…. great timing! Thank you so much for the Pinterest boards!

    I’m using Adobe CS (I am a student and got it from my university for free). I’v found some inexpensive vector files at http://www.creativemarket.com for graphic elements– they have fonts too, although those can get pricey. I’m turning to Google Fonts (free!) for some script-y options.

    Pretty sure I’m going to print with VistaPrint. I did our save-the-dates through them and had a good experience, and the price was right. (Honestly I don’t know how they stay in business with those Groupons!)

    Looking back over this post, it’s obvious that I’m motivated to DIY the invites to save some money. But I am also having a lot of fun coming up with our own design, and learning some new skills in the process!

    • Kayjayoh

      I did the Group+VistaPrint route and I have no complaints, except that the print numbers can be annoying. Fortunately, only needed 100 of anything, because 150 would have been a pain. (See below for my design process.) We did magnetic business cards for save-the-dates, regular postcards for RSVP and thank yous (the RSVPs will be mailed as postcards, the thank yous will go in envelopes), and oversize postcards for the invitations. We also threw in some return address labels and some circular envelope seals with most batches to fill out the full amount of the Groupons. Let me know if you have any questions.

      I did it in batches, so I go do it all via different Groupons, and I spent very little money.

      • JessPeebs

        I did this as well. I was very happy with Vista Print, and everything I’ve ever ordered from there has shipped faster than ordered.

      • sheismle

        Good to hear! I am also planning to use “postcards” for some parts as that seems to be great value. :) Do you remember what type(s) of paper you used?

  • Kayjayoh

    Excellent 101!

    I was lucky when it was time to design my stationery suite, in that I already had an art background had recently taken a course in typography, which really came in handy for our text-based designs.

    We don’t have “colors” and I was designing the save-the-dates, invites, rsvps, thank yous, etc. at different times over the course of a few months, so I did two things to unify the designs:

    1. Chose and downloaded a particular typeface (“Solstice”) for all the main/design text. It is snazzy and unique but also pretty readable for just about every bit of text. The only things we used something else for were URLs and postal addresses, I think.

    2. I used different colors on every single piece that went to the printer, but I kept a file with blocks of each color in a grid, that way I could see if a color was going to stick out like a sore thumb. We ended up with quite a range of colors, but if you put the whole suite together, it looked like they belonged together.

    Also, I did everything in InDesign except for on thing that used VistaPrint’s Illustrator template…and that one was the huge headache. I wouldn’t suggest getting InDesign specifically for this (unless you were just looking for the excuse to do so) but it is really much better than Photoshop or Illustrator for layouts.

  • Karen

    We are using EM Papers’ Love Joy Happiness invitation for just that reason: we want big, bold and eye catching. I love the bold, bright colors. Truly, if people don’t know what it is when they open the envelope, there’s something wrong. It is very eye catching!

  • Caroline

    How did you know! I was working on designing our invites last night! Thank you.

  • ART

    Great article! I designed ours in Inkscape (free!) and bought a pack of vector clip art from Dover Pictura. After figuring it out, I ended up making all of our printable stuff in it and loving it. I am in the go big or go home camp, and my fiance had to talk me down from some pretty wacky designs, but we both love what we whittled it down to.

    We used Catprint to print our save the date postcards, invitations (which are a small poster format), and thank-you cards. So far, they have been amazing, and they seem to have some of the most reasonable prices, especially when they give you a free hard copy proof, which turned out to be really essential for a first-time designer (I’m really bad at knowing how things will actually print out).

    It definitely took me a lot of time, but we couldn’t have gotten anything close to what we have without DIYing it, and now I get to make EVERYTHING match the stationery…like our welcome/orientation/wayfinding poster (i’m a nerd), menu card, favor labels, drink signs, etc. I have also used Inkscape to make a super helpful map of our venue (get google satellite screen grab, create polygons over each important area/building, delete photo – voila!) for planning where tables and stuff will go and handing out to people during setup.

    I think in the end I will spend about $350 total between the STDs, invitations, and thank-you cards (including envelopes and postage) for an 80-person guest list. It’s not as cheap as I had originally envisioned, but about $90 of that is postage, which I forgot was pricey. I could have gone for cheaper paper options, but after I had spent so many hours on the design, I decided I would rather just get the nice paper!

    • Karen

      Good point about the postage. Friends, the price of stamps is about to go up! Get your forever stamps NOW!

  • http://readingandthensome.blogspot.com/ Martha Smith

    I made my own invitations and bought all the paper from PaperandMore! They offer custom cutting and really cheap samples too!

  • Caitlin_DD

    Thank you! I was already toying with the idea of making our stuff. This is obviously a sign that I should!

  • Brian Chavez

    another thing you should have mentioned, is that you don’t want to use more than 2, or at most 3 different typefaces. unless you’re trying to pull off the super hipster nested font look, which is much harder that it looks.

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  • http://www.clippingpathindia.com/image-masking.html J.Shumi

    I guess people usually dont like to read lots of text, so I always prefer the invitation with minimal words. And along with this some graphic can be added.

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