The One Big Design Mistake made by Non-Designers (and how to fix it)

Let's get real and talk about the single biggest design mistake made by non-designers. It's not what you think and many of us fall into the trap of doing it. And I have 3 easy ways to fix it. In this post I share the design mistake made by non-designers and how to avoid it.

The One Big Design Mistake made by Non-Designers (and how to fix it)
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Statue by Elena Dejour, Shutterstock


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I've been teaching non-designers how to do DIY-Design for years now. After working with thousands of non-designers, small business owners and marketers, I've learned a thing or two about how non-designers tick. and I've learned how to break things down for non-designers so they can get better at creating amazing visuals.

Here's the problem, though. What we've been teaching non-designers about how to do design could be wrong.

There's a simple fundamental problem with how we are learning and although there's a lot that's right.. there's also a lot that can go wrong if we miss this problem.

Can you Guess what the Single Biggest Design Mistake make by Non-Designers is?

Is it that they don't pair fonts like an Agency Creative?


Is it that they don't know how to edit photos professionally in Photoshop?

Heck no.

Is it that they don't know how to use Kerning?

Hell no.

Is it that their X-height is wrong?

Feck no.

All of these things are NOT the problem or design mistake. But they should give you a hint as to what the BIG problem is. It's this:

Non-designers are trying to be designers.

And they don't need to be.

You'll see posts with titles like Why Marketer Need to know these 67 Design Terms or 43 Essential Graphic Design Terms for Non-Designers …. the list goes on. Articles about why non-designers need to understand design terms, how to design and design tricks.

It can make you feel a bit like this:

Do Non-Designers Really Need to Know this Stuff?
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There has to be an easier way! (Statue by Elena Dejour, Shutterstock)

Do non-designers really need to know how to manage hierarchy, x-height, kerning, color theory, and font pairings?

I don't think so. Knowing all of these designer terms is overkill. Sure, it can't hurt to know a little about why white space is a good thing or to have a basic understanding of the rule of thirds. But too much can be a waste of time. It's the job of designers to know how to design.

The job of a non-designer is to learn how to leverage tools in a new way to be the best non-designers you can be. And there are so many great tools out there to help you!

Now that we've established that non-designers are not designers (No Shizz Sherlock, I hear you saying) and the big design mistake is trying too hard to be designers, what can we do about it? I have 4 ways to create great visuals using design tools, without knowing 100s of design terms.

Avoid Making a Design Mistake by Using these Rules:

These 4 “rules” will help you to use DIY Design tools in a better way. You might even feel a sense of relief, because you'll spend less time trying to be a designer and more time creating visuals, quickly and easily.

Here are the 4 things you need to remember. Then keep reading and I'll show you how it works in action, as we step through them with visual examples.

1. Leverage DIY Design Templates

Whatever tool you're using – whether it's Canva, Easil, Adobe Spark, Over or any of the amazing DIY Design tools – there are usually templates provided.

These templates are created by designers who know what they are doing. They're designed for you to be able to easily edit and customize the design. Here's what you should do:

Leverage the Templates vs Designing from scratch.

This will save you time and allow you to focus on what you need to focus on. Here's an example of a design template in Easil, one of my favorite DIY Design tools:

Happy Hour Template - base template for DIY Design Demo.
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We'll use this poster template in Easil to demonstrate how to be an awesome non-designer.

Now that we have a design template, let's take a look at how to edit it, while we also avoid making the big design mistake.

2. Stick to the Design Elements

There's a reason why designers design the templates. It's so that you don't have to. If you start moving around the core elements, deleting or adding too many features, you run the risk of ruining the structure of the original design.

In short, don't mess with the templates unless you really know what you're doing. Even shorter, don't *&%# with the templates.

Here's how we've completely transformed the poster above with just two easy changes – taking it from Happy Hour to Hoppy Hour:

Hoppy Hour Design - base template for DIY Design Demo.
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Happy Hour becomes Hoppy Hour with just two quick changes.

All we changed was one letter in the heading and the switched out the background image with one click.

As you can see, this didn't mess with the core design elements such as the border, main font size, position of headings, position or length of text, or shapes. This brings me to the next tip…

3. Only change 1 or 2 things.

You can completely transform a design by changing just one or two elements. We did this in the example above.

By changing just 1 or two things, our design transformed into a completely different poster. Here are a few tips for changing just one or two elements;

  • Change the text OR the photo OR the background OR the font OR the colors. But don't change them all at once. Just choose 1 or 2 of these things to switch up.
  • Start with just one change, then add another one. Usually two changes will be enough, perhaps three at a push.
  • If you start changing 3 or more elements, do it gradually. And be aware that you are entering into “designer territory” when you do this. You might start messing it up. It's best to stick with 1 or 2 things if you can.
  • Avoid “moving elements” – this can be a design mistake if you don't know what you're doing. Instead, replace an element with a similar element. In the example above, I switched a background image with some detail + some white space, and replaced it with another image containing detail + elements of white space.

Here's another example of the same poster edited again:

Garden Show Poster - Non-designer tutorial
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This time I made the following changes:

  • switched the background image with another image that contains some detail + some white space.
  • changed out the text and headings, keeping the same fonts.
  • this time, I used Easil's Color Palette Tool to pull in some pink shades from the background image. I used those colors for the heading and text.

4. Switch out Same for Same

Did you notice that I changed one more sneaky thing above? I made a 4th change but it fits with this next piece of advice – Switch the Same for Same. Can you see what the small change was?

I changed the icon at the top of the poster – switching it from a wheat icon to a flower icon. It's better suited to the new poster. But notice how I didn't change the position or size of it? I switched it out to another similar icon – same for same.

It's a great rule of thumb to use. If you want to switch something out, try to make it same for same. Changing a font? Replace a bold font with a bold font and a handwriting font with a handwriting font. And so on…

Again, don't mess with the templates. Instead, change them up, in simple ways.

If you start playing with borders, and new fonts, and colors and moving text and adding different kinds of background photos, you will end up with a complete design mess, like this:

Example of poor design using a DIY Design template
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This is a dog's breakfast. I have seen my dog eat breakfast, and it's not pretty.

Avoiding changing #AllTheThings at once like I did with the image above. It's a huge (and common) design mistake for non-designers to do this. And it rarely ends well.

To wrap it up, let's just say that with a few simple rules you can become a non-designer ninja – someone who knows how to leverage DIY Design templates and make them look awesome.

Ready to avoid the Big Design Mistake?

Now you have all you need to be able to design like a savvy non-designer and avoid the big design mistake that wastes your time and energy. Instead, use the templates you have available to you and make just 1 or 2 changes to create a custom, professionally designed image.

And remember, don't mess with the templates, trust the designer and follow the tips in this post to create professional designs without any design skills.

Over to You

Have you been guilty of making the big design mistake and spending too much time trying to be a designer?

Will these tips help you to leverage templates more? Let me know in the comments below.

The One Big Design Mistake made by Non-Designers (and how to fix it)
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Statue by Elena Dejour, Shutterstock

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Donna Moritz

Visual Social Media Strategist at Socially Sorted
Donna is a Visual Content Strategist and founder of Socially Sorted, listed by Forbes as a "Top 5 Social Media Blog You Need to Know About". Donna helps brands leverage the power of visual storytelling and content strategy in their business. Her content has been featured in publications such as Forbes, Inc. & Entrepreneur and she is a speaker and trainer on visual content for the marketing and tourism industries internationally.
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